What Is Suffering?

by MK LeFevour

The nurse sticks me four times before she finds a vein in my hand to start the IV drip.  It takes 30 minutes for enough saline to get into my system so they can hook up a bag of leucovorin.  Another 45 minutes later the nurse comes back to start the part I hate the most called “the push”.   A hypodermic of 5FU is attached to my IV and the nurse literally pushes the chemical into the line.  It only takes a minute but each second feels like an hour.  I keep a close eye on the progress of the leucovorin left in the bag because the second my IV stops dripping I can get hell out of the cancer center and go home.  Only 2 hours pass during a chemo session but it is an eternity of suffering for me.

Recently I read a story about the great philosopher Krishnamurti that blew my mind. One day during a lecture, Krishnamurti asked his audience if they wanted to know his secret to happiness.  Of course they did!  They leaned forward in anticipation of his answer.  He proceeded to tell them – “My secret to happiness is I don’t mind what happens.”  How can anyone have that kind of equanimity to be able to say “I don’t mind what happens.”  If I had heard this secret to happiness while in the chemo chair, I would have cursed Krishnamurti quite roundly.  

So, here we have two beings on opposite ends of the human spectrum – Krishnamurti who has achieved the ultimate equanimity that he doesn’t mind what happens to him and me watching the minutes count down until I’m released from the IV and my suffering.  How can anyone achieve Krishnamurti’s level of being so solidly present in each moment that nothing moves him out of that moment – that he doesn’t mind what happens to him.

The Buddha gave us a path to getting from me suffering in the chemo pod to Krishnamurti’s equanimity by understanding the root cause of suffering.  Suffering is a result of a monkey mind where we can’t accept what happens to us—we mind very much what other people say, how much money we lost in the stock market, the pain in our bodies. It’s almost inconceivable to think that we might live in a way where these things didn’t rattle us—make us suffer. Within the Eightfold Path, Buddha’s guide to enlightenment, He describes how to practice vipassana or insight meditation — a powerful tool to help release us from this continual round of suffering.  Vipassana is meant to help us tame our minds so that we can stay centered in the Now, to be open and nonjudgmental – to step off the roller coaster of up-down, good-bad, like-dislike.  It’s not that we can eliminate life’s pain – physical or emotional but we can stop adding to the suffering by how we react to that pain.

In one of her dharma talks, the great Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön describes those moments that trigger our suffering with the Tibetan word “shenpa.”  She describes shenpa as the hook that triggers our habitual tendency to close down when confronted with discomfort.  When shenpa hooks us we begin to tense and tighten and feel a sense of withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are.  But resisting the present moment and what it brings only amplifies our suffering.  If we can watch what is happening and not judge it, not analyze it, not push it away nor hold it close, we begin to release ourselves from the suffering that aversion or grasping brings.  We may not be able to avoid discomfort, physical pain or challenging events, but we can control how we react and in that there is equanimity or the release from suffering brought by wanting a different present moment.

Previously I’ve described my inner hell of sitting in the chemo chair but let me describe that scene from another (equally valid) point of view – There’s me in a comfy reclining chair with my beloved wife sitting next to me, tucking me in with a blanket crocheted by loving volunteers, while nurses like Gina and Carla come by to hug me, give me heat packs for my hands, and tell me the latest jokes they’ve heard.  Within easy reach on the counter of the nurses’ station are chocolates, bagels, popcorn and other snacks brought in by patients who want to soften the experience for others while they sit through chemo.  In my lap is a DVD player with episodes of “Sports Night” to make the time fly.  So where’s the suffering here?  Only in my mind!  Other than the IV needle being put into my hand, there is no physical pain.  The entirety of my suffering is self-manufactured.  For me, chemotherapy was my shenpa – the hook that closed me down to What Is.  At the few times when I wasn’t inwardly focused on my suffering, I could look around at my chemo companions in their recliners and see one deeply ensconced in a book, one taking a nap, a woman knitting despite the IV in her hand or another surrounded by friends laughing while eating take-out.  I would wonder at their ability to use this time as respite instead of time to be endured or suffered through.

Chemo ended for me six years ago, but what I learned about suffering has been a continual gift. The more I practice vipassana, the more I catch the moment when shenpa is waiting for me to take its bait. In those moments I can choose to amplify my suffering by resisting “What Is” or I can lessen suffering by simply being in the present moment – abiding in whatever reality brings.

