Thursday, March 29, 2012

Gabriel, Mary and Me, A Spiritual Invitation to Trust and The Spiritual Gift of Imagination posted by Nancy L. Agneberg

     March 25th is the day in the church year set aside to honor the day of the annunciation--the day the angel Gabriel announced to Mary the incarnation of Christ. This post is based on an  essay I wrote several years ago about that event.
First the scripture:
     The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth to a young woman named Mary; she was engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. Upon arriving, the angel said to Mary, "Rejoice, highly favored one! God is with you! Blessed are you among women!"
     Mary was deeply troubled by these words and wondered what the angel's greeting meant. The angel went on to say to her, "Don't be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God. You'll conceive and bear a son, and give him the name Jesus--'Deliverance.' His dignity will be great, and he will be called the Only Begotten of God. God will give Jesus the judgment seat of David, his ancestor, to rule over the house of Jacob forever, and his reign wil never end."
     Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I have never been with a man?"
     The angel answered her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you--hence the offspring to be born will be called the Holy One of God. Know too that Elizabeth, your kinswoman, has conceived a child in her old age; she who was thought to be infertile is now in her sixth month. Nothing is impossible with God."
     Mary said, "I am the servant of God. Let it be done to me as you say."
     With that, the angel left her.  
                              Luke 1: 26-38, 
                                             The Inclusive New Testament, 
                                             Priests for Equality

