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At Least You Tried 

A client of mine drives a taxi part-time. Although it is a second job and is requiring some long hours, the job is allowing him to see many sides of life in his city, and he likes this. He recently told me that sometimes he shuttles children from homeless shelters to school if school bus transportation is not available. Apparently there is a law that requires school districts to transport homeless children to the school in which they started the school-year, even if the shelter they are now living in is in another part of town.   This law is designed to keep children as stable as possible by allowing them to attend the same school all year, even if they change shelters and addresses. It’s a good thing for the children, and a very expensive undertaking for the school districts.

So he picks up a couple of sisters from a shelter and has to transport them about twenty miles up the road. The sisters get in the cab at 7:00 am and they are already fussing and fighting, picking and just irritating the heck out of each other. He is wondering if there is anything he can do to help. He could fuss at them, he thinks, and then realizes that is probably all anybody is doing to them right now. He could offer advise, and again he realizes that probably won’t do any good. Besides, he’s never lived in a shelter. How would he know what advice to give? He thinks about doing nothing, but that doesn’t seem right either. He thinks about asking about their lives, but doesn’t want to put them on the spot or make them uncomfortable.

So he does the unexpected. He starts singing to them. He sings Amazing Grace. He sings in his lovely baritone voice, and the girls quiet down and listen. They are totally silent, and he responds by singing another verse, and then another. When he is finished, the younger of the two sisters says quietly, “Well, at least you tried.”

Amen, Sister. I don’t know what that little girl meant by that, but this is what I think. He did try. He tried to be gracious. He tried to be merciful. He tried to be kind and helpful and to show another way. He tried not to judge, he tried not to be a know-it-all, he tried to offer some light and happiness into a couple of lives that must be difficult right now. He tried to remember that these children did not ask to be homeless. He tried and he did the unexpected.

I kept thinking of how Jesus would tell some wild and crazy parable when people were expecting the worst. When they were expecting judgment, he often offered mercy. When they were expecting rigidity, he offered grace. When they were expecting anger, he offered pardon and peace.

We all have opportunities everyday to try. We can try to shed light to this often bleak world. We can try to be kind, courteous, ethical, honest, and thoughtful. We can try to be fully present when we are with someone. We can try to respond creatively to problems we do not understand. I’d accept it as a high compliment if some child said to me, “Well, at least you tried.”

Amy Sander Montanez, D.Min

 

Keeping a Discipline

It’s 9:17 Wednesday morning. I am sitting on the loveseat in my office, drinking a cup of coffee. I’ve already exercised, had my morning meditation, and gotten showered and ready for work. My office door is closed, the phone is on Do Not Disturb, my secretary knows not to interrupt me unless someone is bleeding or dying. My laptop sits with its familiar weight on my legs, and I am staring at this blank page, breathing in the silence and trying to hear what God is praying in me this moment.   Every week, this is my time to write. At least this once during the week, I will have the space and time to write. It feels like a huge gift.

It takes everything I have to keep boundaries around this space and time. There are many, many things on my “To Do” list. Many of them are important, a few of them are urgent, and some of them are in the category of “It would be nice to get this done this week but next week would be just fine.” They all call to me from the pad on my desk.   I can hear the phone ringing downstairs. I can hear my secretary saying, “She’s busy now but I can put you through to her voice mail.” The little light starts blinking on my desk phone. My cell phone vibrates. My computer tells me there’s another email.

It’s a little like this with early morning quiet time, too. I get up, make my morning tea and if he is home, my husband’s coffee. I take my cup and go to the chair where I like to sit in silence. Sometimes I read a poem. Sometimes I actively pray for friends and family, for the church and for the world. Occasionally I jot down a dream that has come during the night. Many times, I just sit in silence and sip. The cat starts whining; she wants me to take care of her. The little voices start in my head, “Don’t forget to call so and so. Check on that e-mail before your meeting this morning. Mail that birthday card. The counter needs straightening and you didn’t go through yesterday’s mail.   Make that deposit on your way in.”  I’ve learned to silence these voices, to tell them to back-off, to wait, that it’s not their turn right now. It’s mine. It’s God’s.

This discipline of deciding what is important, of setting the intention to actually give the important things time in my life and then putting the boundaries in place so that those things can happen, is not easy. It is a simple idea, yes, but not easy to activate. The world tugs at me, hard. I want to continue to learn how to stay centered and steady. I want to return to that place, that steady center regularly during the day. When my head is too full of “to do’s” and my heart is too full of the pain of life, it helps to go back to the silence, to my breath, and maybe even to my writing, and re-member what is real. I remember that the universe was designed to be in balance, and I am designed to participate in that balance.   I need to remind myself that the real life, the Source of Life, is below the surface of busyness and beyond anything that I might be involved in right now.   The culture is selling me a great big lie entitled, “More is Better”; the more I do, the more I have, the more I make, the more organized I am, the more I accomplish, the more __________________ (you fill in the blank) the happier I will be. I know it’s a lie.   We all do. And so, it’s back to the disciplines that bring balance and integrity. Back to the disciplines that remind us whose we are and who we are. Back to the disciplines that help us weed out and narrow down to what is most important.

Lent is always a good time to remember these things. What is most important in your life? What do you need to do in order to put that front and center in some disciplined way? What would you have to give up in order to make that happen? In yoga we say, “Let go of what doesn’t serve you and breathe in what does serve you.”   Discipline, literally meaning to be a disciple to “your Self”, or my translation, being a disciple to your Soul, to the seed of God that is within you, serves me, and in such a way that I can then serve others. I imagine it serves you in this way as well. It is a hard but vital thing.

Amy Sander Montanez

 

 

 

Was Jesus Wise? Are You?

