Today’s Provision reprints the sermon that I am preaching today at the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalist congregation in Williamsburg, Virginia. The message is simple and true: although horrific, my experience has brought me closer to the spirit of life itself. By stepping back, opening my heart, and holding onto hope, I have grown spiritually and have been able to exercise a positive influence on many people. I hope this Provision represents exerts such an influence on you.
I’m curious as to how many of you were present the last time I preached here, on May 27th of last year? That was Memorial Day weekend and the title as well as the theme of my sermon was “Passing On, Passing Away”. I was reflecting on the threshold of death, appropriately enough for Memorial Day weekend, yet I was reflecting quite personally since I had been brought close to that threshold in February after maintaining the vigil of waiting, along with the rest of my family, as my then 87-year-old mother lived out her final days in the hospital. She died on Valentine’s Day – the same day that her beloved sister, Norma, was born and then also died, a short 21 years later.
Now I stand before you again, preaching my way through another set of reflections on that very same threshold. Only this time I have been the one standing, indeed, teetering on the brink of life and death. If anyone had told me when I was standing before you last May that only 3 months later I would be the one teetering on that brink, I would have scratched my head in bewilderment and disbelief. After all, I was on top of the world:
I ran a successful business that had me traveling the world, along with Megan, giving talks and facilitating workshops. I was a strong and fit marathon runner, who enjoyed the challenge of long-distance running. I was a health nut who had coached many people through the challenging process of moving from being overweight or obese to reaching their optimal weight. I sent out a weekly email newsletter to almost 15,000 people around the world. I was even the resident handy-man at home, a jack of all trades with a collection of tools to match. “Game on” would have been the way I would have described my life.
Then, like a house of cards, it all came crashing down. Within a matter of weeks of that sermon, I was literally walking through “the valley of the shadow of death” – a metaphor that you may recognize as coming from one of the most famous of all Hebrew psalms, Psalm 23. You may not remember that I included Psalm 23 in that Memorial Day worship service. In my case, I went so deep into that valley – I was teetering so close to the edge – that I had to be flown in a helicopter from Riverside, where my hospital care had begun, to the UVA Hospital in Charlottesville, where a different course of treatment could be administered.
There were many days during that period of time when it was not clear whether or not I would survive; there have been many more days, up to and including the present moment, when it has not been clear as to how much of my memory functions I would recover and how fully capable I would become with regard to handling the daily tasks of life. When waking me up from the coma, they made it quite clear to my family – based on the MRI scans of my brain showing various areas of inflammation– that I would likely have significant problems with memory and that I would also be quite emotional. But they couldn’t keep me in a coma forever, so they brought me gradually out of the ether. And here I stand today.
If you believe in miracles, you’re looking at one. Medical science alone cannot explain or take credit for my recovery. That said, credit can also not be assigned solely to the inexplicable zigzags of life, the prayers of my family, the determination of my spirit, or the mysterious ways of God. It took all five – medicine, serendipities, prayers, determination, and God – to pull me through. They have all been working hand in hand and I have appreciated how much doctors and others in the medical community seem to recognize the importance of that convergences.
Those who work in the medical profession have seen so many highs and lows, so many miracles and tragedies, that they have seemingly come to accept their role as facilitators of a process that is, to some extent, outside of their control. We do the best we can with what we have, then we step back, open our hearts, and hope for the best.
That might well be as good a description as I can come up with for prayer: stepping back, opening our hearts, and hoping for the best. I invite you to reflect on each of these with me in turn:
Stepping Back. Isn’t that what David Whyte was wrestling with in the beautiful poem that I read from the UVA hospital and that I have more or less committed to memory, over the course of many years? There is a small opening into the new day, David muses, which closes the moment we begin our plans. Which closes the moment we get busy. Which closes the moment we forget to live wholeheartedly or fail live with the vitality hidden in our sleep.