     I've given my adult children most of their books from childhood, but in the stack of Christmas books there is one favorite I intend to keep: The Nativity, illustrated by Julie Vivas. Mary is really pregnant in these pastel drawings, and I mean really pregnant. You see and feel Joseph's effort as he helps Mary get on the donkey, just as you see the strain in the donkey's expression. I chuckle at the raggedy nature of the characters--quite the contrast to the serene, beatific look of more typical religious art. For example, there's Gabriel with his red, spiky hair and untied, oversized work boots. Gabriel, whose jaggedy, frayed wings were jet-size, compared to his scrawny body. 
     Gabriel and Mary sit at her kitchen table, drinking coffee out of cracked everyday mugs and from Mary's "Who me?" expression and Gabriel's intense leaning forward over the top of the table, you can tell this is no casual "What's happening?" conversation.
     Usually when I read or hear the annunciation story I focus on Mary, her initial shock and amazement and her ultimate faithfulness. But Gabriel intrigues me, and I want to know about the angel who was "sent from God." Gabriel is not described in the Biblical text, but the news he brings makes it quite clear that God needed a trusted colleague to do the job. 
      So who is this Gabriel?
     Many of the angels encountered in the pages of the Bible are not given names. For example, the angel who stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem in 2 Samuel is unnamed, as is the angel who spoke to Moses on Mt Sinai and the angels who rolled away the stone from the entrance to Jesus' tomb as told in Matthew.
     But this is Gabriel, one of the archangels, which means he is a messenger of God, a figure in all three of the Abrahamic traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He first appears in the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible, and later he foretold the births of both John the Baptist and Jesus in the Christian testament and Muslims believe he was the medium through which God revealed the Qu'an to Mohammed.
     This is a big deal angel.
     According to Judaism, Gabriel was also the voice that told Noah to gather the animals before the flood and was the invisible force that prevented Abraham from slaying Isaac and who wrestled with Jacob and finally, was the voice of the burning bush. Many in the Christian tradition believe that Gabriel appeared to Joseph in a dream, confirming what Mary had told him about being with child, thanks to the Holy Spirit, and then later, according to tradition, although not named, Gabriel was the angel who appeared to the shepherds telling them to follow the star and find a babe in the manger. This is an angel who is in the middle of the action.
     Gabriel's Journey 
    In this story, the story of Gabriel's meeting with Mary, it is his movements that frame the story, and I am intrigued by the phrase "upon arriving," which implies to me a journey. Gabriel traveled from the left hand of God to Mary's house. I wonder about the journey--what he saw and experienced along the way, what stops he made, what other messages, though perhaps not as momentous, he might have delivered as long as he was in the neighborhood. Did he make a wrong turn and did he need to stop and ask for directions, presuming, of course, there was not some sort of strange angel code preventing an admission of being lost? Did he get stiff and need to stretch his legs and have a cup of coffee before the last turn into Nazareth? Did any fellow travelers sense the presence of an angel and because of a smile or greeting from Gabriel feel more energy for the journey, feel less discouraged about the detour or the traffic? I wonder if Gabriel has ever been in the McDonalds line behind me at a rest stop on Interstate 80 as I drove from Ohio to Minnesota.
     How did Gabriel feel about the message he was to deliver? Did he say to God, "Whatever you say, I'm on it, even though it sounds a little strange." Or did Gabriel protest, "Oh, God, but I'm busy right now. I don't have time for this trip, and I certainly don't want to go to Nazareth." Did Gabriel need time to think about what he was going to say to Mary?
    I understand the need for time. I well remember trips to Minnesota when the 14 hour drive was just what I needed to prepare myself for what I thought might be needed from me upon my arrival. The time when my father had had a heart attack and was awaiting triple bypass surgery. The first time I would see my mother following her diagnosis of a recurrence of colon cancer, and when I went to see my dear friend Mary in critical condition in the hospital following surgery for ovarian cancer. I needed the transition those hours in the car offered me. In fact, while driving to Minnesota just weeks before my mother died I planned what I would say at her funeral. I invited words and images to come to me and through my tears, mile after mile, I spoke aloud what I might say to share my mother's spirit and my love for her. Perhaps Gabriel had slipped into the passenger seat when I stopped for gas and was my invisible listener. I can understand even Gabriel might have needed time, transition time, to think about how to deliver the news. 
     Did he consider saying, "Hi, I'm Gabriel, an angel of God, and have I got news for you. God wants you to know you are special, but that doesn't mean you get off easy. Here's the deal."? I wonder if Gabriel had a Plan B in mind, in case Mary waved her broom and said, "Shush, go away." 
     I am comforted imagining that perhaps even Gabriel felt daunted by what he was about to do, for how often have I thought, "Me? No, I can't do that. I'm not smart enough, wise enough, good enough." Perhaps other angels had been sent to other Marys who when presented with the 'good news' had said, "Not me," and slammed the door. Perhaps Gabriel himself had been on the other side of the slammed door, and he didn't want to mess up this time. He was determined to bring God news of his success. "She'll do it."
