If I had to guess, I’d say the vast majority of people who live in this valley love taking a walk in forested areas. We are incredibly blessed to have countless numbers of trails to choose from. Some are extremely challenging and difficult, due to elevation gain and loss and/or distance, while others are far simpler requiring comparatively little effort.
Perhaps the dynamic nature of forest trails account, in part, for the vast appeal. Light, temperature, smells, trail consistency, and sounds all vary from step to step and every forest trail is unique.
We just returned from a short trip to visit one of our daughters who is away at college in the south. Her university is surrounded by thousands of acres of trees and trails. One morning, we ventured out for a stroll on one of the trails. As we made our way along, we began to notice that a number of trees had burls of various shapes and sizes. Some of the burls were high up in the trees, while others were quite low to the ground.
As I understand it, folks don’t completely know why burls form to begin with, but lots of people believe burls happen due to some source of stress to a tree, such as insects, fungus, bacteria, or environmental issues. Others think genetic factors play a role, but whatever the reason, some burls are spectacular and are sought after by artisans. While burls do not affect the life of a tree, sadly sometimes thieves looking for some dollars, cut burls out of trees. If left alone, however, burls can grow quite large.
On our recent walk, I began thinking about burls, how the wood within them can be so stunning, and how in fact they are not really detrimental to a tree’s overall health. In fact it is the stress to the tree that shapes burls into objects of beauty to begin with. Isn’t it intriguing that imperfections in the trunks of trees are in part what makes them so astonishing and valued by those paying attention. It is their imperfections that make them unique, interesting, and full of character.
In reflecting upon trees and burls, I have to wonder what it might be like if we viewed our own imperfections or those of others in the same way? That is, is it not our imperfections that makes each of us unique, of value, and interesting? Paul, from one version of the Bible writes, “Each one of us is an original.” And I would add, we are beautifully original precisely because of who we are due to our strengths, weaknesses, and yes, imperfections.
In nature I find most things to be perfectly imperfect. I pray that one day, we as human beings, will learn to view each other with the same lens. Doing so would not only create more loving hearts, but far more humility, something I believe is desperately needed in this era.
When my husband, Tim, and I were engaged, the couple who led our marriage prep classes reassured all the new couples that while partners argue over everything from how to hang the toilet paper roll to who gets the TV remote, there are really only a few major areas couples fight over to the point of causing stress in their relationship: Parenting, Money, Religion and Sex. Oh. Is that all? For goodness sakes, people. WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
Basically what our sweet pre-marriage counselors were saying is: at some point you’re gonna need help. Can I get an amen?
People seek help from therapists, counselors, pastors and well-meaning friends with armchair degrees for all kinds of reasons. Stress at work, parenting and family issues, marriage trouble, depression, mental health issues, job change, loneliness, divorce, grief. The list is pretty endless, so don’t you dare think you have something that no one has ever heard of. Still, there is a stigma attached to seeking professional help.
I taught parenting classes for years and I was always disheartened to hear people explain that they were embarrassed to sign up for the class because it made them look like a bad parent. No – you know what makes you look like a bad parent? Being a bad parent! Meanwhile, the people who sign up for parenting classes are busy having healthier relationships, more cooperative kids, and more fun!
So let’s talk about that little thing called “stigma.” It means “something that takes away from one’s character or reputation. A mark indicating something is not right.” Ok. So maybe you’re afraid counseling would take away from your reputation or people would see that something is not right. Fair enough. Wrong. But fair; I see where you’re going.
Now try this on for size: if you wear corrective lenses the chances are good you might have been diagnosed with stigmatism. Stigmatism (or astigmatism as it’s also known) has to do with the way an oddly shaped eye refracts light. (I have oddly shaped eyeballs. Just sayin’.) The stigma in your eyes causes things to look out of whack until you correct it with the help of a professional.
And of course there is the stigma of a flower — that delicate, oh-so fragile part of the flower that stands at attention in the center of the petals whose SOLE FUNCTION is to be a RECEPTIVE landing zone for everything that comes its way in order to increase its efficiency in helping to produce other flowers.
Then there’s stigmata, which – you guessed it – also comes from the same root – and refers to – are you ready for this? — the UNEXPLAINED bodily scars of some CHRISTIANS which mimic the scars of Jesus caused by his crucifixion. Think St. Francis, St. Bernadette, and Padre Pio.
The Apostle Paul ended his entire letter to the Galatians with this: “I bear on my body the marks (stigmata) of Jesus.” In Paul’s day, a mark or a brand might have been used for identification of an animal or slave. But Paul’s scars weren’t completely unexplained; he bore those scars because of his work in spreading the gospel of Jesus. Why? BECAUSE PAUL WAS ALL-IN. And he often paid the price for his relentless pursuit of Jesus by being jailed, scourged and beaten, not to mention shipwrecked a time or two.
