What kind of virgin are you?

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.    Five of them were foolish and five were wise.

 -Matthew 25:1-2

I don’t know about you, but this parable has always been a little unnerving to me.  This morning, I was compelled to do some research to see what kind of deeper message I might be missing here, besides the obvious, which I read as: the kingdom of heaven is open to everyone…until it isn’t.  While I know this, I’m always driven to see how this might be a message of God’s love for His people.   Because, on it’s surface I’ll admit this doesn’t exactly mesh with the image I have of a loving God!

So, here’s a little backstory I found:  first of all, as Biblical scholar Scott Hahn states in his commentary, “this story line centers on a Jewish marital custom: following the period of betrothal, the groom would lead a procession to bring his new wife to their home, and they would celebrate a week-long banquet with family and friends.”  Ok, so that explains why the virgins (also called bridesmaids or maidens in some translations) need lamps while waiting for the bridegroom:  because while you are expecting his arrival any time, you don’t know exactly when he will come (it  may be dark).  There is a rather obvious parallel here then to our lives as Christians awaiting the second coming of Jesus.  Like all ten virgins in the story, we need to be ready for the arrival of our Eternal Bridegroom Jesus.  For we know not the day nor the hour of that arrival (Mark 13:32).

But what is the significance of the lamp and the oil in my life today?  And here too, my bible footnotes* were a help.  It states that both Origen and St. Hilary tell of a moral parallel for us here:  that the lamp is our Christian faith and the oil represents our good works. This makes much more sense (and sounds much less harsh in this context) when later the ten “foolish” virgins say to the wise ones, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out,” and the wise virgins reply, “Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.” (Matthew 25:8-9)

Ahhh.  Now I see.  Some things–like a personal lived experience with Jesus– just cannot be given to us through others.  Why?  Because Jesus invites each of us individually. Unless we respond to the invitation and open our hearts, the gift may simply go unopened. Not because we aren’t loved, but because we need to welcome that experience for ourselves. This is the risk of free will.

The work we Christians are called to do is done out of charity that is inspired by our personal relationship with Jesus.  If I don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus, you cannot make that happen for me.  If you do not have a personal relationship with Jesus, I cannot make that happen for you.  If your aunt was a nun or your daddy a preacher, this does not mean you will automatically have a personal relationship with Jesus.  Sure we can share our stories, and we can encourage one another in our faith, but when it comes time to “meet our Maker”, the only experience of God that counts is our own.

These thoughts reminded me of another saying I’ve heard recently, “God has no grandchildren.”  What this says to me is that every child of God–all us adopted sons and daughters through the light of our baptism in Jesus–are first-generation children of God! While that may seem somewhat obvious at first, when I ponder that my relationship with God is every bit as personal and real (or has the potential to be if I “do the work” that is required in relationships) as if I were one his chosen people of the Old Testament like Moses or Elijah , or the New Testament like Peter and Paul, my mind just kind of buckles in awe. Can you believe that’s what we are invited to… you and I!?

But what we do with that invitation is ours for the chosing.  We can either stoke the fire that lights our faith with prayer (talking to God) and meditation (listening to God through more prayer and Scripture), or we can hold our faith-lamp close (or throw it away)  and criticize and blame others for its brokenness and lack of light.

Faith is a trust and confidence in something (or Someone) you cannot see.  It is God’s gift to us, but we must open our hearts to receive it.

What we do with that faith–the charitable works of giving to others (and the daily work, too, like prayer and meditation)–are our gifts to God.

According to my bible dictionary**, a virgin, in biblical terms,  is a female “whom no man had known” in a sexual or deeply intimate way, but it can be used as a figure of speech or image referring to nations or peoples as well.  In the Old Testament virginity was not esteemed for its own sake, but in New Testament times it became a desired state in life as a path to spiritual fulfillment modeled by many  (think John the Baptist, Mary, Jesus, Paul).

This parable reminds me, among other things, that a healthy personal relationship with Jesus requires both faith and works.  And that a personal, intimate relationship with our Triune God–Father, Son and Spirit– is the relationship I, we, must desire above all else. Settling for anything less is foolish.

I pray we all choose wisely.

 

*Ignatious Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Second Catholic Edition, RSV
**Catholic Bible Dictionary, Scott Hahn, ed.
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New Year: New Song

“Sing a new song to the Lord, for he has done marvelous deeds.” – Psalms 98: 1

Over Christmas, as our family sat waiting for Mass to begin, the choir was singing a different version to a song I’ve always loved.  Hearing it with new words and a slightly varied melody made this old favorite a ‘new song’ of sorts, for me.

