Word Puzzle

A post from visiting writer Valorie Wells Fenton.

Whenever I “find time” to myself, it’s usually because I am waiting for someone else to arrive on their part of the path we share in this journey of life.

And while I wait, hopefully patiently, I have to sometimes ask God for the grace to use my assets wisely: time, talents and sometimes, even cash.

But then, I tend to jump ahead of God as I judge how well I’m doing in that arena. As if I have the wisdom, much less the power/authority to judge anyone!

 But ‘critical judgment’ seems to be my current nemesis to peace-filled living. 

So, I remind me what I already know, intellectually, that I can “rely on God’s grace,” “be filled with the grace of God,” and “allow grace to heal” me of these hasty habits.

But what the hell is “grace”?!?!

“Unmerited favor”, the scholars say. Well now, doesn’t that solve my self-deprecation issues?

I find, at this age on the shady side of fifty, that even as I hope for God’s grace, I have no idea how to recognize it. How is grace different from, say, a miracle?

I pray that my adult child will get the “right” job and when she misses the one she really wanted, only to be awarded a much better career on the next interview, I have to wonder, was that by the grace of God?

 And when I am driving on the interstate and I come up over a rise to the scene of a fatal car crash, was it the grace of God that had me forget my cell phone and in turning back, miss that horrific accident?

I think my difficulty with the definition of grace is with the word “unmerited” favor. As a recovering Roman Catholic, I am well-versed in how unworthy I am to be granted any favors. The litany of  ‘thou-shalt-nots’ is longer than my memory!

So, for now, I guess I will accept, that for me, “grace” is a semantic word jumble and thankfully, the answers to my prayers are not the prize for solving a religious word puzzle.


Cliff and I drove down to southern Missouri to see two old friends. Neosho, Missouri, to be precise, which is three plus hours each way. And the friends really are old, in their late eighties. We left at ten and returned home sometime after eight thirty that evening, which meant about seven hours driving and three hours visiting. It takes longer to recoup that kind of day than it did twenty years ago when I was often on a road trip to somewhere or another.

The next day, wondering why in the world I’d wanted to take such a journey, traveling for ten hours and ending up in the same place, I remembered something Cliff spoke about in a homily a couple of weeks earlier: responsibility for and responsibility to.

Bob and Anneta have been family friends since I was seven years old. Bob was the first pastor I ever knew and Anneta my mother’s best friend. Bob buried my father when I was eight; married my mom and dad when I was nine; and buried my mother many years later.  Three ministers presided at Mom’s funeral, and when Bob got up to speak, he told funny stories about when they were all young in their late 20s, and he said it seemed fitting that it took three preachers to bury her as my mother was a woman of deep and abiding faith. We laughed at the stories and nodded about the faith.

The first time I called Anneta after my mother died, she gasped. You have your mother’s voice, she finally said.

I took the journey because I felt responsible to them and to my mother’s memory, and Cliff felt responsible to me because we travel together. But I’m not responsible for them.  And Cliff wasn’t responsible for me. We can only be responsible for ourselves and for our own actions.

It’s an interesting exercise, this responsible to and responsible for. We often get the two mixed up. Leaving aside the issue of underage children or the truly infirm, we too often feel responsible for others’ happiness, for their pain, for their mistakes, and even for the way they treat us. We assume a responsibility that isn’t ours.

When Jesus healed, he always reminded the person of his or her responsibility: go and bathe in the pool; go show yourself to the priests; go and sin no more; go home, your faith has saved you. He must have felt a responsibility to use the gifts he had, but he did not take another’s responsibility to be whole.

It’s a dance in a way, a balancing act to remain responsible for our own actions and avoid taking up responsibility for another. We want to be kind and helpful and loving. We want others to be happy. But oddly enough, in taking responsibility for another’s happiness, we end up making that person unhappy. Wanting another to take responsibility for our happiness also leads to unhappiness – and blame.  

Try this experiment: make a list of all the things for which you feel some responsibility. And then, after each item on your list, write “responsible to” or “responsible for.” You might find yourself switching designations. You might find that you’ve been taking on a responsibility that isn’t yours. You might also find that you have not been taking responsibility for something that is solely yours.  

Which responsibilities do you want to maintain?

