Tasting Life Twice

Archive for the category “What is Saving Your Life?”

What Keeps You Inspired?

Galatians 6:9 9 So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.

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Last week, I heard a fairly ordinary woman tell a very extraordinary story. I was in Florida for a conference and one of the keynote speakers was Jessica Jackey. In addition to being a new mother, Jessica is a social entrepreneur. The way she defines it, a social entrepreneur is someone who creates value in the world. Jessica’s brilliant idea was to create a micro-financing organization named KIVA that lends money to people around the world in an effort to alleviate poverty. She connects people who want to help with people who need the help. For as little as a $25 loan, people with the means to make a difference give some capital to people who live on just dollars a day. The stats are staggering. Founded in 2005, KIVA has used the contributions of 687,000 people to lend $283 million in loans to people all around the world. Read that line again. Almost 300 million dollar has changed hands because of this woman’s brainchild. One hundred percent of the money gets to those who need it. And 99 percent of those small loans (most of them averaging $25) are repaid.

Jessica talked about hearing Muhammad Yunus speak at Stanford University three years before he won the Nobel Prize for his work on microcredit and microfinance.

She said, “When I heard him speak at Stanford, I thought to myself: I can do that. I can go and sit next to people and be a really good listener. His stories were not about the poor being destitute and desperate but his stories were hopeful.”

Jessica began to make her own trips to places in the world where people were in great need – of opportunity. While there, she heard some inspiring stories and began to focus “on these details of beautiful change. I saw people with full hands rather than empty hands and I thought to myself: what would it be to share these stories with other people?”

Jessica was asked in the Q & A session at the end of her talk, what keeps you inspired? She answered: “Stopping. Getting out of my own head and not worrying about success and failure and engaging with someone else and listening to someone else’s story. That genuinely inspires me. It’s realizing that everyone has their own set of challenges but they have their own victories, too. If you can listen to someone else’s story, you’ve been given a gift.”

The Secret of Gene Norris

In My Reading Life, Pat Conroy pays tribute to his high school English teacher who, in addition to being an important mentor, ended up becoming a very close friend. In their final phone conversation, as Gene Norris was dying with cancer, he said to Pat:

“Tell me a story,”he commanded, and I did.

Those were the last words he ever spoke to me, and they formed an exquisite, unimprovable epitaph for a man whose life was rich in the guidance of children not his own.  He taught them a language that was fragrant with beauty, treacherous with loss, comfortable with madness and despair, and a catchword for love itself.  His students mourned Gene all over the world, wherever they found themselves.  All were ecstatic to be part of the dance.

One student who was part of the dance of Gene Norris’ life was a young lady who showed up at the reception that followed Norris’ funeral. Conroy writes,

“As I walked along a side street, a beautiful young woman called out to me, ‘Mr. Conroy?’

I turned and this pretty woman kissed me and said, “You don’t know me, but we met when I was three years old.  You were the May king and my sister was the May queen.’”

“Ah!  Your sister is the lovely Gloria Burns,” I said.  “But why are you here?  Did you know Mr. Norris?  You’re too young to have been a student of his.”

“My first year at Robert Smalls,” she said, “I was such a mess.  In trouble.  Boys.  Drugs.  That kind of thing.  They sent me to Mr. Norris.”

“He was good, wasn’t he?”

“Mr. Norris told me to come to his office every day at lunch.  We could talk and get to know each other.  I went there for the next two years.  Two years. Yet he didn’t even know me.”

“You got the best of Gene,” I said.

“He saved my life.  He literally saved my life.”

“Come on in,” I said, putting my arm around her.  “I’ll introduce you to a couple of hundred people who’ll tell you the same thing.”

“Mr. Norris acted like I was the most important girl in the world,” she said.

“You were.  That was Gene’s secret.  All of us were.”

Goodness is Still Out There

clip_image002One of my students has a collection of letters from her mother. That, in and of itself, is not unusual. Most of us probably have some keepsake like that from a parent – birthday cards, a piece of jewelry, a meaningful gift. But what makes this present so special is that Stephanie’s mother died back in 1999, and yet, every year, she still gets a birthday card from her mother.

Andrea, her mother, had been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) a few years earlier and knew that she was running out of time. Reminiscent of the movie My Life and years before the movie P.S. I Love You, she set down to write letters to her children – Stephanie, Nikki and Steven – who were 6, 4 and 2 at the time of diagnosis. While fighting against a degenerative illness, and often in great weakness, a loving mother committed to the project of writing these notes that would survive her death.