As the soloists took turns with each verse, I found myself hanging on each word anew to hear the story they were singing unfold (though the story itself–the nativity story–was also an old familiar one).

Then, this week, as I read the readings from the lectionary, I kept seeing this Psalm repeated throughout the week’s readings.  And I kept thinking of that old familiar song our church choir sang anew, and I couldn’t help but make a connection between it being a new year, and the desire to want to start so many things in a new way as we humans do.  Perhaps one of the most important things we can make new, though, is our prayers.

It is no secret that our prayers are not meant to change God, but rather to change us…change our hearts, change our thoughts, change our focus to something better, higher, more holy than we might first imagine.  So, what better way to start that change, than by approaching our prayer life…our “song” to God, if you will…in a new way?

Here are a few simple ideas:

  • Start praying.  If you haven’t made prayer (conversation with God) a regular part of your daily life, then make this the year you start.  Pick something you naturally do each day that will trigger you to remember your prayer time.  I have a friend who always said her prayers in the shower because it was the one thing she knew she would do consistently every day!
  • Go the opposite.  If you already have a prayer life established, we can still get into ruts from time to time.  Has your prayer life become a list of complaints to God?  Try telling him instead what you are grateful for!   Has your prayer life become a long litany of you asking God for things you’d like to see him do?  Try asking God what he would like you to do…and take some quiet time to wait for the stirring in your heart that just may be his reply.
  • Go simple.  If conversation with God seems unnatural to you, try starting with what’s familiar to you.  Perhaps you are  familiar with the Lord’s Prayer or the Hail Mary but you don’t really know what they mean or how they came to be.  Use this opportunity to do some research and find the true beauty and depth of humility in these simple words.  Or, if formal prayer doesn’t seem natural to you, but you don’t think you can come up with your own words, you can google prayers for  all kinds of things! (The internet isn’t all bad, you know.)  There is no shame in using someone else’s words for a while until you can find your own.
  • Keep at it.  It is easy to think that once we’ve tried something a few times, “we’ve got this” but only the slightest of interruptions to our schedule, can find us going hours, days, or weeks without prayer, and we simply forget to begin again or build it back into our daily life.  Even more common is to simply grow bored with prayer, because it is easy to fall into the trap of believing our prayers are going unheard or unanswered (because we are used to immediate results) so when we don’t get results, we give up.  Prayer is not something (in many cases) that will change us over night. Instead, like a newly planted seed, it is something that takes patience and persistence and faith before we’ll see the “fruits” of our labor.
  • Accept imperfection.  It’s easy to think that when we are doing new, we want to  “get it right.”  God is so much bigger than you or I that he can do very much with our very little!  This means that when words flow beautifully from you and you can pour your heart out to God, God understands and hears you!  But, also, when no words come, only tears and pain in your heart… God also understands and hears you!  God doesn’t need us to be perfect in our prayer. God only needs us to make ourselves available to him.

In a way, we are all beginners when it comes to prayer.  Whether we have “prayed without ceasing”  (1 Thess 5:17) as Paul urged the people of Thessalonica to do long ago, or whether today is our first day in years (or ever!) of saying a  prayer, let us remember that our goal is simply to make some time to offer ourselves to God.

He is sure to notice.

And in doing so, may we discover (whether for the first time, or again and again), that prayer really does change us.  Sometimes in shocking, mind-blowing, dramatic ways. And sometimes in small, but welcoming ways…like an old song, heard new.

Seeing God’s Smile in the New Year

“May the Lord bless you and protect you.  May the Lord smile on you and be gracious to you.  May the Lord show you his favor and give you his peace.”

Numbers 6:24-26 (NLT)

I still remember the first time my first-born child smiled at me.  I had worked sooooo hard for that smile.  Trying to coo and coax it out of him.  Worrying that perhaps he was missing that all-important milestone all the parenting books insisted he was fully capable of reaching by now.

And then, one day as I sat there with him on my lap gazing up at me, and me exhausting myself by making faces working so hard to get a smile out of him,  I remember I took a break and glanced up to catch whatever was on TV at the time.  When I glanced back down ready to get back to this business of making-my-son-smile, there he was gazing up at me and, just like that, a big smile broke out on his face.