Dear Blog Friends and Readers,

I recently preached at a Lutheran church here in SC and I have been asked for copies of my sermon. I am posting it to my blog for ease, knowing that sermons are not my typical blog. You are welcome to read it and even comment. Or if this isn’t your thing, just pass it by.  I am including the Scripture readings for the day so that if you do read it, you have it in a context.

Sermon: August 16th, 2015

Mt. Horeb Lutheran Church, Leesville, SC

Proverbs 9: 1-6

Wisdom’s Feast:

Wisdom has built her house,

She has hewn her seven pillars.

She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table.

She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls

From the highest places in town.

“You that are simple, turn in here!”

To those without sense she says,

Come and eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.

Lay aside immaturity, and live,

And walk in the ways of insight.”

Psalm 34: 9-14

Ephesians 5:15-20

Be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

John 6: 51-58

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.

Opening Prayer: 

Take my lips and speak through them

Take our minds and think through them,

Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for you, O God. Amen

Was Jesus Wise? Are you?

These are the questions I want us to ponder today.

Jesus said a lot of things that do not sound like conventional Western, American, Southern wisdom. Let me remind you of a few of Jesus’ statements.

“Blessed are the poor, the meek, the lowly.”

“It is easier for a camel to be able to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to know God.”

“If you are offering your gift at the altar and remember that you have a grievance with your brother or your sister, leave your gift there and go and be reconciled with your brother or sister first.”

“Give away everything you have and follow me.”

“If your right eye causes you to sin, gauge it out. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into Hell.”

“Do not return evil for evil. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, give him your left as well. If someone wants to sue you for your cloak, give him your tunic as well.”

“Go out and invite all the street people to the wedding. Invite the street people. Invite everyone!”

I hope at least one of those made you squirm a little. If not, wake up, because they should make you squirm. All of them make me squirm. 

CS Lewis, that great Christian writer, said this about Jesus’s statements. 

“A man who was merely a man and said the sorts of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.”

The list could go on and on, but today we have another weird Jesus saying. 

Today we have, “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” It sounds like a vampire movie to me.

The closest I can come to understanding this graphic language is remembering what it was like to nurse my daughter. I remember the marvel of knowing that I, my body, was supplying everything that was essential for my child’s nutrition. She needed nothing else except my breast milk. I remember thinking, “She is literally feeding on me and she cannot live without me.” I think that is the closest I can come in this world to understanding the kind of dependence Jesus is inviting us to.

We have made this language very civil. We now say words like “The bread of Life, the cup of salvation.” But here in John, we have a Jesus who actually says, EAT MY FLESH AND DRINK MY BLOOD. It’s wild, isn’t it? This is not tame, sterile language.

Did your mother ever say to you, “You are what you eat?” My mother said that a lot. She was way ahead of her time. She nursed all four of her children in an era when most women were being duped into believing that their breast milk wasn’t good enough for their children. My mother knew deep in her soul that that just was not true. And she fed us as nutritious a diet as she possibly could. We didn’t have many snacks or sodas. She would say, “You are what you eat,” meaning….when we digest something, it becomes a part of us. Feed on junk food, become junk food.

Eat me, Jesus says. Drink me, Jesus says. How do we rely on Jesus so deeply that he alone is who we depend on for our needs? What are we digesting when we eat his flesh and drink his blood?

In Biblical times, bread was the most constant food. It was eaten at every meal, and sometimes it was the whole meal. You gave bread to strangers, and you were really poor if you had no bread to eat. Today, many of us still think of bread as indispensible. Look at the grocery store shelves when we fear a snowstorm. Milk, bread, peanut butter and eggs go first.

So Jesus says, “I am the bread of Life.” I am what is indispensible. I am the most basic food you can eat.” The day before this in John, Jesus is somehow making physical bread appear. He has fed the multitudes, making bread turn into bread. Then the next day he basically says, that’s nice, all that bread I made yesterday, but listen up. I AM THE BREAD. The Jews would have recognized this “I Am” statement because it was what God used with Moses. Yahweh means “ I AM…tell them I am who I am, God said.” So when Jesus said, I Am the bread of life, the Jews would have known he was talking about his connection to God. He was saying Digesting me should make you more connected to God.

Eugene Peterson has a book entitled Eat This Book. It is a book about how to digest the Holy Scriptures. It is a book about taking the time to allow the Word of God to actually be digested and become a part of us. In the Book of Common Prayer, Episcopalians pray this prayer, “Grant us so to hear the Scripture, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace them.” But really, how do we do this, with Jesus, with the Scriptures? What works?

Well….all wisdom begins with listening. In another verse in the book of Proverbs it says, The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom. Wisdom existed before creation.”‘The fear of the Lord’, in the Old Testament did not mean to be afraid of God. It meant to be in right relationship with God, to be listening for God. So, the first rule of a healthy, mature relationship is learning to listen. How do you listen for God? Not how do you talk to God? Not how do you talk about God? Not how do you claim God is on your side? But Wisdom says that listening for and to God is the beginning.

What else will help us inwardly digest Jesus? What will help us have spiritual wisdom, the unconventional Jesus kind of wisdom?

Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman in their book Character Strengths and Virtues name these five strengths as routes to wisdom. I bet if you listen you can see these character strengths in Jesus. 

Creativity: we need imagination and inspiration to be wise. We must develop our creative gifts and solve problems in new and surprising ways. We must be adaptive. Think of Jesus in the desert during his 40 days. He was quite creative with the Devil, don’t you think? And all those parables and storied he told. Great creativity. We need personal creativity and we need institutional creativity. Creativity must now be the currency of the church.