I hope to the gods and goddesses that I never sit in a chemo chair again, but if cancer does come back, I’m counting on my practice of vipassana to not let shenpa hook me and instead of taking shenpa’s bait, I’ll take a chocolate from the nurse’s station, grab my wife’s hand, and enjoy the next two hours by simply being in the present moment.

Our Homeless Neighbors

by Abigail Conley

The Point in Time homeless count happened this week. I was one of the volunteers who gathered before dawn at the fire station. We were offered coffee and doughnuts, watched a video, then were sent out into the city to search our assigned grid for homeless people and homeless camps. We carried bags with food and water, phone numbers, and socks to offer to the people we found. As we left, it was daylight, and the city was beginning to move about.

The homeless count happens each year across the country. It depends on the year if people are counted in shelters or on the streets or both. Most volunteers where I was were partnered with a city employee. I was glad my assigned staff person clearly knew what she was doing.

She drove around streets I knew existed but had never driven on. Our area was small, because homeless people are typically found there. We found fewer people than we anticipated, only one camp and one person sleeping in a park. As we drove, she told me the stories of homeless neighbors, some now housed, some still refusing, some still unknown. We drove past a woman’s home, housed for four years after nearly twenty on the streets. The city had figured out her housing and she’d been paying her own rent for a while now. I found out the name of the woman who is always at the bus stop at a particular intersection.

We made three stops. One was just a teenager, not homeless, but nervous at the adults approaching. We found a man in a park. In broken Spanish and broken English, we asked as many questions as we could. He thought he’d been homeless for about six weeks. By the time our conversation was over, we realized it had been more like six months. Who knows why exactly he had lost track of time. He pulled out the business card of a city employee from his wallet. We weren’t the first people to offer him help.

The most heartbreaking stop for me was behind a row of buildings, on a street that was little more than an alley. No one was home, but someone was staying there along the wall. It jutted back in one place, creating a small room with three walls. It was invisible until someone walked or drove along that dirt road. Two shopping carts were pushed inside, filled with belongings. Children’s items were the most visible. The clear indicator that someone as living there was the feces against the wall. There were several smudges that I would not have recognized unless the person in the car told me what they were; immediately, it made sense. Of course someone would back up to a wall to relieve himself; of course this is part of polite society that no one talks about. This sign wasn’t even in the training video.

My particular city has chosen not to criminalize homelessness. They’re hiring a homeless navigator; that person will be sent out to all these places to look for homeless people, to try and get them housed. They’ve been very supportive of the faith communities that provide emergency shelter for our homeless neighbors. A city in the same metro area instead chooses to pull people off the streets and drop them in a neighboring city; their belongings may or may not be kept by the officers who do this.

I wonder where the holiness in this story is, where the intersection with our faith is. Maybe it’s in the parable of the lost sheep, where there are 99 sheep in the fold, but the shepherd goes out looking for the one. Maybe it’s in Matthew 25 where Jesus commands us to offer food, drink, clothing, and welcome to people in need as if that person were Jesus himself. Maybe the holiness is in the Beatitudes, where Jesus proclaims,” Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Maybe it’s in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, where there are not poor in spirit nor people who hunger for righteousness. Instead, Luke tells us that Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”

Maybe the holiness is in an even more unexpected place, the list of questions we were given to ask people we found. What is your gender identity? Have you served in any branch of the military? Do you have a problem with drugs or alcohol? What is your HIV/AIDS status? It was amazing how impolite the questions were, especially to those of us who are comfortably housed. It was amazing how many points of vulnerability were enumerated on that one sheet.

Maybe you have a different answer to where the holiness in this story is. Whatever your answer is, you can likely enumerate ways that Christians have been called to care for vulnerable populations. If you’re not sure how, begin with seeing your invisible neighbors.


by Don Fausel

At my age (eighty something) I’m not able to get out to participate in rallies that I think are worth wild. I still have signs in my closets like Elders for a Sustainable Future or Mr. President Veto Keystone XL that I carried outside of Senator John McCain’s office in Phoenix, Arizona, or on the corner of downtown Tempe, Arizona with a group of folks who hoped they could change President Obama’s mind. But in the last month or so I’ve been getting more and more emails with petitions for me to sign and of course to send money, though it’s not required. So one of the ways I feel I’m being an environmental activist now is by responding to petitions. Some days I answer six or more petitions on my computer. So in today’s blog I’d like to focus on Divest and Invest. Not because I have a lot of money that I can divest, or that I think you can divest, but the founders of Divest—Invest would certainly like to have more and more interested activists in divestment, and hope our petitions can make a difference.