     Meeting Mary
     Gabriel did find the right Mary. This Mary agreed. Not that she wasn't amazed, even "deeply troubled," but I am rushing the story. First, Gabriel greets her, flatters her. "Blessed are you among women." Instead of being taken in with such compliments, for Mary is, in fact, no dummy, she is "troubled by these words and wondered what the angel's greeting meant." Perhaps to stir up his own courage he urges Mary not to be afraid and then tells her the news. Nope, he doesn't ask her, "Hey, Mary, how would you like to be the mother of God?" Instead, Gabriel tells her the plan, using his carefully practiced words, "You'll conceive and bear a son and give him the name Jesus. Deliverance. His dignity will be great, and he will be called the only Begotten son of God. God will give Jesus the judgment seat of David, his ancestor, to rule over the house of Jacob forever, and his reign will never end." I imagine Gabriel spilling all that out in one breath and then quickly looking down into his coffee mug and taking a long swig. "Now I've done it," he thinks to himself.
     This is amazing news. 
     The only begotten of God? Rule over the House of Jacob? Forever? But that's not what Mary focuses on. She seems to understand the result, the outcome. Her son the son of God. That she seems to get, but instead she questions the conception. She is concerned about the process. "How can this be, since I have never been with a man?" 
     And it is in the process where I get stuck so often, too. When I knew my mother didn't have long to live, I wanted to know what the steps would be along the way. How much time does she have? Will there be lots of pain? And more than that, I wanted to be reassured that I would know what to do and that I was capable of doing whatever was asked of me and needed from me. It all seemed more than I could bear. How can this be? 
     Luke says, "The angel answered her. " I love that. Gabriel actually responds to her question. Perhaps not clearly, not completely, not in a way she can fully understand, but he doesn't say, "None of your business. don't ask. Just listen and accept." In fact, Gabriel even tells her a bit about the process. "The power of the Most High will overshadow you." Not that that makes anything clearer, but there is some reassurance that Gabriel seems to know how things are going to work. "There is a way, trust me."
     Then, almost without taking a breath, Gabriel jumps into more astonishing news: Mary's kinswoman Elizabeth is having a baby , too, even though she is old, too old. Perhaps Gabriel wants to gloss over the "overshadow you" business and thinks this additional news will trick Mary into not thinking about herself. But perhaps Gabriel is saying, "Yours is not the only miracle. There are other miracles, others who are experiencing major surprises, even dilemmas in their lives. You are not the only one. Nothing is impossible with God."
    Asking the Question and Listening for an Answer
    But here's where the story really becomes Mary's. Not only does she ask the tough question, but she stayed at the table and listened to Gabriel's answer. How often do we ask a hard question, the essential question, but then before the answer is even offered, reject it, and walk away?
    It was one of those perfect summer days at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York, warm, but not too hot; the sun was shining, and there was just enough breeze to prevent sweat from forming on your forehead. A large group had gathered in the afternoon to listen to an Episcopalian priest talk about spiritual practices; tools to help us grow closer to God and to understand who God created us to be. The talk itself was thought-provoking and inspiring, but the question and answer period was even more stimulating. An older gentleman went to the microphone and eloquently asked about how to get through the pain, go through and beyond the pain. He was obviously suffering emotionally, spiritually, perhaps even physically, too. He took a huge risk, exposing his vulnerability in front of this large group of strangers, but the audience sat in respectful, even awesome quiet, awaiting the speaker's response. I could see the speaker physically gather herself together, having listened with the ears of her heart and wanting to offer encouraging wisdom for him. She prepared to be his Gabriel, but the man who dared to ask, did not dare to listen. As she began to respond to him and his pain, he walked away from the microphone, turning away from this angel of the moment. By the time he got to his seat, the next person was asking a question. The opportunity, the encounter, was over.
    My family dared to ask the tough questions and then to listen carefully to answers, the guidelines and markers, our hospice nurse explained about the dying process. We were grateful, indeed, but we also listened to the promptings of Gabriel, for it was in the daily miracles that we drew our strength.  The miracle of many more days of quality living for Mom than what we imagined. The miracle of the birth of her first great grandchild, Maren, bringing life as we anticipated death. The miracle of family standing together supporting and loving each other every step of the way. The miracle of Mom's last words, "I am so blessed."
    Truly, "Nothing is impossible with God."
    Mary listened to Gabriel's answer and then responded with faith and trust and strength and self-confidence, too. "I am the servant of God. Let it be done to me as you say." Can't you just hear Gabriel's sigh of relief? "Great. Check that job off the list. No need to disappoint God."  
    "With that, the angel left her."        