The Art of Being in the Act of Doing

Up on the farm for a few days this week, I had time to stare out the window and be with the land and sky.  I began thinking about something a reader posted a few days ago in response to my line, “Who will we be when we are no longer who we are.” Her response was “perhaps we will just be rather than do.”

I thought about being and doing. What does it mean to BE human? If I remember my anthropology more or less accurately, the use of tools, and more to the point, the construction of tools, separates humans from primates. While primates use items they find as tools, a stick, for example, to dig grubs, they do not build tools. Humans build tools.

Early hunter/gatherers chipped flint for knives and spear tips; they made bags for gathering from animal skins or reeds; they formed and baked pottery. Humans have learned, and evolved, from doing; the history of civilizations comes from humans doing. The history of thought, on the other hand, comes from being – although the philosophers, and the mystics, still had to “do” the work of writing to tell us what they’d learned. Plato distinguished his “duality” of reality as existing between the world of “being” and becoming.” In order to “become” one must “do.”

I spend a lot of time being when I’m here on the farm. I gaze out the window across the tallgrass prairie. Nothing to see, really. Chin in hand, I lean against the desk, stare out the window. The only thing that moves are my eyes, following the swallows zigzagging across the ripe grass heads. Swallows eat insects, mid-flight, so I imagine that’s what they’re doing.

Yesterday, as I was hooking up the water to the camper, I saw a young bull snake about two foot long, lying stretched out in the grass beside a tree, its head raised and resting on a piece of bark. Sunlight polished black skin and picked up gold-brown shades that wrapped under its belly. It didn’t see me coming, but when I dropped the end of the hose, it whipped itself back into pleats, head up, wary. Perceiving no other threat, it slid up the trunk of the tree and disappeared.

I was sorry, then, to have disturbed it. It was cute, really, lying full length in the sun, its head tipped up as a sunbather might, except with no arms to cup under its chin. It was, quite simply, being a snake. Both in its resting and in its movement.

Where’s the balance between the stretched out black snake and this human who’s busy hooking up water? I suspect it comes by each of us finding the integration between the two verbs, “to be” and “to do” rather than eliminating one or the other.

I wonder if that’s also the balance point between Martha and Mary. At a moment in their story, Mary sits and listens to Jesus, absorbing what he teaches, and Martha scurries around preparing food for the people gathered. Jesus tells Martha that she’s worried about many things. And he reminds her one thing only is needed. Even while she is doing, she only needs to be. Be present. Right now. With what you’re doing rather than worrying and fussing that something more is needed.

Many of us are scurrying around these days, fussing about things that need doing. Or that others are or are not doing.

Nature once more gives the lesson: the swallows have to “be” present and conscious in their flight to catch insects, themselves in mid-flight. Watching swallows swoop and soar, circle and swoop, is a perfect example of integrating being and doing. Swallows have learned the balance. The young bull snake, balanced in its self of being, was able to react in the balance of doing.

When we are conscious of what we are doing, we are able to be present. Be still, the Hebrew scriptures say, and know I am God. In other words, while you are doing, be present to your essential self.

That is our constant lesson: to be present in what we are doing. For example, as you are reading and thinking right now, feel your breath and feel it expand your body and your consciousness. Feel how wide your essential self expands beyond the boundaries of your skin. Think of yourself as soaring, mid-flight in your life, in balance. Doing what you need to do in this particular moment. You might even find yourself smiling.

“There is need of only one thing.” And the overriding and necessary thing in the world today is balance. And when you are in balance, your spirit soars and the sun rests lightly on your polished skin.

Dancing on the Head of a Pin

Like fear, hope is always about something that might happen in the future. It is never about what is right here and now… hope can remove us from the present and leave us hanging somewhere between what is and what might be…There is a difference, I found, in taking refuge in the hope that present circumstances can be changed and in allowing hope to keep you from knowing that this is one of those things you cannot change.  Kathy Torpie, in her book, Losing Face.

Kathy’s words have remained with me. I look at them from time to time and think about how I am using hope: whether I am acting in an unrealistic way. Kathy’s thought is similar to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer, commonly called The Serenity Prayer:  “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” But there’s an added depth to Kathy’s in “…allowing hope to keep you from knowing…”

For some unknown reason, thinking about hope led me to remembering another oft-repeated phrase, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Attributed to Aquinas and medieval convoluted arguments, it points to an unknowable quality. In other words, I’m wondering if the ability to know what one can change and what one must accept is unknowable in concept and only knowable in experience.