Curiosity: We must be open and reflective, wondering about life’s complexities. And we must put some action behind our curiosity. Curious people can see how they contribute to problems and can take responsibility for their part in things. In my office I often tell couples the most important word for them to cultivate is “HMMMM…..” Hmmmm….I wonder how I could be different? Hmmm….I wonder what I am doing to contribute to these problems. I wonder why I am stuck? Hmmmm…..

Jesus was a master at asking questions. Some of the questions were designed to help us think. Others were asked out of his deep curiosity. Why are you crying? What do you want me to do for you? What is your name? Who touched me? Where is your faith? Why are you trying to kill me? Do you love me? Jesus stayed curious throughout his life.

Open-mindedness: Open-minded people actively search for and consider evidence against their own bias. Let me repeat myself. Open- minded people actively search for and consider evidence against their own bias. Open-minded people are willing to abandon their previous belief if evidence and facts and research tell them otherwise. Jesus must have been very open-minded if he was able to critique the authorities of his own religion. He did not just accept what others told him. He searched for truth.

Love of Learning: Wise people engage content. They continue to have positive experiences when they acquire new information and new skills. They look for opportunities to learn from others who know more than they do. We know Jesus loved to learn as we are told he was schooled well in the temples and synagogues. His parents thought they had lost him but found him sitting at the feet of the temple teachers, learning all he could.

Perspective, Or Big Picture Thinking: Wise people just see a bigger picture than others. It is not necessarily academic intelligence. Wise, big picture thinkers use this skill for the common good of the community. When Jesus realized it was his time to die, he saw the big picture. He wasn’t focused on just himself.

Another thought about wisdom comes from Richard Rohr, Franciscan monk and writer who says, “Wisdom is always a common domain and not a do-it-yourself project.” In other words, wisdom is caught from others.

I want to share a portion of a dream with you. I don’t often share dreams publicly, and sharing this one makes me feel a little vulnerable, but it was just too apropos not to take the risk. I had this dream during my spiritual director’s training program. This was a seven-day residency program and we had knowledgable and holy speakers. Glenn Hinson, was one of my favorites. I think Glenn had all five of the wisdom traits I just mentioned.. The first night that Glenn lectured he was holding his Bible in his left hand and he would read and reference a passage and I kept saying to myself, “Wow, I’ve never heard it put that way,” and wondered what translation he was using. So after the lecture I waited in line to speak with him and I said, “Gosh, I just love that translation, which one are you using?” And Glenn handed me his Bible, which was in Hebrew and Greek. Yeah. So Glenn was brilliant, but Glenn was also meek and mild and present and wise. And we just hit it off. I wanted to sit at his feet everyday, gaining whatever wisdom I could. The night before we were to leave, I had this dream. In this dream, I approached Glenn, and we embraced. I then began sucking on his neck, (like a vampire but more gently) and while I was sucking on his neck a great wind encircled us and we were held in the most amazing vortex of spirit. It was not erotic at all. It was deeply spiritual. That is all I remember. But upon awakening, what I knew was that Glenn was a living symbol for me of the wisdom of Jesus. And I wanted to eat that flesh and drink that blood. We have that desire deep in us, all of us, the desire to be more like Jesus.

In India, people wear a bindi…a mark or a jewel sometimes in the center of their eyebrows. It is a symbol of the “third eye” or wise eye. It is symbol of deep wisdom that is believed to be inside each of us. We Christians have our own bindi. It is our invisible tattoo. Do you know what it is? It is the invisible tattoo, the seal that is set upon us at our baptism. The sign of the cross made on our forehead, with holy water, that says we are marked as Christ’s own forever. You have an invisible tattoo on your forehead that should not be thought of just as an insurance policy. It should also be a reminder to you to access God’s wisdom. My husband recently reminded me as I read my sermon to him that on Ash Wednesday we make a decision to make our invisible Christian bindi visible when we receive ashes on our third eye. This is an outward reminder of the inner Wisdom we are desiring.

Wisdom has set the table, we are told in Proverbs today, and Jesus awaits. When you receive communion in just a few minutes, make it an intention to digest Jesus. Make it your intention to give up immaturity and become wise. The world needs wise people. Our nation and state needs wise people. Your church needs wise people. People who can see the whole picture. People who can get out of their comfort zone. People who are willing to risk being called a fool.

People who have really digested Jesus become like Jesus. Are you going to be one of them?

I have a prayer to share with you. This prayer basically wrote itself while I was keeping vigil Maundy Thursday evening. It is, as you shall see, in the style of the prayer of St.Francis which you may be familiar with. But I guess God wanted me to pray again and again for wisdom. So let’s end by praying this prayer together.

Lord, make me an embodiment of your Wisdom.

Where there is confusion, let me stand still until a way is clear.

Where there is self righteousness, let me ask questions that challenge rigid thoughts.

Where there is shame, let me shine the Light of acceptance and belonging

Grant that I may not so much judge as offer compassion.

Give me a heart that mirrors another’s dignity rather than being protective of my own.

Let my need to be connected to others outweigh my need to be right.

For it is in careful discernment that we find your Way,

In painstaking listening that we hear your voice,

And in quiet and stillness that we know your true Presence.

Amen.

Amy Sander Montanez

March, 2015

 

 

Amen.

