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Image courtesy Morgue File

This entry was first published as a Gallup Independent "Spiritual Perspectives" column on November 23. Reprinted here with permission.


My daughter had just turned eight when she decided after dark one night, for the first and only time, to run away from home. She was furious about something I no longer remember. Dressed in pink pajamas, she put on her jacket and boots, grabbed her school backpack, and headed out the door. There was a dusting of snow on the footbridge that crossed the small creek beside our cabin in the mountains, and I watched through the window as she brushed off a space, sat on the bridge, and dangled her feet over the water. My heart filled near to bursting with tenderness as I watched her grapple with whatever demon it was that sent her running from me. Now I only remember the compassion and the love, though at the time, I may have been angry, too. I'm aware of the decision to let her go so she could wrestle with her own feelings, but I never lost sight of her; I was ready to leap out the door the minute any danger appeared.


It wasn't long before she came back in. I don't recall what happened when she did—whether she was ready to be enfolded in my arms, whether we talked about what had offended her so deeply, though we must have. What I do know to be true is that it was her humanness, her vulnerability, even her deep distress, that evoked love and compassion in me.


Many of us were taught by parents, by churches, or by society that in order to be loved, we had to be practically perfect in every way—that it was our abilities, our strengths, our physical attractiveness, and our compliance with the rules that made us acceptable, made us loveable. But when I think of my experiences as a parent, a teacher, and a counselor, I know it is the humanness and the weaknesses in others that evoke my deepest caring for them. I think of it as the "Aww Factor." When I watch videos of baby animals or baby humans, when I look at them bumbling and stumbling about because there's so much they haven't learned yet, I feel immense tenderness toward them and I actually say to myself, "Aww."


I think it's like this with the Holy One, too—that it's our imperfections, our inability to get it "right," our failures, our foolishness—that arouse compassion in God. I think Diyin God is pleased when we do the right thing, when we fulfill our greater purpose in life. But it's when we stumble and fall that the Holy One comes to us, spreads wings like a mother hen and draws us in to comfort us, to help us get back on our feet. And I imagine God often saying, when we endure some self-created kerfuffle, "Aww."


In a week's time, Christians will begin to observe Advent, the waiting time that leads to the celebration of God becoming human. This idea of God dwelling with us in a body is not unique to Christianity. I think that is precisely because we humans have an innate sense of the Infinite One loving our humanness. In many traditions, the Holy Ones come to us as earthly beings—in ancient Egypt, in the Yeibichai, at Shalako.


In an interview on the podcast The Liturgist, Franciscan Father and author Richard Rohr, says, "God loves us by becoming us." This idea of the Holy One coming to us, becoming one of us, is the ultimate in tender love. It is the vital message that we do not have to be perfect or even come close to it to be loved by God, by other humans, by the animals in our lives. It is our humanness, our flaws, and our messiness that make us loveable. And it is our humanness—our brokenness and the empathy that results from our weakness, not primarily our strengths, our money, or our great skills—that we have to offer our fellow beings and our ailing Earth. Let us lavishly give to the world our untidy, beautifully flawed selves this season.

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I should've only spent a half a day in the Ozarks, but as it turned out, I was there for a day and a half, all of it on the same 239-mile stretch of road between Clarksville, AR and Oklahoma City (OKC). Three times on that stretch for a total of 717 miles that should've been just 239. The additional 478 miles brutalized me. I felt like I'd been under a meat tenderizing hammer.


Here's what happened. On the 4th morning of my trip back home from Michigan, I left my laptop on the floor in front of the hotel desk in Clarksville, AR. I walked out and drove away. I got all the way to OKC (239 miles later), stopped for lunch, and checked my voicemail in which the desk clerk told me they had my laptop. The work I had to do on the 11th and all this week required the use of my computer, so asking them to mail it wasn't an option. Lunch over, back in the RAV and back to Clarksville. Remember that old Monkees song? Well there wasn't a last train; it was all on me. I'd been having a tough day anyway, so some of the way I cried.


And between tears I enjoyed the autumn colors--a predominance of oak trees in shades ranging from bronze to chocolate, fields of strawberry blonde grasses, golden cottonwoods turning to ochre--the last of the colors before falling. And the birds--eagles, hawks, murmurations of grackels, geese in high southerly wedges. The birds lifted my heart time and again. I was grateful for them and the colors and my friend Catherine who talked to me on the Bluetooth. And of course I was grateful that the laptop was still there. I owe the desk clerk named Karen. These got me through without too many tears. But I was exhausted.


In The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult, Alice Walker asks the question whether you can step into the same river twice. Of course literally you can't. Because the water is ever moving, each time you step in, even in the same spot, it's a different river. Metaphorically she's writing about the aftermath of writing The Color Purple, winning the Pulitzer, and going through the making of the movie--the same river, but not.


Neither is it the same road thrice, becuase the cows have moved from this place to that; the wedge of geese is a different wedge; the leaves have turned yet a little darker. The sun was at my back and dusk was falling, and then it was again at my back, and dawn was coming, as it had the first time.


I was reminded of a trip to Michigan when I was nine years old, and my grandmother was sick, maybe dying. It was November then, too, and we were driving through Missouri, stopped for gas and realized the footlocker with all our Sunday clothes was no longer on the roof rack. So we drove back, and back. Snow fell in curtains , and we children looked out the windows, hoping to spot a rectangular mass out in a field somewhere. Finally we gave up and turned back toward Michigan. We stopped at Sears Roebuck in Joplin, Missouri, probably the biggest store I'd ever been in, and I got my first brand new coat that didn't come out of a mission box. It was rust red and kind of hairy looking and had red buttons with rhinestones in the center. They bought it too big, so I could grow into it.


A day late, I got home and started packing all over again and buying food for the working  retreat that began the next day. I decided I don't want to drive long, long distances anymore. Only short explores. The explores can take time, but not so much driving time. I could change my mind. I've been known.

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