The experience of knowing what I can change and what I can’t has often been a slow process for me. I can’t even begin to count the times I have, metaphorically, stood in front of an unmovable wall and banged my head against it until my head hurt and I had to stop. Many times, after a rest, I’d return to banging my head as if I could somehow, with the force of my will, made a difference.

Reminds me of the old joke: Doctor, it hurts when I push right here…Well, don’t push there.

But I also know it has taken practice to learn when more effort is required and when effort is futile. When is “surrender” like “giving up” and when is it “letting go?” Where is the balance point? That place of dancing but not forcing? 

I suspect the answer is more in the doing than in the theorizing, more in the personal than in the general. At least, it is for me. I can read and learn and theorize and ponder, but I can only find my balance point in doing and in attention to experience.

It also seems to me that the only way we can find that-which-we-call-Holy is through experience. Peace is an experience; trust – or lack of trust – comes from experience; pain – or healing – comes from experience.

Life – and learning – is such a patchwork quilt! I also know that my primary way of learning is kinesthetic; others have vision or hearing as primary ways of learning. But aren’t those experiences, too? In other words, “The Voice” as I call it, the words that come to teach and guide me, have been words I’ve heard in my head. Auditory from within. Does that mean auditory learning in the same way as learning from auditory sounds that come from without? Does “seeing” and learning from dreams and visions mean the same as visual learning?

I may tangle myself here as tightly as the medieval philosophers managed to do.

But if everything we learn and know happens in the mind, and no one has yet discovered where the “mind” resides, aren’t we all creating it for ourselves as we go along?

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for; as it was the substance of things which have come to pass…” so reads the Lamsa translation from the Aramaic of Hebrews 11:1. The additional line in that phrase, “the substance of things which have come to pass” seems to point to experience again being the guiding force. If things in the past have come to be in substance, we can believe in the hope we have. 

If what we hope for has no substance in our experiences, we may need to relook at that hope and see if we are standing at a wall rather than dancing on the pin.

Quantum Realities

How much did you take with you when you last traveled? I have a tendency to take everything I might need: books, make-up, hair dryer, my special shampoo, Advil (I can’t buy Advil where I’m going??). I leave little to chance while at the same time, know I can buy whatever I forget. My consciousness is focused on want, on possibilities rather than on reality.

I’m reminded of the movie, “What The Bleep….Do We Know?” and of one scene where a young boy is playing basketball. When the lead character walks up, he tosses the ball to her and says, “take a shot.” She misses and he goes on to demonstrates how the frustration and tension she carries, along with the doubt of her ability, creates her inability to  make the shot. In a moment when the woman turns away, the scene shows a multitude of basketballs bouncing between her and the boy; but when she turns around, she sees only one. Her observation changed the possibility of many basketballs into one. The film is about quantum realities, biocentrism, and how the mind creates what we observe as our reality.

When you think about it, our bodies themselves are only representations of what we’ve created in our minds – the brain can’t “see” through the bone surrounding it. Our eyes and our senses tell the brain what to believe.

We assume everything that we observe is “out there.” But our task is to become conscious of what we don’t know, of possibilities rather than realities. We must be conscious and observe in order to make things in any way real.

Think about the last time you had an argument with someone. Wasn’t it because the two of you weren’t really understanding what the other meant? We assume we know rather than remain in our own place of peace and consider possibilities.

Look again at what Jesus says: don’t load yourself down, offer peace; if it’s received, your peace includes the other person; if not, you can still retain your own peace. It’s your consciousness that creates which reality you live.

We know what tension does to our bodies – it hunches our shoulders, makes our stomach hurt, our heads hurt, our emotions flare. Why do we choose others’ tensions to create our own realities?

None of this means we need to allow abuse. At the end of this teaching passage, Jesus goes on to say that if y0u aren’t welcomed, walk away, shake the dust off your feet and move on. Retain the reality of your own peace and allow others to find their own reality.

As humans, we can’t change the world “out there.” The only world we can change is in here. And that’s the difficult message time after time. To change the world, we must change ourselves. To find peace, we must become peaceful.