 

 

Two Hundred and Two Years Of Marriage: A Group Collaboration

Over the holidays, my husband, daughter, and I participate in two “ritual” dinner parties. One is affectionately known as “The Night Before The Night Before”, (TNBTNB) and the other is our New Year’s Eve Dinner Extravaganza. (NYEDE) Because I wasn’t thinking about the possibility that these occasions would continue for decades, which they both have, neither I nor anyone else kept an accurate accounting of when these ritual dinners started. So, relying on memories, “Ok, we had it at your house when you lived in this neighborhood the first year, because I remember you had just moved in and your youngest one was recovering from chicken pox,” this is an approximation, but all participants agree it is a fairly close accounting.  TNBTNB has been happening for more than two decades, and the NYEDE is nearing three decades now,

Each year the dinner conversation is lively and intimate, but also surprising because we never know where the conversation will lead. Both events have always been intergenerational although the children have now turned into adults and are bringing friends and significant others to join in. This year, at both parties, the topic turned to the number of years of first marriages that were sitting around the table. At TNBTNB we had a cumulative 101 years from four couples each in first marriages. At the NYEDE we had 136 years of first marriage experience at the table.

Now this seems like a lot of relationship wisdom to me. So I asked the question: What do you think are the most important qualities in a lasting marriage? I have been pondering the answers ever since. While all of the answers were given and taken seriously, some are funnier than others. They all deserve sharing. Here they are.

Respect: This piece of advice came from the wife of the youngest married couple, only two years of marriage. Already, though, her relational wisdom is showing. The research shows repeatedly that respect and trust are the foundational pieces of any marriage. http://www.gottman.com/about-gottman-method-couples-therapy/ Without these two components, chances of a vibrant, healthy, life-giving marriage are slim.

Compromise: You have to learn to give and take. You have to remember it isn’t all about you. In a true compromise, both parties get something and both parties lose something. If you help me with the yard work this morning, I will be able to play nine holes with you this afternoon. You didn’t really want to do yard work and I did not really want to golf, but this compromise works because we are both getting something we want.

Have a spouse who travels some, or maybe a lot: Sometimes a little space is a good thing. In marriages where the personalities are very different, or if one person likes a little more space, or if one person loves being on the go, this can be a helpful piece of advice. It is quite sentimental to believe that all married couples want to be together every night of the week. This might be more true after children are grown and more independent, but I can honestly tell you that I kind of crave those nights when I can read magazines in bed and leave them lying all around me and fall asleep, reading, with the light on. I also love being able to come home to deep quiet some nights. No conversation. No noise. And just for the record, this one was not my piece of advice, but I agree.

Have a lot of sex, even when you don’t want to: Nearing thirty years of marriage, this advice came from a wise woman. Sex, while not the be-all-and-end-all of a marriage, is often the glue in married life. And while sex should never be forced, it is quite ok to have sex from a sacrificial stance; I don’t really feel like it but I know it’s important to you and ultimately to us. In sex, we are restating our commitment to somehow mysteriously become one. Oh, and it is just plain fun. And good for your brain. And your body. And your mood. So yeah, have a lot of sex. 

Sacrifice/Death of self: The man who offered this quality had trouble getting words around what he was trying to say. He was saying things like don’t sweat the little stuff, and let things go, and figure out what ditch you really want to die in. And then someone at the table offered the word. Sacrifice. And he lit up. Yes, that’s it. And then another woman at the table said, “Death of Self”, to which we, the collective table said, “Yesssss…………perfect.”

Marry your best friend: This advice was given quickly by one of the quieter members at the table of the NYEDE. But he spoke up almost immediately, which to me is a sign that he has integrated this truth into his life. “I married my best friend. That’s why we are still married.” This has some real heft to it, doesn’t it? Why? Because many couples are in what Gay and Katie Hendrix call “entanglements” rather than intimate relationships.

http://www.heartsintrueharmony.com/attract-love/are-you-in-a-fake-relationship.html?s=10010&sbid=cFth&cuid=cNN&spids=ZVQVZZ,42

In an entanglement, a couple is not truly comfortable together. They are not each other’s best friend and so there is often a palpable level of tension. Marrying your best friend prevents being in an entanglement. 

Negotiation: Why is being able to negotiate important in a marriage? Each person needs to be able to clearly state his or her point, and this clarity of communication helps develop friendship and understanding. Being able to negotiate means you know your own position and can understand at least a portion of what your partner is saying, even if you don’t get the whole thing. Negotiation requires active listening and compromise. This is good for any relationship.

Keep a sense of humor: One of the reasons I married my husband is because he makes me laugh, and he has taught me to laugh more. Marriage can be full of comedy and tragedy, and developing the ironic and comedic eye can be an amazingly constructive and creative endeavor. It is good to be able to laugh, even in the middle of crisis. It is good to have the capacity to break up an intense moment with a clear sense of the comedic or the ironic. Read the chapter in my book entitled, Ready?, and you will see an example of how humor has helped me in my marriage. 

Have fun: “Couples that play together stay together.” Also heard as “Couples that pray together stay together.”   Playing and praying are not as far apart as they may seem. Both true play and true spirituality come from the same place in us, that place of intimacy and connection. So having fun is critical to the connection of a marriage. In small ways, dancing in the kitchen, telling jokes, laughing at a movie, playing games together, playing sports together, praying together, or visiting with friends, make sure fun is a part of your marriage. 

Create and participate in rituals: If you have been reading my blog for long, or have read my book, Moment to Moment: The Transformative Power Of Everyday Life, http://amysandermontanez.com/moment-to-moment, you already know that one of my favorite ways to spend time is around a dinner table with good friends and good food. Over the years, rituals like the ones I am describing, TNBTNB and the NYEDE, have become bedrocks of our married life. I am honored to be a part of these rituals. They give life meaning on so many levels. There are many other rituals in which we participate, two of which I blogged about earlier, attending church and ballroom dancing. http://amysandermontanez.com/blog/2014/06/ballroom-dance-church,

I believe rituals bind us together in ever-deepening ways. Rituals give meaning to life. They speak to the mysterious nature of this life we are trying to live.

