Choosing a New Year

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM  December 29, 2018

We’ve only recently celebrated Christmas, a time when we reflect on how the Holy One took on our human condition in Jesus. Our flesh. Our human body with all its beauty and glory. Our flesh with its limitations and restrictions. Our flesh beloved of God. Our flesh susceptible to weakness, fatigue, illness, heartache, disappointment even as we are the beloved of God and made in the image of the Holy.Starsinsky copy

The Christmas season is full of such contrasts. Just as we’re experiencing the coming of Emmanuel, entering the spirit of rejoicing and hope and promise, we’re thrown into the horror of the unimaginable: the slaughter of fragile and cherished little ones at the command of a tyrannical king. So soon after we’ve settled in to the peace of the Nativity scene, we’re jarred into a return to the reality that this world we humans inhabit is at one and the same time both beautiful and broken. The Magi’s choice to follow the star, to share with Herod the exact time the star had appeared, and then to bypass Herod on their way home set in motion the butchering of every male toddler in the city of Bethlehem. We don’t know if the Magi ever learned that their action had catastrophic consequences. But it did, as Kate Compston writes in Bread of Tomorrow,

“And yet,
in following their star, the star
that was to lead them to
engagement of the soul (their own),
they blundered mightily and set in train
the massacre of many innocents.”

I see this reality in my ministry as a spiritual guide. I often sit with and accompany people who are haunted by or anxious about choices made many years ago, choices whose unintended consequences become more visible with the passage of time. These may be choices made in anger or fear or haste, but they may also be choices made with every effort of discernment, prayerfully, thoughtfully, from a space of deep listening.

Embedded in our human DNA, it seems, is a longing to be certain that we’re choosing rightly and wisely. We hear echoes of this concern in the plaintive cry of John the Baptist as he was languishing in prison and sent a message to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come or shall we look for another?” Perhaps we’ve heard that same desperate cry in our own decision-making: “How should I choose? Am I on the right path? Has my life so far been spent in moving in the direction God desires for me?”

The reality is that, sometimes, in spite of our most sincere and good intentions, our choices don’t always play out in the way we hoped. A life partner may turn out to be abusive. A job that promised to offer us meaningful work may be stifling and demoralizing. An occasion when we’ve gathered up our courage to respectfully broach a difficult topic with a co-worker, friend, or family member may blow up in our face.  I might suggest that, after these unexpected outcomes, we first enter into prayerful reflection and then eliminate and outlaw from our vocabulary three phrases: “I coulda, I shoulda, I woulda.”  These words contribute nothing to our healing but instead send us into a spiral of berating ourselves, propel us into a revolving door of regret or shame or a sense of failure. We may forget that, no matter what choices we have made, in God’s time there is always hope of redemption and forgiveness and renewal and turning one’s life around.handscradlingcandle copy

We make our choices with only the light available to us at the time. Years later, through experience and reflection, we may often see with a new wisdom, a new clarity, a new insight and perspective. Can we accept ourselves for being limited and flawed and imperfect? The Holy One certainly does. Can we intuit that what our culture deems mistakes and failures can be a school of profound learning? Can we embrace our humanness in all its aspects?

Though we can’t change the past, we can, with God’s grace, change our response or attitude towards the past and view it through the compassionate eyes of the Holy One. There must be no room in our spiritual imagination for a God who insists we stay mired in the mud of self-loathing and self-recrimination.

Our celebration of the Incarnation takes place just a week before we turn the calendar page and enter into a New Year. May this New Year represent for all of us a fresh start, a chance to begin anew, an opportunity for a deeper awareness of just what being human and made in the image of the Holy One means. May it be so!

Takeaway:

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Name one blessing for which you’re especially grateful.
If you carry regret or shame or brokenness as you enter this New Year, name it and share it with a loving God.
Ask for the grace to look at your life with the compassionate eyes of the Holy.
Close by breathing the energies of compassion and healing out into the universe.

NOTE:
May you and all in our world experience every blessing of peace and wholeness in the New Year to come.  

Please continue to keep my mobile spiritual ministry in your prayer. I deliberately hold the first few weeks of January as a time of stillness for reflecting, writing, and creating retreats and presentations for the year ahead. Your prayerful support will help me to enter into a deep listening to the Holy One at work during this time. Thank you.