Here is a website, What is Fossil Fuel Divestment?, that I found to be fairly straightforward to understand. And here are a few of their dictums:

  • Divestment is simply the opposite of investment. It means getting rid of stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are unethical or morally ambiguous.
  • Fossil fuel investments are a risk for both investors and the planet, so we are we’re calling on institutions to divest from these companies.
  • Only a decade ago, tobacco companies were seen as respectable partners for public institutions. That is no longer the case. It is our belief that that fossil fuel companies should be seen in the same light.
  • The public is rapidly coming to recognize that sponsorship programmers are means by which attention can be distracted from their impacts on human rights, the environment, and our global climate.

Where There’s a Will There’s a Way

It was back in June 2011 when a group of students and environment activists met at Wallace Global Fund to talk about what eventually would be a new proposal. “Why not launch a coal divestment campaign on the nation’s campuses, modeled loosely on the Anti-Apartheid Movement of the 1980s?” Actually the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) was founded in 1960 to campaign for the abolition of apartheid. AAM grew out of the Boycott Movement which began in 1959. If you want to know more about AAM you can look at the movement above.

Within a year, divestment campaigns were in progress on fifty colleges and universities. Thanks to climate activist Bill McKibben, today, Divest-Invest have spread worldwide “…to become a full—fledged global movement, demanding divestment from fossil energy and investment in climate solutions.” It has brought hospitals, cities, pension funds, faith groups, foundations and individuals into climate activism. Before the United Nations Climate Summit in 2014, “…more than 800 institutions and individuals announced their commitments to divest from fossil fuels—for a total of over $52 billion in fossil—free  investments.”

Here is an outstanding TED TALK for 15 minutes titled: Divest-Invest & the Future of New Energy Solution by Jenna Nicolas on June 21, 2015. Judging from the applause from the audience, if you ignore Ms. Nicolas first line, she managed to get a lot of useful information across in short period of time.  I hope you agree!

In case you don’t like videos, here are several articles, all within the 2016-17. The first article is Assets Pledged to Fossil Divestment Surpass $5 Trillion Says New Report PR Newswire December 12, 2016. Notice the date! It starts off by saying: “The scope of global fossil fuel divestment has doubled over the last 15 months, with institutions and individuals controlling $5.197 trillion in assets pledging.” That’s correct; I said “trillion”!

Even before the UN Secretary—General Ban Ki-moon left his position he took time to say, “One year after the adoption of the historic Paris Climate Agreement, it’s clear that investors have a key role to play. I commend today’s announcement that a growing number of investors are backing as shift away from the most carbon intensive energy sources and into safe, sustainable energy. Investments in clean energy are the right thing to do—and the smart way to build prosperity for all, while protecting our planet and ensuring no one is left behind.”

Divest to Invest:The New Global Movement, by Marcia G. Yerman , 6/14/2016, The Huffington Post. The author of this article is concerned about herself and about us. Especially if we are also concerned about climate change, “…from college student to those planning for retirement is how to combine concern for the future of the planet with money issues, and economic safety.” She has the answer! She’s following the plan of Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM). He wants us to use the same procedures that the World War II Bonds . Unfortunately, Sen. Udall’s amendment to the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016 did not pass. On last April 19 a “…vote tally of 50 yes and 47 no fell short of the requisite 62 votes needed for passage.”

But Ms.Yerman isn’t quitting. After giving us some people who are divesting like Prince Charles, the Rockefeller Fund, and Leonardo Di Caprio, the rest of her article shows us a “A good place to start learning about options is at Divest-Invest . They have an extremely robust website with information geared to different groups including individuals.” Check it out!

Just one more article! This one is by Lorraine Chow, and it’s dated January 12, 2017 Exxon Ordered to Fork Over 40 Years of Climate Change . All I’m going to say isExxonMobil was dealt a major blow when after a Massachusetts judge ordered the company to hand in more than 40 years of climate research.” Interesting, Rex Tillerson worked for 42 years at Exxon as an executive, and now the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Monday approved his nomination. We shall see what we shall see!


Are You Afraid of Spiders?

by Amanda Petersen

I was recently reading a story by Tosha Silver about a time when she was in India and attended a fire ceremony for Lakshmi, the goddess of beauty and wealth. During the ceremony a huge spider crawled on her hand. She was extremely afraid of spiders so she gasped and swatted it away. One of the priests came over and yelled at her asking what she was doing and then saying it was Mahalakshmi herself coming to bless her.   