Learn to apologize: How most of us hate to apologize! I mean a real apology. An “I’m sorry” without the necessary understanding of how you have hurt the other person can actually make the damage worse. There are components to a good apology. Learn them. I have attached them as an addendum below.

Forgiveness: I put this quality last on purpose. Married life will not be without hurt and betrayal. Even the best marriages have had their day in the trenches. Learning the process of forgiveness can be key to a lasting marriage. Forgiveness does not mean that you are pretending you weren’t hurt. Forgiveness means that you have worked through the issues or events so that they have no power in your life anymore. It’s some of the best work you can do for yourself.

So I offer you this wisdom, from a collective 202 years of first marriages. (I only added my married years once because we were at both parties, in case you are the calculating type). Let me know what you think.

 

 

 

 

Addendum:

 

What Makes For a Good Apology? Adapted from the book by Springs, J.A. and M. Springs, How Can I Forgive You?: The Courage to Forgive, The Freedom Not To. New York: Perennial Currents, 2005.

The offender takes responsibility for the damage they caused. “I understand what I’ve done to you.”

The offender makes their apology personal. “I care about YOU, I know I hurt YOU, and I know that given your specific background, personality, history, etc, I know this would hurt you in this particular way.”

The offender makes their apology specific. Not broad brushstrokes but with fine details. “ I hurt you in these specific ways.”

The offender makes their apology deep. Because saying “I’m sorry” is so often not enough. What are you sorry for?

The apology is heartfelt. God is not interested unless our heart is in it.

The offender uses no excuses or rationalizations. The apology is clean.

The offender is capable of apologizing over and over if necessary. The hurt will come back because life will trigger the wound again.

The offender can say, “I want to earn your forgiveness and trust.”

The offender shares “Aha” moments. For example, “I use to think this, but now I know this.” Or, “Yesterday I realized again how awful this must have been for you.” Or, “watching that movie made me realize how off base I’ve been.”

 

Your Highest and Best Self: Another Lesson From the World of Dance

“Don’t look at me. Stop looking at me. Don’t, Don’t, DON”T look at me.”

These words from one of my dance instructors, as we were in dance hold and he was taking me through a new-to-me quickstep pass.

He stopped us.

“Why are you doing that?” he asked me, looking me straight in the eye, earnestly. He didn’t say “You know better,” but I thought he might be thinking it.

My answer, also known as an excuse. “Because I am use to dancing with my husband and because I pick up steps more quickly than he does, when we are learning something new I tend to look at him and talk with him, counting sometimes, telling him what comes next sometimes.”

“Don’t do it,” Paul said, shaking his head. You get in proper dance hold and you dance the best you know how. You dance to your highest and best capacity. That will make it easier on Nick in the long run.” 

AND ANOTHER LESSON FROM THE WORLD OF DANCE.

Let me translate to the psycho-spiritual world. It is not always such a good idea to try and help or fix someone else. Maybe, if we just give whatever we are doing our highest and best, everything else will be ok. Things often need to play out without our interference.   It may be our own anxiety or control issues (picture my guilty face here) that keep us looking where we shouldn’t look. But it is better when we pay attention to ourselves. Be your highest and best self and stop worrying about what others are doing. Even when in close relationship, pay attention to what is your responsibility.

When I was a public school teacher, I had a core belief that I would always teach to the top of the class. I believed that showed the most respect and dignity and hope to every student. If a student needed help, remediation, or modification, I provided that. But I never dumbed down lessons. In the core of me, I knew that wasn’t wise. When I was awarded Teacher of the Year one of the most memorable things said to me was from the mother of a remedial, below grade level student. She said, “Thank you for expecting more out of him than anyone ever has. It has changed his life.” When I teach or speak today, I make every effort to teach to the top of the group. The others will follow. Or they will ask for help. Either is better than dumbing down and expecting less from people.

Today, as a therapist, I do the same thing. I work with my clients toward their highest and best self. I believe, I hold out hope, that things really can change and that healing really does happen. I expect them to be able to climb out of their comfort zones and to work toward change that will really matter. I also challenge myself to be my highest and best self, and when I am, it models for my clients what they can do and be.

So why wasn’t I doing that on the dance floor? Why was I dumbing down?   The truthful answer, which I hope isn’t an excuse, is that I am not always willing to wait on my husband’s own learning pace and style. I am embarrassed just saying that. He is a lovely dancer, with his own way of learning and his own pace. We always get there together, eventually, but my own impatience was getting in the way of the organic process that actually works when I allow it to. Creating a dance with someone, (read creating a relationship with someone) means each person needs to bring their highest and best self to the dance floor. That’s when the magic happens.

Car wrecks, earthquakes, heart disease, and good-byes

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my. Like Dorothy creeping through the haunted woods with the tin man on one arm and the scarecrow on the other, I have been creeping through my own woods, lately, wondering when the next scary thing would show up. In these past few months I have felt overwhelmed with a sense of the fragility of life, the changeable nature of everything, and the deep, deep love I have for friends and family and therefore the all encompassing grief I feel when what I love leaves. I am having to be vigilant to stay out of the mindset that goes something like this. “Ok. You win. Just hit me again while I am down so it won’t hurt so much.”