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Morning Sounds, The Spiritual Practice of Listening and Being Silent by Nancy L. Agneberg

* 5:00 a.m. and the radio comes on. NPR story about the affordable health care bill being argued at the Supreme Court. I listen, but the dial has drifted just a bit off the station. Words are distorted. That seems somehow appropriate.
* Chimes on the front porch. Light and airy. Butterflies might be drifting between individual chimes, barely touching them, creating a modest melody. 
* Furnace coming on.  The bedroom window is open after several days of unusual May or even June weather, and the room is cold. A return to March.
* Car going by. The thud of the New York Times being tossed in the vicinity of the neighbor's front porch.
* Birds singing, adding voice to the the chime's chorus. No cranes yet this morning. Perhaps the drop in temperature has encouraged them to stay tucked in longer this morning. I feel that way, too. Bruce heard two owls calling to each other one morning. One makes its home in the woods across the street, but we've yet to see it. A someday hope. 
* A runner passing the house. Plop, flop, plop, flop till the sound drifts away. Good for her or is it him? I have never looked to see who this morning sentry might be. Bruce has left to exercise. More sounds--the door opening and shutting and the sound of the key in the lock. An act of love, it seems to me. The car starts and man and machine head down our street. Good for him. I am staying home this morning. 
* A surprising creak in the house. All the old houses we've lived in have been quite alive with sounds. Wooden stairs betraying who has stayed up later than usual watching tv. Inner walls stretching and radiator pipes talking, even arguing. This sound is like someone cracking a piece of wood in two. Karate! Not repeated. Did I really hear it?
* My fountain pen scratching across the page. Like mice inside the walls. Another one of those old house sounds.  The sound of the pen moves me along. I know when I have stopped to think. Keep moving the pen, I hear my contemplative writing teacher advise. Such a different sound from the click, clack of the computer keys. I like to see how lightly I can press them and still see words form on the screen. I recall a clerk in an office supply store who pounded, hammered the keys. Aggression released through fire-red fingernails. Her fingers must have ached by the end of the day. I always thought about saying, "Easy does it,"  to her, but I never did.
* The sound of my own silence as I enter centering prayer. The other day I heard a story on the radio about dying and someone was so sad that a friend had died alone. I don't worry about that, for I know how to be alone and I treasure silence. I practice being alone, and, of course, I know I am never alone. I wonder what the sounds will be as I enter my own dying.  
"Silence is not an absence of sound but rather a shifting of attention toward sounds that speak to the soul." Thomas Moore in The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life.
As you sit in silence, what do you hear?   

Thursday, March 15, 2012

This is the Season, posted by Nancy L. Agneberg

Apparently, it is spring. I have been hearing the sandhill cranes in the morning and actually saw two flying like arrows yesterday. Robins have definitely returned, and crocus and daffodils are appearing. Yesterday,  granddaughter Maren and I went to the Milwaukee Zoo, where it seemed that every young mom was pushing a stroller the size of an RV, eager to introduce her baby or toddler to the sunshine. Maren and I envied the brown bear frolicking in the pool, and we wondered why the polar bear didn't take the plunge, too. True, we could have a blast of winter again, but we have turned the bend into the next season, and any further wintry weather would simply be the acting out of a spoilsport. Therefore, instead of anticipating spring, watching for signs of spring, I better catch up.  Apparently, spring is already here. 
      That's not all that has arrived. This morning I started reading Creative Aging, Rethinking Retirement and Non-Retirement in a Changing World by Margery Zoet Bankson ( Reading this book makes me realize even more that I am not being teased by the thought of retirement nor am I anticipating the arrival of this older stage of my life. I am here. This is the season, the retirement season. 
     Bankson calls this period between the ages of 60 and 75 a "generative period", "a period of possibility," and because we can expect to live longer than previous generations we have the luxury and the responsibility to explore the question, "What is this period for?" Bankson challenges us to find a new call for our later years. Call, as Bankson defines it, is the "inner nudge to wake up and notice our place in the greater scheme of things...a special way of understanding what we are here for, our reason for being." 
     Of course, the trick is to discover the call for this season. Some people enter retirement with a clear direction. They are eager to put into operation their "encore" career. Others have felt stuck in a job and are eager to do something totally different. Others are weary and need a time-out. Others flounder during this time, aware there is something out there, but with no real idea what that might be. Some have so fully identified with pre-retirement life that it is hard to imagine what this new time could possibly offer them. 
     It seems to me that in order to hear a call, one must get quiet. And then when quiet no longer feels too disconcerting or disorienting, it is time to notice. Stephanie Dowrick in Choosing Happiness poses the question, "What does the eagle see?" What does the eagle notice when he sits in the tallest tree in your loop of life and observes you? 
     I started a list of what my eagle notices about me these days: how happy I am when I am writing; how I am less interested in home tending than in the past; how I am exercising less these days than I was a year ago and that has bad consequences for me; how I am reading less, especially fiction, and writing more; how my days are full and good, no matter what; how I am more flexible and resent it less; how shopping is more about necessity than choice or pleasure; how grateful I am for my family and friends; how open I am to what's next, no matter what it turns out to be, but also how I want to decide what's next.  Dowrick suggests that by noticing, by playing the part of the eagle for ourselves, we are deepening our self-awareness without being self-absorbed and therefore, we will know a call when it appears.   
     I washed the front porch floor today and moved the porch furniture back into its spring, summer, fall location. I look forward to having meals on the porch again and using the porch for reading and writing, as well as greeting the neighbors as they stroll by. It's spring and I am retired, and it is time for new growth and new beginnings. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Living to Tell the Tale posted by Nancy L. Agneberg