Andrea gave the letters to a friend and fellow flight attendant, Tammy Wright. After Andrea’s death, Tammy faithfully has kept these letters and passed them on at the appropriate time. Stephanie, Nikki and Steven receive a message from their mom on birthdays and at graduation. They will continue to hear her voice on other special milestones, such as when they marry or have a child. And for years to come, at each decade’s passing, an inspiring mother will still be encouraging her children to remain strong and live well.

Stephanie shared with me her most recent letter from her mother and gave me permission to share it with you. The story is a beautiful tribute to a mother’s love for her children and to her grace and courage in the face of weakness and loss.

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You’re in your twenties! Hooray, the teen years are fini! (Not that you’re out of the woods yet!) I’m wishing you sunshine, roses, and love!

I was pondering what to write in this note, and decided to tell you of several ‘random acts of kindness’ that I’ve been the recipient of since my illness. I choose this subject both because we often are unaware of the depth of human empathy and in tribute to those folks who engaged in the acts.

One occurred at Bell Helicopter. A dozen roses were delivered to my office. The card bore the name of no one I knew. After investigating, I learned they were from a fellow employee, a black woman I had never met. I took one of the roses to her as thanks. She told me she had seen me and was impressed with my attitude and strength and wanted to do something for me, so she sent roses. I was touched.

Another occurred when I discovered the business card of a jeweler I had briefly met a couple of years earlier at the Mt. Sunapee Crafts Fair. I bought 3 pairs of earrings there – unidentical, eg. rake and leaves, etc. – and told her how creative they were and that she should do more children-related ones. After finding her card, I had Noni call her for a catalog, and the woman remembered me! 2 days later I received the catalog w/a notation to take 25% off, a lovely, warm letter, and a beautiful pair of earrings w/3 pearl eggs in a nest on one, and 3 hatched baby birds on the other. They weren’t in the catalog and she knew from Noni I had 3 children and was ills, so I suspect she made them especially for me. It brought tears to my eyes!

So, goodness is out there!

With love, Mom

Bearing the Burden of the Mystery

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Last year I was privileged to hear Elizabeth Strout speak at The Festival of Faith and Writing on the subject of “Bearing the Burden”. Prior to her talk at the conference, I had just finished her book Abide With Me and found it a stunning work, deeply perceptive about the struggles of clerical life and the anguish of an average congregation. 

Today, Strout was honored with a Pulitzer Prize for her third book, Oliver Kitteridge, which tells of a retired schoolteacher in Maine, the people she encounters in her small town and the emotional sweep of the human condition.

At the conference she described for us why she tells stories:

"That’s why I am a writer.  Nothing has ever interested me more as much as the way people manage themselves, large and small. …if we as writers can record truthfully what lies in our hearts, souls and minds we can offer to the world an image of themselves, ourselves.  We can show that hell is the absence of love and we can show the astonishing power of love.  And we can show people that how we live, matters…I do think the world really is in a pretty precarious situation.  Why write stories now?  Why especially write about an aged white woman in New England.  I guess the answer is, I hope the answer is – her losses, her bafflements, her hopes, her own ability to find what can sustain her is in some form the story of most of us.  We lose, we grieve, we are capable of being returned to ourselves by some small beauty.  Because like it or not, we have to bear the burden of the mystery. And it’s easier to do it, knowing that we’re not alone.”

Saved by a Wristwatch

As Harold took a bite of Bavarian sugar cookie, he finally felt as if everything was going to be ok. Sometimes, when we lose ourselves in fear and despair, in routine and constancy, in hopelessness and tragedy, we can thank God for Bavarian sugar cookies. And, fortunately, when there aren’t any cookies, we can still find reassurance in a familiar hand on our skin, or a kind and loving gesture, or subtle encouragement, or a loving eStrangerThanFictionmbrace, or an offer of comfort, not to mention hospital gurneys and nose plugs, an uneaten Danish, soft-spoken secrets, and Fender Stratocasters, and maybe the occasional piece of fiction. And we must remember that all these things, the nuances, the anomalies, the subtleties, which we assume only accessorize our days, are effective for a much larger and nobler cause. They are here to save our lives. I know the idea seems strange, but I also know that it just so happens to be true. And, so it was, a wristwatch saved Harold Crick.

Stranger Than Fiction

In the World as a Rescue Worker

379x250_101207b1Some of the most compelling drama in all of our storytelling is that of the dramatic rescue.  Whether we are watching headline news or Hollywood’s latest, such stories captivate our attention and inspire our ambition.  No matter how many times we’ve heard one such story, we’re ready to hear another.  The storyline is predictable enough.  Someone is in trouble.  They fall down a well, get lost in a mine shaft, become trapped in a blizzard, are captured by the enemy or stranded at sea. The odds are against their survival.  There seems no way out.  And then, as if out of nowhere, a hero enters the scene and throws out a life jacket, shines a search light, offers a helping hand.  Suddenly, the darkness is not so dark and the nearly dead are home safe and sound.