Here’s the backstory. On a recent trip to the California wine country, my siblings and I were in a two-car caravan to a winery about forty-five minutes from where we were staying. Enjoying the company and the beautiful day, we were all startled when the car directly in front of us was T-boned by another vehicle. It happened so quickly. And it was so loud. And bad. Our two cars pulled over and all the men got out to help. Some tended to the injured. Others tried to break windows to let the smoke escape. I stayed out of the way and watched, and prayed, and kept telling myself to breathe because I really wanted to hold my breath. I was scared. It was so close. When the first responders were on the scene we left and continued our plans to visit certain wineries. I really wanted the wine now. But mostly I felt an immediate and pervasive sense of gratitude and fragility. It could have been us. Another time it might be us. How fortunate I am to have three siblings and their spouses that I can enjoy spending time with for a week. So much love. So much vulnerability.

Later in the week, early Sunday August the 23rd to be exact, I woke up in the middle of the night to what I first identified as a very strong wind. We had been having serious gusts of wind every afternoon and in my mostly-still-asleep state, I thought it was that. And in what seemed like the next second, I found myself holding on to the nightstand and trying to keep myself from hitting the floor. I was awake now, and the reality came barreling through my awareness. Earthquake. EARTHQUAKE. GET UP. We need to get out of here. Of course if it had been a tornado, I would have known exactly where to go in this villa we were renting. But earthquake? What do you do in an earthquake? Down? Up? I grabbed my cellphone, thinking that would be a smart thing to have. 3:17 am. Pulling on some clothes, heading for the main part of the house, I heard the rest of our group making their way to the center. I heard the horses in the barn whinnying. I looked out the windows. Transformers were exploding in the distance. I looked on Twitter. Yup. Earthquake. Big one. Napa Valley. The exact location we had just been yesterday, leisurely tasting wine and living the good life. What do we do? Nothing. We waited. A few more tremors. Then nothing. Oh my goodness. What next? Is it over? What now? We had no electricity, gas, or water. I was worried about gas lines exploding in the house. I was on alert. It took a few hours and we all finally went back to bed. There was nothing to be done until morning. We left the next morning, without water or gas or electricity, and made our way to the airport.

After a few delays we arrived home to the Charlotte airport, close to midnight. Got our car, headed home on 1-77, and there, maybe three cars in front of us, was another wreck. Others stopped so we didn’t. I was already weary with the fragility of life.

Only a week later, one of our best friends had a stroke, and then found out his heart had been attacked by a virus and was only working at 15%. Of course my sense of fragility could not measure up to his or his wife’s, but I assure you, the closeness of this hit me hard. I LOVE this guy. Like a brother. And the message was coming through loud and clear again. Nothing stays the same. Each and every one of us is vulnerable. Life is fragile. Oh yeah, and then my office manager took a new job. And I thought my life was going to just crumble right then and there. And I had to say goodbye to someone who felt like one of my appendages. NO MORE SCARY CHANGES.

Of course all of this was happening in my little teeny tiny world. In the bigger world, however, the story is exactly the same only worse. And more serious. The world is changing at a rate none of us can or wants to keep up with. Every institution that I am familiar with is either having to change rapidly or die. Education, medicine, religion, financial institutions, media, government….add whatever institution you want here…is having to embrace completely new paradigms and models because they are not going to exist in the form we are use to in just a few short years. Change or die.

We all know this. But we deny it, until the truth of being vulnerable hits us personally. Until an earthquake, or Ebola, or a school shooting, or a crashing IRA, or a job loss, or a betrayal hits us, we tend to forget that we need to be participating in creating these new paradigms. We cannot go back to the way it was. We must be a part of the new creation.

The world is small now. Technology, global financing, the ease of travel, media coverage have made it so. In our little lives we are vulnerable. In our larger, common life, we are vulnerable. The answer isn’t to put up more defenses. The answer, to me, is paradoxical. On one hand, we need to be creating new paradigms to live by…paradigms that affirm the truth of the world as it is, not as we would want it or wish it. AND, there are ancient and timeworn Truths that we need to revisit and embrace again as vital.

Many of you know that there are some major changes at my office. We are working to create a new paradigm, a life-giving, life-affirming way of practicing the healing art of psychotherapy, spiritual direction, and coaching. In my own little way, I am trying to walk the walk, of embracing vulnerability, living whole-heartedly, and participating in much needed changes.

 

It’s Not That Simple

I have hesitated for several days now, thinking, praying, reading.  I am not sure I can say what I want to say correctly, without hurting someone’s feelings, without stepping on some toes. I am not even sure I am gifted enough with words to write accurately what I believe deep in my core. I am not sure I am up for conflict right now.  But because I can’t let this go, I am writing about it.

“It could have been prevented,” seems to be America’s default response when we deal with catastrophe.  After 9/11, we heard for months how the attack could have been prevented.  After every bombing, every public shooting, every plane crash, every kidnapping, every thing that goes wrong we want to know how it could have been prevented.  And that is not a bad thing.  We continue to make important changes that save lives and make our world a better and a safer place.  We have prevented many more catastrophes just in the last decade.  This work that we do to prevent suffering is good and it gives us something to do with our anger and our outrage and our pain.  It gives us purpose.

The death by suicide of Robin Williams has elicited this response again.  “It could have been prevented” posts are flying around the internet at warp speed, and all the talking heads on every media station are talking about how this death could have been prevented.  My fellow mental health professionals across the planet are posting about suicide prevention and how important it is to get help and how we can keep people alive if they just get the right kind of help.  I am one of those professionals and I believe in suicide prevention.  I sit with people in their despair day after day and year after year, holding out hope that there is a way through the darkness and out of the darkness.  I am sure I have saved many lives by knowing the signs and doing the right thing.  I have helped others save lives by knowing the signs and doing the right things.  I march with the survivors of suicide and I support all the efforts that are being made to prevent suicide.

