Thursday, December 10, 2015

With the advent of a new year I am reminded of how fleeting our time on earth is. Instead of treasuring each day we worry about tomorrow, stew over the past, fill our moments with compulsive activity. It's hard to admit just how vulnerable we human beings are. Life is fragile and fleeting. How tragic that in our busyness we miss those special moments that could feed our souls and expand our hearts. 

In 1989 I went into the hospital for fairly routine surgery; read and signed the papers that stated all the possible things that could go wrong, and quipped to my daughter, “No problem, Piece of cake.” Three major surgeries within 6 weeks and one code blue later, I emerged weaker but wiser.....and vastly more appreciative of the preciousness of life.

I no longer assume a tomorrow. Each day is a gift. Rain or shine, cheerful or sad, difficult or easy, each day is a bonus. Knowing that I or one of my loved ones may have no tomorrow is one of the greatest gifts I gained from my hospital experience. Instead of making me fearful, my awareness of life's impermanence helps me appreciate and shape the time I have. It impels me to be grateful in and for all things. The very fragility with which I hold on to life motivates me to cherish each single moment, each sunrise, each bird song, each encounter with strangers or friends. I simply don't have time to be grumpy, ungrateful, or afraid.

I no longer feel compelled to save the world. I've released my need to be someone, to make a difference. I have my hands full, in the best sense of that metaphor, living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, responding to the inevitable hardships that guide me on my pathway toward inner contentment and peace. Peace comes, not from the absence of conflict, challenge, or pain, but by accepting and loving our difficult lives. Since there is little I can control or change I try to respond to life with as much courage and grace as I can muster.

Perception is reality and our language shapes how we perceive reality. That's one reason I find one particular translation of the Lord's Prayer from the Aramaic so enlightening and helpful. The startlingly different wording has opened me to faith, life and love in new and profound ways. Thus it is my gift to you as we move into the new year.

“O Birther; Father Mother of the Cosmos. Focus your light within us. Make it useful. Create your reign of unity now—your one desire then acts with ours. As in all light, so in all forms. Grant what we need each day in bread and insight. Loose the cords of mistakes binding us as we release the strands we hold of other's guilt. Don't let surface things delude us, but free us from what holds us back. From you is born all ruling will, the power and the life to do, the song that beautifies all, from age to age it renews. Truly, power to these statements. May they be the ground from which all my actions grow, Amen “

Joyce Shutt is pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church.


I have a touch of the Grinch in me this year. I'm so done with decorating, gift giving, cookie baking, partying. I resent the commercialization designed to make me feel guilty for not spending hundreds of dollars on junk neither I nor mine need. This Christmas I plan to focus on family, friends, neighbors by practicing gratitude and civility. I am looking beyond the hoopla to the underlying meanings and implications of the Christmas narratives. As with all good stories, there are layers of meaning, each offering hope and healing for our tortured times. 

No matter what our religious or ethnic backgrounds, it's easy to see how the time honored birth narratives were written in and for times such as these. A time of fear and mistrust, of economic upheaval. A time of war, terrorism, military occupations, suspicion and political unrest. Into the story come foreigners, cruel dysfunctional governments, soldiers, refugees, massacres, taxation, religious tensions. Their very relevance is exactly what makes these Christmas narratives so powerful. Above all, they are about inclusion, not exclusion. About letting go of fear, Of loving and being loved. Not hatred or revenge. I find it instructive the angels visit, not those in power, but the least, the oursiders, women, shepherds, foreigners. Those with little or no status or legal protection. And the message they all receive? “Fear not. Your hope lies in one greater than you.” What a profound message for us today.

Christmas, this year, comes in the wake of Paris, Mali, and other “terrorist” attacks, stirring up our xenophobic fears and rancid debates on immigration, fueling the race to see which political candidate can be more outrageous. While I understand some of the angst created by this latest wave of “terrorist” attacks, I'm confused as to why they are scarier than those we're regularly experiencing from our own homegrown terrorists: Oklahoma City, Newtown, Columbine, Aurora, Charlestown, Colorado Springs. We have a much greater chance of being shot by some local person with a grudge and a gun than by a Muslim extremist. But whether the source of our fear is local or distant, the Christmas message remains. Fear not. Good news! One has come to show us the way to create peace on earth. A peace that starts within us and flows out from our acts of kindness, forgiveness, and generosity like ripples in a pond. Peace experienced by embracing God's will and way for our lives, no matter how difficult. Yes, these are troubled times, but they are also times of immense opportunity. 

In these darkest days and nights of the year may we turn our hearts toward the promise of God's love and light. May we find the courage to break the chains binding us to fear, distrust, unforgiveness, and failure. May we embrace the promise that we guarantees our freedom and grace by providing freedom and grace to others. May we find in the lights, fragrances, and melodies of Christmas a transcending harmony enabling us to hear the angels' song beautifying all and the star leading us to the manger where we see the in face of God justice, forgiveness, and mercy.

“Fear not.”

Joyce Shutt is pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church.