This really struck me. How often is the Divine presented in one’s fears as a blessing yet the blessing cannot be received because of not wanting to stay in the fear and see it differently? Tosha later tells of a night where a huge spider was on the ceiling and instead of spinning stories of fear she entered a conversation with it. Looking at the spider as a blessing while also letting it know it can have the ceiling while she can have the bed.   

What would it look like in this season of political and circumstantial uncertainty, which can stir up the most basic of fears, to instead of reacting in fear, one tries responding by interacting with what is most frightening. As contemplatives engaging oneself is the step before engaging the circumstance. Facing fears, (or insecurities, resistance, exhaustion) and all the issues within before just swatting at what frightens us. Bringing God in and asking where is the blessing in this?  

I tried this once when I moved into my home, which had been empty for several months and had very large roaches enjoying the empty space. I am not a fan of roaches and they do cause me to want to run and hide. There were so many I could not just run away and hope they also would disappear. So I asked what is the blessing in this roach?  The answers where numerous! I have a home, there has been a lot of rain, my home is surrounded by beautiful plants and trees, I am free to act in many ways, and I am no longer fearful of roaches. Now I need to say I am not so enlightened that I could coexist with the roaches running all over my home. I called an exterminator. Yet the reality of where I live with all the plant life is that bugs are a part of it and when we bump into each other I am now able to see the blessing.

Taking this to larger issues takes more time and practice. I have to say just asking the question  “What is God’s blessing in this?” has helped me to at least stop and look at my fears. Try this week as we enter a political shift and uncertainty. Let me know what you notice.

If you are looking for help in this area, I highly recommend the Rising Strong workshop on Saturday and Quiet Places on Sunday. The book I was reading is called Outrageous Openness and it is our Intentional Reading selection in March.

Searching for a life where all is well?

by Amanda Petersen

The foundation of Pathways of Grace is “All is Well”. Every workshop, decision, and person who walks through our doors are imagined from a place of All is Well. Why is this important? Because as I have traveled this entrepreneur path, there are many out there that preach that all is not well. People need to be fixed, my business isn’t making enough or attracting enough, I need more and they are going to show me how to get more. There are some who encourage looking for problems so one can be the master of solving it.

Friends, I have to tell you this was really tempting at first. Yet as I traveled a bit down this road, I began to feel this method was all fueled by lack. As a contemplative this is a big red flag. How does a contemplative do business? Well, that is a long story, so I will condense it down: one begins with the phrase “All is Well”.

This gets quoted from Julian of Norwich often. Yet many people don’t know the full story. This was her 13th showing (or vision) while she was very ill. Before the quote, she is pondering, why does there have to be sin in the world? Why doesn’t God just fix the world and make it nice? How often has that question been raised?? Here is the quote, first with Julian’s thoughts.

“In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well. This impulse [of thought] was much to be avoided, but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion.

Then Jesus’ reply.

“But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.'”

Life is imperfect AND all is well. The great mystery of life. All is well because life is more than circumstances. The world is Loved even in the messy, horrible and scary circumstances. Each person is Loved also.  This doesn’t negate the pain and suffering of circumstances, yet it does negate the mental sorrowing caused by thinking that if only  life were different and there were no suffering. It also invites the question, “If all is well, then God show me how?”

I say all this because as Pathways of Grace offers more workshops and encourages you to seek spiritual direction or coaching, I want you to know this was all planned from a place of All is Well, not a place of “you are not enough”.  All is Well even as you are searching for meaning or going through trauma or looking for a healthier lifestyle. When you walk into our workshops or see one of our amazing spiritual directors or coaches, you are greeted by someone who sees you are enough and you are Loved.

That is the gift we wish to share this year. All is Well in a world or a life that is also a mess. Practice saying “All is well” this week as you look at your calendar, world events or your own life. Let me know how it goes!

You Don’t Need Fixing!

by Amanda Petersen

A joyous New Year to all of you!!

I have had the pleasure of having a couple of groups with the purpose of looking how to be intentional with the New Year. Both were different and yet the same elements appeared.

  • Looking at what is important in one’s life.   
  • Looking at topics like core values, gratitude, lessons learned etc.
  • Doing something that gets one to notice those elements in their life.

Life evaluations can be seen as finding what is wrong and fixing it. Yet with the majority of people I journey with it is more a time of affirming and deepening the elements that enhance their lives. The gift of doing something intentional around noticing the elements of one’s life is that it affirms one is living a life.