     Recently, Pete, age 4, had a sleepover at our St Paul apartment. This was a true rite of passage for him, as he had never stayed overnight away from home without his big sister. He talked about the coming event for days and was more and more excited as we drove to the building.  We settled in quickly, setting up his new sleeping bag on the living room floor and unpacking his suitcase. He prepared well for his overnight, packing not only his pajamas and dragon slippers and clothes for the next day, but also selecting items that would provide security: books and a book light (Maybe his most prized possession.), his buddy Curious George, a flashlight, and one of his little blankets from when he was a baby--something he hasn't used for a very long time. 
     He expressed concern that he would be sleeping alone in the living room, but accepted my explanation that he sleeps alone in his own bedroom at home and Mom and Dad sleep in another room. He had a hard time falling asleep, but he didn't cry or call for me, and eventually, he slept all night. He did it. 
     Childhood is so full of challenges. We adults think we have it tough, but just think about everything a baby has to learn and conquer in the first years. Pete seems to be in another time of making big leaps. He's mastered potty training (for the most part!) and knows his letters and numbers and now wants to learn how to read. He wants playmates, for his mother, father, and sister are not quite enough. He goes to speech therapy class and is doing so well, catching up with all he has to communicate to the world.
     There are bound to be some bumps along the way. Some meltdowns. Some resistance. But he's doing it and now he knows he can survive and even have fun sleeping away from home. And he lived to tell the tale. 
     I think about my father. My mother died almost nine years ago. Much of his working life has been away from home, and he is comfortable being by himself in a hotel room, but being home alone was new for him. Mom didn't travel without him and with rare exception, when she was in the hospital following the births of we three children or much later when she was recovering from colon surgery, when he was home, she was there, too. But these last nine years he has adapted and handled that challenge. Yes, there have been some bumps along the way. Some meltdowns. Some resistance. But he's doing it, and he knows he can survive and live his life well. He has lived to tell the tale. 
     I like what Stephanie Dowrick says about courage, referring to a friend, in her book Choosing Happiness,  Life and Soul Essentials, "Extending rather than changing herself, she will discover that the courage she believes she needs can be found as she dares to act more courageously even if the old fears are present. In other words, she doesn't need to find courage in order to make change. In fact, my experience is that the contrary is true: as we make whatever change is needed, we also gain courage. (p.36)
     Peter and my father inspire me. They inspire me to extend myself and face new challenges. New ways of living--sometimes unexpected, unwanted, but even ones we think we want are not always easily managed. There will be bumps along the way. I will meltdown now and then. I will resist, But I'll do it. I will survive. And I will have a richer life because of it. And I will live to tell the tale.    