What a beautiful moment, right?  Mother and infant child gazing with total love into each other’s eyes?  Well, unfortunately my reaction was much different, and doesn’t exactly get me Mother of the Year.

I screamed.

Not like, “Yay for you!  What a good boy!”  But instead– I guess because it was so unexpected– I scooped him up and held him away from me suddenly (like I would have if he had just filled his pants)… and I screamed.  (In my defense, it wasn’t a long horror-movie scream.  Just a quick, “Agh!”)  Not surprisingly, my holding him away from me and the loud noise I made were enough to completely ruin the moment.

He started crying.

Yep. Good feeling gone.

I was reminded of that moment with my son as I read today’s readings and wondered how I would feel if I were able to see God and make him smile.

At first, the thought of this inspired me.  I enjoy laughing and being with people who make me laugh and smile. I often consider it a great gift and one I like to pass on to others when I can.  But God?  To make God smile?  How much greater would that be?

And then I remembered how all that hard work I put into trying to make my son smile caught me completely off guard when he offered his first smile up to me without any work at all.  And how the shock of that made me react less like the loving mother I long to be and more like one of the Three Stooges.

And yet the lesson is still there, isn’t it?  That we don’t need to work so hard at it.  We only need to bask in it.  Turn our faces towards it.  Return the smile.

Because God does smile upon us, and he is smiling upon us, and always has.  As he created us into being.  As he brought us his only Son.  As he sacrificed himself on the cross.  As he rose from the dead.  As his poured out his Spirit that lives and moves within us today.  And though the thought of that may be a little intimidating (go ahead and scream about it…I won’t judge you!), the truth is that as hard as we try to make him smile, we will miss it unless we take the time to bask in the light of it.  To hold it up before us and give it back in turn.  To carry it in our hearts and wear it on our faces as we go about our day.

My son is now a teenager and some days I find myself working just as hard as I did those first few weeks and months of his life trying to get a smile out of him.  But then, often when I least expect it, there it is…his big, toothy grin.  And the thought of it even now makes me smile.  No less a gift today than it was sixteen years ago.

Also a gift is the ability to sit –even for only a moment– in prayer and think of God’s smile.  Him as creator.  You and me as his creation.  Being smiled upon.  Returning the smile.

As we start a new year, perhaps hopeful (or perhaps not), of what this new year holds, let us take a moment today to remember that regardless of whether or not we feel it, God IS smiling on us.  He is smiling at you.  He loved YOU into being. His love is radiating in and through us–you and me.  His peace, which my Bible footnotes (NAB translation) tell me are from the Hebrew word Shalom meaning an all-encompassing hope of happiness, good health, prosperity, friendship, and general well-being, is a free gift he offers us, if only we are willing to turn to him.

You need not work so hard for it like a first-time mom might.

Simply trust in it.  Soak it up.

And let the Spirit of it guide you.

Faith Like Abraham

The Lord God took Abram outside and said,
“Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can.
Just so,” he added, “shall your descendants be.”
Abram put his faith in the LORD,
who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.

-Genesis 15:5-6

The first time I heard that Abraham was most likely–  based on the later lines in Scripture– brought outside to count the stars during the day, it was a total game-changer.  (See Genesis 15:12 “As the sun was about to set…”)

How many of us go to bed worrying if the sun will rise tomorrow?  How many of us worry that the sun will never set?  How many of us spend our time thinking the stars will burn out and we will never have those pin-pricks of light in our distance?

Most of us–even chronic worriers–don’t waste time worrying about these things.  Why?  Because we know we don’t have to!

Thousands of years ago, even Abraham knew that the stars were still there in the daytime, though he couldn’t see them.  And Scripture tells us it was then that he “put his faith in the LORD.”

During this season of Lent, as we make sacrifices in an effort to change for the better, let us approach every act of sacrifice we make with faith like Abraham. Let us remember in our hearts that God–in His infinite love and mercy– is right here with us, keeping all the promises He’s kept with mankind throughout the ages.  And let us rejoice together knowing that, in doing so, just like Abraham, our gracious God will count even these smallest of things we do, as acts of righteousness for us.

And if ever we doubt it, we need only remind ourselves by stepping outside in the afternoon and smiling at the heavens as we attempt to count the stars…if we are able.

You Are Not Alone

“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit…

was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness,

tempted by the devil.”