Now that may sound obvious, but is it? Sometimes the externals of life seem to take over and one day just blends into the next. Taking time to remember what is important and then stepping back and seeing how one is folding that into the dailyness of life does something to reassure the soul all is well. Occasionally one may find there are important elements that are being left out and times of evaluation allow the person to fold them back in again. That is not fixing what is wrong as much as giving a life affirming yes to what is right.

Isn’t this the contemplative life? Taking the time to lovingly looking at life with truth and grace? Choosing to participate in the abundance of Love?  Being conscious of the choices one makes?

If you haven’t yet stopped and contemplated your life as you get out the new calendar, I highly encourage you to do so. Gina’s Personal Mission Workshop or Quiet Spaces on the 8th are a great opportunities to do just that.

Share your favorite way to notice your life as you begin the New Year.

Whatever the future holds, may you always know you are held in Love.

Minor Course Corrections

by Karen Richter

Good morning and happy new year, Southwest Conference friends. Here’s your obligatory New Year blog post. ☺

If you’re passionate (as I am) about the liturgical year, that’s your cue to say, “But wait! The new liturgical year started several weeks ago with the first week of Advent!” Yes, yes it did. I’m not interested in a tired tirade about prioritizing the liturgical year over the secular year. Instead I’m thinking: isn’t it wonderful how our post-modern lives give us so many opportunities for pause and reflection? There’s January, of course. There’s Advent, with its beginning in hopeful anticipation. There’s (for academic types and parents of school-aged children) the school year, with its flurry of supply purchases and new schedules.

And there’s the new beginning of weekly Sabbath and the new beginning of each sunrise. Finally, there’s the new beginning of forgiveness and reconciliation always available to us.

I need every single one of these prompts to begin anew.

So it’s not a bad thing, in this first week of January 2017, when the world is starting fresh along with us, to anticipate and resolve some changes or minor course corrections.

Not diet and exercise. Not writing a book. Not saving money. Not even going to church more often. Again, not interested. We don’t need to squander this beautiful opportunity for newness by simply striving and grasping at becoming better, shinier versions of ourselves. So just cut that out. You are enough. You are loved just as you are.

So I offer here my minor course corrections, not as a stick with which to beat myself up when I fall short, but as a shared guidepost of encouragement:

  1. Do more hard things.
    I was just reading this morning about how pushing our limits can protect against the ravages of mental aging. Not just devilishly difficult Sudoku, but really taking on something that is difficult enough to be mentally tiring. Do something that excites you but isn’t easy.  Do something at which you might fail spectacularly and publicly.

    I’m not sure what this will be for me: more writing perhaps or a new skill.
  2. Rest and celebrate.
    Doesn’t it seem strange that we have to remind ourselves to rest? BUT WE DO. Especially perhaps in these trying times of division, global violence, and increasing inequality, it’s hard to pause to rest. Our culture encourages overwork and busy-ness with prevalent figures of speech like ‘putting everything out on the field.’

    Two thoughts on this: First, I think our willingness to rest is related to our satisfaction with our work. Hence, ‘rest and celebrate’ is tied to ‘do more hard things.’ Second, our reluctance to stop is a symptom of our collective egos out of control. Our work does not keep the world spinning. I had lunch this week with a friend, a Franciscan friar. He reminded me, “We are not called to save the world. The world already has a Savior in Christ. Instead we are called to work.” We can rest and renew more fully (and thereby work more fruitfully) when we see our work with God’s eyes.
  3. Get real and vulnerable with myself and with trusted companions.
    This wouldn’t be a churchy blog worth the name if I didn’t tell you to pray more in 2017 (oops – these are supposed to be MY 2017 course corrections… so I am going to pray more in 2017). Find anything that works for you. I’m a big fan of silence in the car during my commute: no radio, no Sirius, no audiobooks. Walking the dog. Mindful breathing. Journaling. Make any of these into your prayer practice.

    We’re not meant to journey alone. I couldn’t have a New Year blog without also suggesting that you find spiritual companionship. Whether it’s a traditional spiritual director, a small group, or an accountability partner, articulating to another person where you are and what’s going on in your spirit will bring you greater insight and tremendous comfort.  Check Teresa Blythe’s Patheos blog Spiritual Direction 101 or poke around on Spiritual Directors International.

Whatever you do or don’t do in 2017, know that you are loved.  Through God’s grace, may we move together more fully into holiness and wholeness.