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Hoping in the Fullness of Time

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM  December 15, 2018

Sometimes we may find ourselves drawn to a word, a phrase, an image, a sound, an energy, without fully understanding its power to attract. We simply know in a profoundly intuitive, almost primal way, that there’s something of substance or beauty or meaning that’s beckoning us to mine the attraction further.Blue coast copylarger

“In the fullness of time,” (Galatians 4:4), a phrase that we often hear during the Advent and Christmas seasons, might be one of those that grabs our soul even if we can’t fully articulate why. I suspect it may have something to do with our own experience of finitude, of inhabiting our human condition with its limitations and constraints, its reality of never being quite finished. How astonishing that the Holy One in Jesus chose to embrace these very limits in coming to live among us! No surprise, then, that when we hear the words,  “in the fullness of time,” we sit up and pay attention, we hear a language that speaks to our longing to be made whole, a recurring theme of our hopeful waiting in these Advent days.

Recently the day’s news highlighted one of many tragic stories of loss: a woman who had been vacationing in Costa Rica missed her flight home and was later found murdered. The media coverage descended on her heartbroken father, who was asked a question no one is capable of answering in the vortex of overwhelming loss: “How are you?” He choked on his grief. He wept, wailed, struggled to find words to wrap around the unimaginable. And then this father, who had abruptly lost his cherished daughter to violence, simply put words around how he was in that moment. He cried out, “I am incomplete! We are incomplete!”

Ah, that’s it exactly, I thought. This father named so well our deep longing to be whole. Our individual sigh, our collective wound. Our knowing when something is missing, interrupted, forever lost or disappeared. Our resonance with the elevator scene in Jerry Maguire where a deaf woman signs to her beloved, “You complete me.”

I have read that, in Italian, there are no words that actually say, “I miss you.” Instead, the phrase, “mi manchi,” more precisely translates one’s heartache as “You are missing from me.” In many ways, that is our shared wound, our incompleteness.

This unfinishedness is a central core of the Advent readings where we hear about the good work begun in us that will continue to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11), about mountains being leveled, depths and gorges being filled up, winding roads being made straight (Isaiah 40:3-4). About the call to work towards bringing to fulfillment the sometimes unfamiliar, evolving landscape of God’s dream for our world. What sounds like a lesson in geography and topography is actually an expression of Advent hope.

Walter Brueggemann’s commentary on Isaiah 11:1 breaks open this theology. In reading “A shoot will sprout from the stump of Jesse,” Brueggemann notes that the stump is anything in our lives that appears dead or closed off or marked with futility and hopelessness. He reads Isaiah as insisting that God can and does bring forth life where none seems possible. That is the essence of hope, to believe in the Holy One’s generative power even in and especially in situations where the world sees only a lifeless stump.

When we dare to act out of a belief that no act of love is ever lost, forgotten or wasted, we are saying an emphatic “No!” to sin and death and “Yes!” to a hopeful vision of God’s dream for our world. When we give time over to prayerful, intentional, contemplative sitting, we are making an act of defiance against social sin and an act of hope that the promises of the Holy One are already being fulfilled in us and in our world.budsnowdrops

No matter what is unfolding in our lives this season, no matter where we may find ourselves, we are invited to bring to Emmanuel, God-with-us, our deepest longings, our yearning for healing and completion and wholeness. May we cry out to the Holy One in these words from According to Your Word, Daily Prayers for Advent:

Come, O Holy One!
To the dry and withered landscape,
to the thirsting root,
to the parched desert,
come!

To the lonely and severed branch,
to the shriveled stump that longs for green,
to the broken heart that cannot imagine wholeness,
come!

When I doubt my belovedness,
when my future stands uncertain,
when my life feels unfinished and incomplete,
come!

Even as I wait to celebrate your birth,
come, O Holy One,
green and bud in me this day.     

(Chris Koellhoffer, IHM © 2018, Creative Communications for the Parish)

Takeaway

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Bring before God any part of your life that may feel like “the stump,” any area that feels dead or marked by futility or despair.
Name this, and share your longing for wholeness with the Holy One.
Ask that the generative power of God bring forth new life in you and in your world.
Close by giving thanks that the Holy One is already at work in you.