There’s no way to pray deeply without stepping back from the busy-busy hubbub of life. In the midst of the storm, juggling, as we do, so many different pressures, plans, and priorities, we can end up living halfheartedly. We can end up living as a troubled guest on this earth. We can end up thinking of ourselves as just another accident amidst all the other accidents across the grand sweep of time. But that’s just not true.
There is, I believe, a unique reason that each and every one of us was called into being. And it is our task, during our time on this earth, to find that reason – a reason that is best found in the sound of silence. That’s because, like a seed, the reason for our being can lie dormant for many moons. During that time of dormancy, it can appear dead, as I did in the hospital. You don’t get much deader than I got without being dead. I had no reflexes in my entire body other than having the pupil of one but not both of my eyes responding to a bright light. I did not react to painful or noxious stimuli. It was seemingly hopeless.
When the doctors conferenced with my family to prepare them for what might not be a happy ending, my daughter, who is a brilliant medical doctor, said, “No way! Don’t you give up on my Dad. He’s still in there!” And she was right. I wasn’t gone; I was just stepping back. Granted, I took a really big step back…a very long step back. I took such a gigantic step back that I even stopped getting email (other than spam)! But I wasn’t dead. I just went on a retreat; I just took a very long sabbatical. I cleared my calendar in order to find that mountain presence of everything that can be. And what I found can only be found with the heart.
Opening our Hearts. It’s interesting, don’t you think, that we attribute a form of intelligence to the heart? I mean, on the one hand, the heart can be viewed mechanically. It’s a pump the function of which is to circulate blood throughout the body. The brain processes information; the heart pumps blood. That’s a pretty clear division of labor. The brain even controls the heart, or so we think.
But if so, then, why, when we feel things deeply, do we feel them right here – with our heart? And why, then, when athletes and others want to rouse their spirits, do they sometimes beat their chests right here – above their heart? And why, then, when people experience deep losses, do we speak of something breaking right here – in our heart?
It’s because our intelligence is not confined to our brains. New research is confirming the old wisdom that intelligence is a whole-body experience and that our hearts have an important role to play when it comes to deep ways of knowing. Closed hearts stop processing the very information that they are designed to process and are limited greatly as to the range of their capacities. Open hearts, on the other hand, literally know no bounds.
To get a sense of how this works, I’d like us to sing hymn number 336 in the UUA hymnal, “All My Memories of Love”. Although the lyrics don’t mention the heart until the third verse, I’d invite you to sing this song with recognition that, in many respects, the whole song is about hanging our graceful hearts upon the tree of love.
Memories may hang upon the stars, the song proclaims, and willows may touch the waters clear, but it is the heart that makes things graceful and free. And it’s not just any heart that does that, but your heart and my heart and every heart that is open and free. So please turn to hymn number 336, and let’s stay seated so that we can take in the words and sing from the heart as our pianist works her way through a song in D major, with five flats. May God help us all! ☺
SING HYMN #336 IN “SINGING the LIVING TRADITION”
So, with a little reflection and a little help from that song, we’ve stepped back from the pressures of life and we’ve opened up our hearts in this thing called prayer, but that’s not enough to get us through to the journey’s end. For that miracle to happen, for us to be truly and fully seized by life, we also have to infuse life with hope. Life without hope is a life without dreams and a life without dreams is no life at all. I know. I’ve been there and done that. And it’s better the other way around.
Hoping for the Best. The last lines of this hymn really bring this home. “Many are the graceful hearts hung upon the branches of the Willow trees in September, which touch the waters clear. And it seems that there’s room for my heart on those branches free and that the sky above the tree, whether wet or bright, is my ease and comforting, my good news and light.”
What a powerful promise to hold onto and what a powerful message to sing together: there’s a place for each and every one of us on the branches of that proverbial tree and, once we find our place there and once we look at the beautiful sky above, we will indeed experience ease and comforting, good news and light.