-Luke 4:1-2

 

Each of the three synoptic Gospel writers who mention the temptation of Jesus in the desert (Matthew, Mark and Luke) anchor the temptation solidly between two other events:  Baptism and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

What might they be trying to tell us about Jesus—and ourselves–by this sequence?

First, perhaps to remind us that we are not alone in what we experience in life…good or ill. The Holy Spirit, poured out to us at our Baptism– the very same Spirit who told Jesus he was God’s “beloved Son” –is with us in times of joy as well as in times of suffering.  Through this single event of Baptism, we, too, become “beloved” sons and daughters of God.

Second, times of trial and temptation are a necessary part of our life experience. The old adage here of “If God leads you to it, He’ll lead you through it” comes to mind.  Not everywhere the Spirit leads us will be a pleasant one; but even the unpleasant experiences will be worth it, if we endure.

Third, that we are all called to a life of ministry, by using our suffering to help others. How much would we be willing to listen to someone who has never suffered in life?  How much do we think they would be able to relate to us, if they have never suffered?  Not much at all, of course!  Why?  Because it is primarily through someone else having “been there, done that” and showing empathy and compassion for our own suffering that usually resonates the loudest with us.  This type of “ministry” is at the very heart of Alcoholics Anonymous and other recovery programs.  Only those who have suffered the effects of drugs and alcohol addiction, and then learned to overcome that addiction have earned the right to be heard by those who are suffering.  It is someone else’s stories of triumph over the type of suffering we also experience, that  softens us enough for our “ears to hear and eyes to see” (Matt  13).

Each of us, no matter what lot in life we’ve been dealt, knows suffering and knows joy. Let us use this season of Lent to live out the faith of that cycle—suffering, joy; suffering, joy; suffering, joy—so that we may help others do the same.  Most of us are not going to live a life experience of preaching to crowds of people, true.  But each of us knows someone who may, right now, have it just a little worse than we do.  Let’s let our life be a beacon of hope to that person, and let our experience of suffering be the doorway to compassion we need in order to help them through.  That may be the closest to “ministry” most of us will ever get; but, it may also be just what we need to deliver us to eternal joy.

 

Reflect: What are the times in my life when I have suffered the most?  What/who was it that helped me through?  What was it that was so hard for me to change and/or accept that time of suffering?  How might I be able to use that experience to help others?

Pray: Lord of our sorrow, help us to know that we are not alone in our suffering. Help us to remember that you sent your Son to suffer just as we do, as an act of love for us. Help us to remember that while he suffered greatly, he was never alone;  your Spirit was with Him, as it is with us now.  Come, Holy Spirit of Love and Joy!  Lead my life towards others who may benefit from my suffering, and guide my heart to comfort them in the way they need most.  Amen

The Killdeer

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.

-Matthew 4:1

This is the opening line to Matthew’s story of Jesus’ time in the desert.  It is a perplexing one, and one that at first glance can bring fear and a sense of foreboding. After all, deserts are known for their unforgiving, barren surroundings.  It is clear that Jesus would not have much to help him if he was going into the desert.  Survival is not a given.  Yet it is there, in a weakened state from fasting, that he is tempted by the devil.  And the most perplexing part is that the Spirit led him to this!

The message then, is a strong one:  go to the place where you are vulnerable, hold onto that place and endure it for a while, and you will find something new.

I see the truth of this in nature each spring.  We have many killdeer in our part of the country.  And they are chatty and somewhat pestering birds when you get near their nests.  You will often stumble upon their nests unknowingly because unlike most birds who build nests in trees or high places, killdeer put their eggs right on the ground and use camouflage as their main source of protection.    They sit on their eggs like most birds, but when you get too close, they do an interesting thing…they feign injury.  They run off their nests and, as my dad says, “flop around and give you the broken-wing treatment.”  Which is exactly what they do.  They flop around on the ground, squawking and carrying on so that you think they are injured.  For animals who act on instinct (like my dog) this is a wonderful distraction as it drives their potential threat away from the nest towards the bird itself (who is not really injured at all), as a means of protecting their young.  It also works for distracting humans as they make quite a scene!

I’m on to their act now, though, so I know not to be distracted by their carrying on, and I go poking about in the rocks and stones looking for their nest, careful of my steps as I could easily crush the eggs if I weren’t careful.  Twice now, I’ve found some eggs hidden right among the rocks.  And there, for me, the message is the same:  new life is waiting to burst forth in the unlikeliest of places, vulnerable and exposed, lying against the harsh backdrop of raw, barren earth.