NOTE:
My next post for Mining the Now will be at the end of December, so I want to take this moment to wish you and those you love every blessing of peace as we celebrate the coming of Emmanuel, who embodies the peace for which we long. Merry Christmas, and thank you for all the ways you witness to the peaceable kin-dom in our time and place.

 

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Through the Lens of the Ordinary

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM  December 1, 2018

One of the surprising and unexpected blessings of slowing down by choice or by circumstance is this: that, as our speed or mobility diminishes, a new awareness of our surroundings can simultaneously expand.IMG_2053 copy

Though illness or limitation often feels unwelcome, difficult, painful, or isolating, it can also be illuminating. When we have no choice but to remain confined or restricted in some way, we may more clearly hear the inanimate world around us, we may for the first time notice the silent companions that contribute to our well-being, not as disinterested, impassive bystanders, but as helpers waiting and standing at the ready to assist us.

If we’re already living with deep mindfulness, this will not be a new concept. Perhaps we already thank the mug as we hold a steaming cup of hot tea in the morning or sigh a “thank you” to the bed when we crawl into it at day’s end. Passing through a doorway as we depart our home, we may bless the space we’re leaving and pray for its safety until we return. Checking the weather, we may grab an umbrella and give thanks for the protection it offers from a downpour. With all the devices that are now part of our everyday lives, we may whisper a prayer of thanks (sometimes more like a plea for help!) to the laptop as we boot it up, or offer gratitude to our Smart phone for the ways it connects us with worlds both near and distant.

Advent is a season that illuminates over and over the presence and promise of the small and the overlooked. In the coming of Emmanuel, God-with-us, we see up close a baby born in the poorest of settings—a manger in a stable–and in a town, Bethlehem, which the prophet Micah (5:2) called one of the smallest, least noteworthy of locations. Yet Micah warns us not to be deceived by the ordinariness of it all: this seeming place of nothingness is the very one selected to welcome the arrival of the Son of God. Clearly, the Holy One has a different way of reckoning importance.

I read in Micah’s prophetic words one of the invitations of this holy season: to tend with singular care to the people we often take for granted, dismiss, or fail to acknowledge: weary delivery persons as well as weary parents working multiple jobs to provide for their children; the frail and vulnerable ones, refugees and migrants, homeless neighbors, the lonely or the mentally ill. May we pay special attention to them and recognize in them a sacred Presence.

Permit me to suggest that another Advent practice might simply be deepening our spirit of gratitude as we acknowledge and thank the inanimate and ordinary things that make our days more rich and eased and beautiful. Thank them, perhaps, by treating them with respect and care as they wait with us. No slamming of doors or angry driving, conscious of the energies we put out into the universe through these everyday companions. We might thank as well those who invent and manufacture these aids so that our world may live with comfort and wholeness and well-being. IMG_2061 copy

I so appreciate the wisdom of Pat Schneider’s exquisite poem, “The Patience of Ordinary Things”, for inspiring me to recognize the grace of the everyday and to enter into a new level of grateful awareness this Advent and all year round:

It is a kind of love, is it not?
How the cup holds the tea,
How the chair stands sturdy and foursquare,
How the floor receives the bottoms of shoes
Or toes. How the soles of our feet know
Where they’re supposed to be.
I’ve been thinking about the patience
Of ordinary things, how clothes
Wait respectfully in closets
And soap dries quietly in the dish,
And towels drink the wet
From the skin of the back.
And the lovely repetition of stairs.
And what is more generous than a window?

What indeed? In this loving, attentive spirit, may we enter this Advent awake and aware and grateful.

Takeaway

Sit in stillness in the spirit of this holy season.
Reflect on some of the ordinary things or experiences that are part of your everyday life.
Share this with the Holy One.
To what might you pay particular attention today?
Ask for the grace of noticing, and give thanks.

NOTE:
Please remember in your prayer all who will be part of an Advent retreat I’ll be leading for the Sisters of Mercy and Associates in Sea Isle City, NJ, December 7-9. Thank you, and Advent blessings to you and to all those who claim your attention and care through these days.

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