That’s what my family and I have been yearning and hoping for throughout my healing process and that’s even been what we’ve been experiencing – sometimes more often and sometimes less often – as time has gone on: ease and comforting, good news and light. We all want those things, of course, but there’s no way to make them come to us on the demand. We can, however, invite them to make an appearance.
And that’s what happens when we are seized by life. We go looking for those things with not only a spirit of openness but also with the confidence that our search is not being embarked upon in vain. We go looking, in other words, with the thought that something wonderful can and will happen. We go looking in hope.
When I first went into the hospital I was in and out of consciousness, no one really knew what was going on, and everyone was very scared. Even though I don’t remember this, I can vouch for the fact that my family and friends rallied, came together, and pulled me through. Without them, and without all of you, I would not be here today.
On day 4 of that ordeal, here’s what Megan wrote in the diary she kept for me,
On Sunday morning, after starting the day with a seizure, Bob was sad, silent, perplexed, and scared. As the day progressed, with no more seizures, Bob got to talking and remembering a little bit more. When Bryn called from the airport in the afternoon to tell him that she was on the way, Bob told her “We’ve got to stay hopeful.”
That turned out to be one of the last coherent things that Bob said, but we have clung to that affirmation throughout these scary, anxious times. By evening, and throughout the night, Bob had more seizures and with each one we lost a little more of him. No one knows where this will go, but we’ve got to stay hopeful.
Indeed, hope and prayer go hand in hand. They may even be one and the same. Hoping for the best is itself a form of prayer. And praying for the best is itself a form of hope. There’s no way to have one without the other; the two always go hand in hand.
Stepping back, opening our hearts, and hoping for the best: those three abide. But the greatest is hope. And the hinge of hope is love. Without the love of my family and friends, especially my immediate family and my closest friends, I would have no hope and I would be dead. That’s both a humbling and a joyous recognition for which I cannot express enough gratitude and I can only hope to live into the full measure of its calling. Thanks be to God.
Coaching Inquiries: What enables you to stay hopeful? What reminds you to step back, open your heart, give thanks, and sing? Who can you count on even – and, perhaps, especially – when the times get tough? How can you deepen and cultivate more of those relationships so that you can be carried through turbulent and stormy times? What is one step you could take in that direction today?
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Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.
I enjoy following Bob’s weekly “column”. Actually, it’s pretty amazing stuff.
Your spirit, the light in you, flows directly into accepting hearts. Your voice, not only the one I hear but the one I read, is a conduit.
I, for one, am grateful that you are carrying on and writing these provisions – your ‘movement of grains on the hillside’ are an enjoyable & inspirational piece of my Sunday morning. Thank you! Many blessings to you as you continue to carry on with life in such an optimistic, hopeful & inspirational way.
Your last Provision was perfectly amazing!
I have never met you personally, but feel that I know you (like many others, I’m sure) through your writing. Thanks for the messages of hope each week. I had a life-threatening illness and underwent a time of chemotherapy and some medication-related depression and loss of energy for almost a year. Nothing like what you’re going through, but your sharing your own journey makes a difference to a lot of us.
You have certainly been in my prayers, and all of us at First Church here in Columbus were praying for you. I’m inspired and awe-struck by your recovery, and by your gracious, joyous spirit in the face of such a catastrophe.
My grandson, Gabriel, is two-years-old and he soaks up words and phrases from everywhere like a sponge. In the last two weeks, Gabe’s newest exclamation is: “That’s amazing!” Show him a pumpkin partly hidden in the plant’s green foliage and his response is, “That’s amazing!” Give him a toy that pops out a foam ball when a button is pushed. “That’s amazing!”
Of course, what makes the phrase memorable is when Gabe delivers it in that excited little two-year-old voice with a giggle and a slight smile. He knows he’s cute.
Your latest Provision reminds us how “amazing” life is. As grandfathers, you and I have a new perspective on little children. Indeed, they are amazing.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, joy, and health.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
Address: 121 Will Scarlet Lane, Williamsburg, VA 23185-5043
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