Birthday musings

I recently celebrated my birthday. Perhaps getting closer to 80 is a factor, but I get really irritated with the way we “oldsters” buy into our national obsession with youthfulness by feeling we have to dye our hair, get tummy tucks, Botox injections, spend a fortune on wrinkle creams just to look younger. What's wrong with wrinkles, white hair, sagging bottoms and chicken wings, all proud badges of years of living? After all, wisdom, insight and a broader perspective comes with time and experience. The power, prestige and possession I thought important 40 years ago seems insignificant now. It's people and relationships that now bring joy. Give me kindness, gentleness, a willingness to listen and forgive any day!

Years ago I met this woman at a writer's conference years who transformed my attitude toward aging. She was bent over from osteoporosis, frail as tissue paper. When asked to share something with the group, she leaned on her cane, twisting her head until she could meet our eyes. “I'm 96 years old.” she said in a cracked voice. “I've outlived three husbands and had four careers. I've been a medical doctor, a psychologist, a psychiatrist. I recently retired as a theology professor. I'm here today because having 2 sons and 8 grandchildren, I've decided to write childrens books. So you see, my pet peeve is someone telling me 'you don't look that old.' I've packed a lot of pain, pleasure, study, knowledge, people, and experience in my 96 years and I don't want one minute of that sold short!” You know, there are those who keep growing and those who simply age. She was definitely growing! But whether we keep growing or just age is a deliberate choice.

After serious birthday inspired introspection I'm recognizing some areas where I've been aging not growing. That needs to change! Looking at this whole process of growing, maturing, aging...however we want to describe the passing years and life lessons ticking by ever more quickly, is demanding. And the physical, emotional, spiritual, relational, creative challenges life brings can be mind boggling! As the old cliché says, “getting old is not for sissies.”

I'm grateful that I still enjoy good health. Part of that flows from good genes, good luck, and important life style choices I've made. The food, exercise, life style, emotional and spiritual choices I've made over the years definitely contribute to my continuing vitality. My Dad taught me to value differences in others and ideas, to embrace change, to practice tolerance, to seek knowledge, to accept people as they are not as I would have them. He taught me to value the deeply held beliefs that shape my life but to never stop questioning and reshaping them as new information, situations and times change. Yes, I am getting older but that does not stop me from relishing challenges and trying on new ways of seeing, being, and doing. No matter how young or old we are, life is a delicate dance, a baffling balancing act, a time to keep growing instead of just aging in place.

Joyce Shutt is pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church.

Thanksgiving is thanksliving

I am a fan of TED Talks on NPR. One recent program on happiness ended with 'happiness does not make us grateful, gratitude makes us happy.”

You know me; I'm big on gratitude. I have learned that anytime I'm having a bad day it's better if I intentionally practice gratitude. Once I let go of my“poor me mindset” I am freed to find healthier responses to whatever is going om. Like not having water at the kitchen sink for three weeks! Thinking of the Syrian refugees or poor women carrying water for miles quickly put my situation into perspective. It's our selfish catastrophic thinking that turns difficulty and pain into disabling unhappiness and fear of the future. While gratitude can't change what's happened it can infuse glimmers of light into the current darkness.

I find this gratitude stuff interesting because I am a natural skeptic. My tendency is to question and doubt. That's why I've taught myself to look for positives, to count my blessings. I'm deliberately rejecting the cup half empty approach to life.    Like Porgy, in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, I remind myself that “I have plenty of nothing and nothing is plenty for me.” Even on the worst days of my life, as when my Dad died in an auto accident or one of our kids ran away, I was reminded by the kindness of friends that there's always more positives than negatives in my life.

We all spend too much energy lusting for things we don't have rather than being grateful for what we do have. Our economy is based on conspicuous consumption so we've allowed ourselves to be brainwashed into believing stuff makes for meaning and happiness, but there's a vast difference between needs and wants. In the end we have so much we don't need that we can't appreciate what we do have.

I am grateful that I grew up believing people are more important than things, that it is in doing for others I find meaning and purpose in life. I've learned that what is good for others is always what's ultimately best for me. A recent study of returning vets with PTSD finds their biggest problem is not flashbacks, but their loss of meaning and purpose. After putting their lives on the line day after day, protecting and supporting their buddies, coming back to our self-centered consumer driven lifestyle leaves them feeling empty and directionless. One psychologist suggested that every returning vet should be automatically placed in the Peace Corps or Ameri-Corps for a year's transition.

Contentment and meaning comes by sharing ourselves with others, by appreciating the givens of life. After all, the sun comes up and sets every day; we have clean air and water; more than enough food to go around. Birds sing, flowers bloom, trees blaze with color, regardless of what we do. We may complain about taxes, entitlements (for everyone but ourselves), a broken infra structure and educational system, but in reality things still work pretty well. If we practiced gratitude we'd stop taking so much for granted and appreciate what others do for us. There are parts of the world where people are suffering. So this Thanksgiving let's remember, its not happiness that creates gratitude but gratitude that creates happiness.

Joyce Shutt is pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church