And yet.  It is not that simple.  I was given a great gift by a wise psychiatrist when I was a 30-year old fledgling therapist.  I was seeing a client with treatment resistant bi-polar disorder.  She was often suicidal and I often felt completely incompetent, impotent, and hopeless about my work with her, even though I knew I was doing all the “right” things.  Sharing this one day with my colleague, he said to me, “You have to remember, Amy, that some mental illnesses are terminal.”   I remember twitching.  I remember dreaming that night of losing my client to suicide.  I woke up from the dream sweating and remembering his words.

Why have those words been a gift to me?  Because I know now after more than 25 years of practicing therapy that no matter how much we know, we cannot know the mysteries of the human brain and the human psyche.  Many seasoned psychiatrists have talked about not always knowing where the line is between someone who is really going to be ok and someone who is at risk for suicide.  All the correct questions can be asked, and yet, it is not always that simple.  There are intricacies in the brain and the psyche that are a mystery.  Medicine is a science and an art.  There is mystery and intuition to good medicine, and no matter how much we want the illusion of having some control over things, the psyche often refuses to be controlled.  Even with all of our sophisticated methods, mood disorders can be terminal.

We never know the mystery of someone’s psyche or soul.  We can guess.  We can intuit.  We can project.  What causes someone to decide that there are things worse than death?  The answer to that might be different for each of us, and I allow every person the autonomy to know the answer to that.  In many ways, it is the mystery and uniqueness of each client in my office that keeps calling me into this work in deeper and deeper ways.  It is the mystery and the unfolding of that mystery that I believe continues to help my clients to find healing and wholeness and to want to live a rich, full life.

We can do more to prevent suicide.  And I will continue to fight that good fight.  But it is not simple.  It is never simple.  I believe we need to leave room for the mystery that is each of us.  I believe we have to get better at living with hard and unanswered questions without the knee-jerk response of blame and shame.

I am very sad about Robin Williams’ death.  I will hold his family up in my prayers.  Perhaps for Robin the ultimate mystery has been revealed and he can finally rest deeply and peacefully.

I am ending this post with a poem by the Sufi poet Hafiz.  Read it slowly and without judgment.  It is not a poem encouraging death or dying or suicide.  It is a reminder of how impermanent life is, and how each of our lives here is a precious gift, no matter how long it lasts.  My favorite line is this:  “All I know about life and myself is that we are just a midair flight of golden wine between His Pitcher and His Cup.”  Robin Williams was a beautiful flight of golden wine.  I will miss him.

 

Deepening The Wonder

Death is a favor to us,
But our scales have lost their balance.

The impermanence of the body
Should give us great clarity,
Deepening the wonder in our senses and eyes

Of this mysterious existence we share
And are surely just traveling through.

If I were in the Tavern tonight,
Hafiz would call for drinks

And as the Master poured, I would be reminded
That all I know of life and myself is that

We are just a midair flight of golden wine
Between His Pitcher and His Cup.

If I were in the Tavern tonight,
I would buy freely for everyone in this world

Because our marriage with the Cruel Beauty
Of time and space cannot endure very long.

Death is a favor to us,
But our minds have lost their balance.

The miraculous existence and impermanence of
Form
Always makes the illumined ones
Laugh and sing.

(return to Quotable Quotes/Poems)
 

Intentionality: Whatever you allow

I am still not use to the surprises that the internet brings to my life.  At a July 4th celebration, in another city at a friend’s house, I introduced myself to someone who said, “Oh my gosh.  I read your blog.  And I’ve noticed that you haven’t posted anything recently.  I’ve really missed your posts.”  I wasn’t quite sure how to respond.  “Thank you for reading my work,”  were my first words.  But then I wondered, do I launch into an explanation of why I haven’t been writing, all the teaching and the traveling and a woman can only do so much?  And do I tell her that I had to move my entire blog to another server with only one week’s notice and that my web-master is traveling around the world all summer and that it won’t all be fixed for another month or so?  Thankfully the topic changed and I didn’t have to figure out what to say to this person I didn’t know but to whom I am very grateful because she reads what I write.

What came out of that conversation for me, though, was the realization that I had not been intentional about getting back to writing.  I knew April and May would be problematic because I was teaching, and adding that to my schedule precluded time to write.  But when June came, I let my “writing time”, which had become my teaching/prep time,  become my catch up the finances time, my taking a new coaching course time, my surf the internet time, my meet with new colleagues time, my talk with a friend time, my run errands time.  You get the idea.  It’s one of Murphy’s Laws, I believe, that whatever time you have will be filled with whatever you allow to fill it.  Whatever you allow.

This can happen to any discipline we have.  If you are trying to eat in a new way, and then you go on vacation and eat whatever you want, when you get home, if you don’t make an intentional decision to reset your eating habits,  it may take awhile before you can eat in that new way again.  If you have a spiritual discipline of praying, reading scripture, or meditating and you allow other things to slowly creep into that time, your discipline may be gone before you know it.   Just this morning I was filling the bird feeders and watering the wilting hydrangeas and when I sat down to pray I realized I only had ten minutes before I needed to be in the shower.  If I continue to do this day after day, my prayer time will certainly be compromised.  I either need to get up earlier or tend to the garden at another time, a time that isn’t prayer time.

Intentionality has many facets.  Goal setting.  Accountability.  Values.  Life-style. Being intentional is different from wishing or hoping.  If I had said to myself, “I wish I could get back to my writing.” Or, “I hope I will have time to write today,” I can promise you this blog would never get posted.  I had to make it an intentional act.  And why would I do that?  Because writing is a creative act that feeds my soul.  Writing often clears my head.  Writing is a way I can share with others.  Writing  is a part of my vocation that I value, and apparently given the July 4th conversation, some other people do, too.