Not so long ago, I heard another rescue story from a lady at church.  This one was about her daughter-in-law Judy, a 39-year old wife and mother of three.  For over a year, Judy battled an aggressive cancer which spread throughout her body, assiduously attacking her vital organs and shutting down her system.  In her final months, she was severely emaciated, a gaunt shadow of her former self.  After the doctors did what they could do, they sent her back to her small town so she could die at home.  No longer able to come out and play, Judy’s friends decided to go to her.  A few weeks before her final breath, two hundred friends surrounded her home, held hands and began tucking her in to eternity with songs of worship.  While lying on her bed and with the windows open, she found grace and comfort from those friends who came to rescue her – not from death itself, but from the dread and isolation which so often accompany it.

When we hear the term “rescue worker”, we tend to think of those people specially trained to do this type of thing: paramedics, firefighters, or a search and rescue team.  But such a work belongs to each of us as part of the vocation of being human.  Garret Keizer, describes his own calling as a writer: “I am in the world like a rescue worker.  My work requires me to move the debris of Eden using the tools of language.”

Consider carefully what Keizer is saying.  The debris of Eden is all around us.   And part of our purpose here is to move the debris, wherever we find it, with whatever tools we have, at such times as we are able.  The debris around us may be the rubble of ruined relationships, feelings of loss or regret, chronic pain, overwhelming loneliness, anxiety about the future, inner distress, or the deep hurt of being injured by another.  And our work is to rescue people from underneath their crushing load.  The beautiful thing, the surprising thing is that we can carry on this work in any number of creative ways.  We can do it by finding a cure for cancer, opening a therapeutic riding center, teaching a child to read or simply doing our job well.  We can do it by speaking a word of encouragement, offering a friendly smile and showing genuine interest in another person’s well-being.  And we can do it by standing in a circle with friends and singing a song of comfort to those who mourn.

The Sound of God Laughing

Colleen Shaddox, in her essay, “Jazz is the Sound of God Laughing”, tells of being a child,

stretched out beneath my uncle’s baby grand. I would lie there for hours drawing while Uncle Charlie practiced. I could feel the vibrations go right through me, filling me up with jazz. I felt happier in that room than anywhere on the planet. A lot of that had to do with being admitted to the inner sanctum of my favorite grown-up. But in retrospect, I realize it was also about the music.

Not too long after that childhood experience, Shaddox grew up into a world filled with the constant clatter of ugly noises reminding her that all was not well in the world: cancer, violence, hatred, poverty.  You and I hear those same noises. Turn on the television and there are stories of staggering job losses, financial scams, surging crime and a general loss of optimism about the future.  Faced with this barrage of unsettling news, we do well to consider how Shaddox approaches such apocalyptic revelations:

Sometimes, I despair. But on good days, I turn off the television and put on some Oscar Peterson. And I whisper a prayer for America to remember that we are “Green Onions,” “String of Pearls,” “A Sunday Kind of Love” and “The Dirty Boogie.” We are the people of Louis, George, Miles and Wynton. We are the jazz people.

From time to time, we need to find the floor under God’s grand piano.  We need music – rhythm and rhyme, laughter and dance, the vibrations of hope-filled sounds that reach deep into our soul, reminding us who we are.  In worship, we return our hopes and prayers to the One who can transpose our daily disappointments into the language of jazz.

What Is Saving Your Life?

“Many years ago now, when I was invited to speak at a church gathering, my host said, ‘Tell us what is saving your life now.’ It was such a good question that I have made a practice of asking others to answer it even as I continue to answer it myself. Salvation is so much more than many of its proponents would have us believe. In the Bible, human beings experience God’s salvation when peace ends war, when food follows famine, when health supplants sickness and freedom trumps oppression. Salvation is a word for the divine spaciousness that comes to human beings in all the tight places where their lives are at risk, regardless of how they got there or whether they know God’s name. Sometimes it comes as an extended human hand and sometimes as a bolt from the blue, but either way it opens a door in what looked for all the world like a wall. This is the way of life, and God alone knows how it works.

Although we might use different words to describe it, most of us know what is killing us. For some it is the deadly rush of our lives; for others it is the inability to move. For some it is the prison of our possessions; for others the crushing poverty that dooms our children to more of the same. Few of us can choose our circumstances, but we can choose how we respond to them. To be saved is not only to recognize an alternative to the deadlines pressing down upon us but also to be able to act upon it. Even those who have no choice but to be carried toward safety on stretchers will eventually be given the chance to take up their mats and walk, and even those who whose legs still will not work can discover agile a healed spirit can be.”

Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church

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