So the next time you think, “Oh, I can’t possibly let people know I’m in therapy, it has such a stigma — what will they think of me?” Rest assured, we will think: there goes an incredible human being who is receptive to seeing life in a new way, and who bears the scars of having lived life all-in.
After all – what else is there?
P.S. If you think this blog is a shameless promotion of the upcoming marriage retreat at Snowmass Chapel, you may be right. If you think we’re promoting our upcoming workshop on teen mental health, you might also be right. And if you think we are promoting our Stephen Ministry & Caring Connection which offers peer to peer support for people who are hurting – YOU ARE 100 percent SPOT ON. “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Gal. 6:2. No stigma. No shame. Just the marks of life, my friends. At some point, we’re all gonna need a little help.
Without a doubt, the attack on New York City was a watershed moment. I shared with our children that the US was different pre 9/11. It is likely all of us remember where we were when the events of that day eighteen years ago hit our consciousness.
We were living in Concord, New Hampshire. At the time I was serving as Assistant Rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Early that September morning, I learned that one of our parishioners named Jim, living at home, but under hospice care, was nearing the end of his life. I quickly headed to his home where his wife greeted me at the door. They lived in a simple trailer filled with love and mementos from a long life together.
After catching up with them both, Jim asked for communion, which I had brought with me. When a few prayers were said, I took a wafer out of a travel communion box. I held the wafer in my hand and looked into Jim’s tear filled eyes. I said, “Jim, this is the body of Christ for you.” As I said the words, “the body of Christ for you,” I saw the television in the background. At that exact moment, the first tower collapsed. We were speechless.
While lots happened in the ensuing days, including being asked by the Governor of New Hampshire to set up interfaith worship services, what has remained with me the most was the memory of the juxtaposition of the wafer being placed in Jim’s hand at the moment the first tower fell.
Although it is difficult for me to come up with words to describe that experience, I know that our suffering is met with God’s suffering and that our suffering is not distant from God, but rather lies within the center of God’s heart.
Whether it is the unspeakable horror of that September day and the years of torment that followed for so many or our own suffering in our lives now, suffering is perhaps when we are closest to God and God is closest to each one of us. We may or may not be able to articulate that intimacy with God during such times, but my prayer is that in ways that supersede understanding we may take great comfort, solace and strength from this truth. Jesus’ pain on the cross joins our pain on the crosses we bear each day.
The good news is that the cross and suffering does not have the last word to who we are, but rather a restored and renewed life, as it was and remains for Jesus and all who have gone before us, including all who perished 18 years ago today.
While eternal life is ahead for each of us, in the meantime it is helpful and reassuring to know there is no place where God is not, even when we are in the darkest of places. David, of Israel, understood this when he wrote the following words. I invite us all to pray and meditate upon his words as they are a salve to our post 9/11 broken hearts.
1 You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. 2 You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. 3 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. 4 Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely. 5 You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. 7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. 9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” 12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.
While the leaves have yet to change, you can feel the coming of the fall season. Nights are cooler and the sun is changing angles bringing forth new ways of looking at familiar things. Although the calendar may not show it, summer is soon to be behind us here in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Despite the fact that we all have different likes and dislikes, I am struck by how many people love fall as a season. I understand why it is the favorite of so many, but it strikes me as a bit ironic that this is the case. Inherent with the season of fall is change. Fall is all about transition, shifting, transforming, and becoming something different. The constancy of winter and summer are not present in October and November.
Why is it then that we embrace the wonder and beauty of change when it comes to a meteorological season, yet sometimes resist change when it comes to the seasons of our lives?
When it comes to leaves during fall, many of us wake up each morning with a sense of anticipation of how different leaves will look and the air will feel. When we see or experience the variations, it brings joy and gratitude.
Perhaps there is a lesson in God’s creation in all of this for us to pay attention to. Could it be that God’s desire for us is to embrace the changes in life, the deepening of wisdom that happens as a result, and the value of both dormant and growth periods? What if we learned to embrace changes in our life just as we embrace the seasons of nature?
Throughout scripture, I cannot find an example in which God’s message is, “don’t grow, don’t change, don’t move forward, don’t let go and trust me, or hold on to what has always been.” Rather God’s desire is that we grow more deeply into a relationship with Him, that we learn to give all of ourselves to Him, that we learn to hold onto only one thing, God Himself.
I believe this season of fall is a great opportunity for each of us to explore what it is we are holding onto that perhaps we need to be letting go of. It is a great time to ask God for help in embracing healthy change and to get in touch with where we are stuck. It is also important to intentionally take time with God and move from a static relationship into one that is fluid, dynamic, and alive, if this is where we are in our faith journey.
Change is not always easy, I know firsthand. But if it were not for change, I am not sure I would cherish the beauty of the moment, the learning opportunities that are continual, or the constancy of the presence of Jesus. I invite you to embrace this fall season in a spirit of wonder, and to do the same with your life.