What is it that you need to be intentional about?  Is it paying more attention to your health?  Adopting a spiritual discipline?   Setting some financial goals?  Connecting with certain friends or family?  Making amends with someone?  Getting more sleep? Doing a better job at work?  Remember and re-state your values.  Find a way to be accountable.  The world will pull of you in so many ways.  Your time will be filled with whatever you allow.  Whatever you allow.

 

 

 

 

Recognizing What Is True

April 21, 2014

What could the Great Fifty Days of Easter, Mother’s Day, and commencement exercises have it common? At first glance, not much. One is a season of the Christian liturgical church year, one is a Hallmark Holiday, and the last one is in some ways an initiation into another developmental phase of life. But lately I’ve been wondering about those Great Fifty Days when it is said that Jesus was risen from the dead and was appearing to some he loved. He wanted them, I think, to be able to recognize him, not by his outward appearance-apparently he looked distinctly different to the human eye after his rising—but by being able to see with the eye of the heart. From deep in their insides, he wanted them to be able to recognize him. And when they didn’t, he helped them see what got in their way. When the Christ is right in front of you, can you see Him?  What prevents you from recognizing the Christ, in yourself and others?

 My mother, Jane Caroline Sharpe Sander, (1923-2001) taught me in so many ways to see the Christ in other people as well as in myself. Her mantra, “People are important, not things” became one of the writings in my heart early in my life. All of my friends were greeted as if they were the Christ.T he house could be a mess, and it usually was, but my mother always put down what she was doing to greet my friends and talk with them. I think her heart recognized what was good, true, and authentic in people. In her volunteer work with the mentally disabled, my mother talked about how she felt like she could see the Light of Christ in the eyes of those she helped. I don’t think I got it then, but I get it now. A good mother, the Mother Archetype, sees right to the heart and soul of a person. A good mother knows her children, recognizes who they are and brings out what is true and good in them. A good mother, like the risen Christ, wants to teach her children to recognize Truth from inside themselves, and to not be dependent on the outward appearances of others. So like the risen Christ who was still teaching those he loved during the days after Easter, a good mother teaches her children over and over again to recognize what is True and to know it from deep within.

 Make a giant leap with me here to commencement exercises. Many people will be graduating from something in the next few weeks: kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, high school, college and graduate schools, and basic training. If all has gone well, the graduate is being sent into the world ready for the next stage of the life they are living. They have succeeded in making it to a certain mile marker, and they will be granted access to the next part of the path.  It is assumed that certain truths have been learned and that the person has been formed in a way that will enable them to expand upon what has gone before. Like Jesus’ commissioning of his disciples (You have graduated guys, you know this stuff, you can go out into the world and do this. It’s all inside you now) we, too, graduate from many things and are sent to walk the next part of our path. We carry what we have learned with us, hopefully deep within us.

 Spring is a busy time for most people. Many things are coming to an end. Take a few moments and meditate on what you have learned to be true, from the inside out. What gets in your way of seeing truth?

And Happy Eastertide, Happy Mother’s Day, and Happy Graduation in all of the ways you celebrate them.

Fast and Feast

March 25, 2014

Due to the fact that I hang around many faith-based people, and also because the season of Lent has become so popularized, I have heard many comments about what people are giving up for Lent. It has been traditional to fast during Lent, often from a certain food or substance. When I was growing up we didn’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent. This year I was fascinated with the number of people who either said they were giving up Facebook for Lent or were cutting back on the amount of time they spent on Facebook. I am curious, how does fasting from Facebook deepen your relationship with God? (Seriously, I am curious. If you did this, please write back to me and tell me.) I can imagine that maybe the time that you save because you are not looking at FB could be used for other things, like prayer, meditation, or sacred reading. Are there other ways fasting from FB deepens your faith?

 The point, it seems, is to give up something that is important to you. The purpose, though, is to draw closer to God. To draw deeper into your relationship with the Holy One. If your Lenten fast doesn’t put you on your knees, doesn’t truly challenge you, doesn’t make you question some very deeply held thoughts or beliefs, it probably isn’t really a fast.

 Last week a friend of mine sent me a list of what we might consider fasting from and what we might consider feasting on this Lent. As of the writing of this, we are still unsure of the source of this list, but he believes it came from an Episcopal Church, Church of the Atonement, in Sandy Springs, Georgia. I decided to post this list because it has spoken deeply to me. I am trying to read it everyday, and to let this kind of fasting bring me more into alignment with a transformed consciousness, having the same attitude in me that is in Jesus. (Philippians 2) Whether you are a religious person, or just consider yourself spiritual, this list is a challenge for all of us. I’ve been busted every day. Every day I have broken my fast. This is a true Lenten discipline.

Fast from judging others. Feast in the Christ who dwells within them.

Fast from emphasis on differences. Feast on the Spirit that unites.

Fast from words that pollute. Feast on phrases that purify.

Fast from discontent. Feast on gratitude.

Fast from anger. Feast on patience.

Fast from gossip. Feast on purposeful silence.

Fast from pessimism. Feast on optimism.

Fast from worry. Feast on trust.

Fast from complaining. Feast on appreciation.

Fast from negativism. Feast on affirmation.

Fast from personal anxiety. Feast on unceasing prayer.

Fast from hostility. Feast on nonviolence.

Fast from bitterness. Feast on forgiveness.

Fast from self-concern. Feast on compassion for others.

Fast from discouragement. Feast on hope.

Fast from lethargy. Feast on enthusiasm.

Fast from suspicion. Feast on truth.

Fast from thoughts that weaken. Feast on promises that inspire.

Fast from the darkness of sin. Feast on the light of Christ.

 Amy Sander Montanez, D.Min, LPC, LMFT