Monday, March 5, 2012

Temporary Re-entry, posted by Nancy L. Agneberg

     Re-entry is something we know how to do well or at least we have a routine that suits us well. In less than an hour after returning from a trip, whether we have been gone two weeks or two days, our suitcases are unpacked and put away, and the washing machine is humming. We have gone through the stack of mail, watered the plants, listened to voice mail messages, and have made ourselves at home once again.  I am aware that all these homecoming tasks are part of making a transition from vacation time or travel time to our every day life. Others may prefer to unpack gradually, leaving the suitcase open and removing items as they need them, but I want to settle back in, re-bond with home base, and pick up where I left off before the time away. 
     Margaret Guenther in her Walking Home, From Eden to Emmaus, which is my Lenten guidebook this season, reminds me, however, that just because fresh laundry is ready to be folded and stacked, I am not really home. 
     "...we are all just travelers plodding toward our own Jerusalem." (p. 108)
      What seems like my home is actually only temporary. An inn. This inn is comfortable and attractive and is equipped with everything I need to feel welcome. In fact, we have ongoing reservations here--a room is always ready and waiting. True, we're the innkeepers for ourselves, and there is only milk in the refrigerator if I have left it waiting for us, and I am the maid who makes sure there are fresh sheets and towels. Some inns are better than others, but this one is clean and hospitable, and in no time we feel at home.
     But it is just an inn, a way station, and eventually, it is time to move on.   
     No, I'm not really home, and my true identity is as a traveler, always moving towards Home, no matter where I am or what I am doing. I may encounter pleasant detours and at times I may choose the wrong route and need to turn around. Flights may be delayed or cancelled, and interruptions and frustrations may confound me. Traveling companions may not always be pleasant, and sometimes I may feel unsure or even frightened, but nonetheless, I am moving towards Jerusalem. Is there something I want to do, feel compelled to do or places I want to experience? Is there work, inner work, I need to do? 
     Well, I better get moving, for the signposts all indicate there aren't as many miles to Jerusalem as there used to be. 

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Another Day in Paradise, posted by Nancy L. Agneberg

     Winter vacations, especially when you are from a cold climate, always seem to inspire the daily comment, "Well it's just another day in paradise" referring to the sunshine and warm breezes and a view perhaps of palm trees and ocean or cactus and desert. I think the statement also refers to the luxury of a time out from routine and work and yes, winter, too. 
     I've always been a winter person and do not usually feel a need for a break from winter. In fact, winter in Madison this year has been easy and we have not panted for release from the elements. No snowed-in days. No gazing out the window as the snow has piled. No listening for the snow plow or Jack, the high school kid next door who shovels our walkway. No days of keeping the fire going, the hot chocolate simmering, and the book pages turning. No days of waiting for Bruce to safely pull in the garage after a treacherous drive home. No mornings being amazed at what has happened overnight; how the world transformed. The stillness. The insulation or some might say, the isolation. No mornings of digging out or wondering how much more of the white stuff we'll get  before it ends. Never mind, the refrigerator is stocked and we are warm and safe. We have not had any of those days yet, and now we march steadily towards spring. 

     What we have had recently is several "another day in paradise" moments during our visit to dear friends in Florida.  Perfect days. For example, the day we spent at the beach. We set up our chairs and umbrellas, got out our water and books. We walked the beach and chatted with the sand sculptors.  "Which one do you like the best?" we were asked as they tallied votes in their informal contest. We were entertained by the gulls and shore birds, ever alert for a snack. We remembered days on the beach with our once young children while watching children prancing and dancing as the water tickled their toes. We let the sound of the waves lead us deeper into relaxation, and I thought about other perfect days in my life.
     Big moments like the births of our children and grandchildren and our anniversary trip to Paris last fall, but also the ordinary moments like mornings harvesting lavender at our farm in Ohio, Sweetwater Farm, or long leisurely soup and bread dinners shared at our table with good friends or an afternoon at my office desk writing. Or coloring with our grandson or playing Sorry with our granddaughter. Or waking up and seeing the early morning light spread across the sky.  Or...
     This past week our daughter-in-love buried her beloved grandmother, age 92, and now Mary knows paradise, too. We don't have to wait, however, for our own death or even vacations to experience paradise.  My definition of a perfect day may be broad, but, I think, by being grateful, by staying awake and aware, and by being present, we can each be more aware of all the perfect, "another day in paradise" moments in our everyday life.    

What have been some of your perfect moments and perfect days and experiences of "another day in paradise"? I invite you to share.