There is a measure of Jesus’s trust in the Spirit, that I see mirrored in the trust of the killdeer.

To me, the message of Jesus’ experience in the desert and the message of the killdeer are one and the same:  don’t be afraid to start a new life by making yourself vulnerable.  In many ways, this is what the Lenten season is about, really.  Giving up something we’ve been holding onto in place of God.  Letting go of old habits that have gotten a little too comfortable, a little too routine.  We are to shake things up a bit.  Only by doing this, can we see ourselves in a new light and observe how we react and protect ourselves (our egos) from the absolute truth of God.  Only here can we see how easily we let the devil—that is, the great distractor– take our eyes off the new life that God wants to create in us.

There was an encouraging email that went around a few years ago that said, “The will of God will never lead you where His grace will not protect you.”  As we witness Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the desert, we can be certain this is true.  In the end, God sent angels to come and tend to him. Yet, as we read the story in its entirety we find that not only was Jesus able to withstand the temptations of the devil all on his own, but he came out of the desert now sure of who he was.   We’d be remiss to never notice that it was only after the desert experience that Jesus began his ministry.

Reflect:  How has my act of giving something up for Lent, or starting a new habit for Lent, helped me make room for the Spirit of God to create something new in me?  Have I made myself vulnerable enough to let God move in?  If I haven’t gone searching in the “desert” of my heart, what am I afraid of?  How might the Spirit be leading me to discover a deeper calling for his work through me?

Pray:  Guiding Spirit, help us trust you as you lead us into places within ourselves that we’d rather not travel.  Remind us that while we may feel vulnerable and exposed, our fear is nothing more than a distraction keeping us from carrying out your work.  Hold us firmly as we lay open our hearts to you.  Breathe into us the confidence that angels will tend to us, if we are willing to let them, and that a new life awaits us on the other side of our shadowed, broken selves.

When God Regrets

The males and females of each living creature entered the ark, just as God had commanded. Then the LORD sealed them inside.

-Genesis 7:16 (ISV)

In his book The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama was asked the question regarding a painful moment in his life, “How did you deal with that feeling of regret?  How did you eventually get rid of it?” to which he replied, “I didn’t get rid of it.  It’s still there.”

As Christians, we too, know the feeling of regret.  We are hardly alone.  I have regrets.  You have regrets.  The Dalai Lama has regrets.  Despite our best intentions, it seems, we all have regrets.  Searching in my memory for moments of regret in Scripture led me to the story of Noah.

 Then the LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and he was deeply grieved about that.

Genesis 6:6 (ISV)

While this may not sound like the beginning of a story of hope and promise and love, it most definitely is.  It is, of course, in the beginning of one of the most popular bible stories of all time:  Noah and the ark.  While it may initially sadden us to read that God ever “regretted” creating us, what we may find comforting about reading this is the reminder that we are made in God’s image so if even God had regrets, then it must be OK –perhaps even necessary—that we have them, too, right? That leads to the question: what do we do with regrets?  Well, more importantly, what did God do?  He looked at this regrettable situation and the messy-ness his decisions had created and he found the good. He.Found.The. Good.

 The LORD was pleased with Noah, however.

-Genesis 6:8 (ISV)

And when God found one good thing amidst all the bleakness, he was able to find more!  As we read on we discover not only Noah, but his wife, his three sons, their wives and all the animals were still good and worth holding onto in God’s eyes!  So God focused all his attention onto the goodness that remained, commanded it to stay put, and tucked it all away into the safety of the ark.

 The males and females of each living creature entered the ark, just as God had commanded. Then the LORD sealed them inside.

-Genesis 7:16 (ISV)

After this, of course, a brutal storm rages.  Waves crash, winds howl and Noah and all the animals are tossed about, until finally, one day, storms have passed, the water has subsided and there is solid ground once again.  Here, finally, it is safe and beneficial to let out the goodness that had been tucked inside.  And that goodness—that is, in this case, Noah—makes an offering to God.  God, in return makes a promise:

 … “I will never again curse the land because of human beings—even though human inclinations remain evil from youth—nor will I destroy every living being ever again, as I’ve done. Never again, as long as the earth exists, will sowing and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night ever cease.”

-Genesis 8:21-22

Then, this happens to the goodness that was Noah and his family:

God blessed Noah and his sons and ordered them, “Be productive, multiply, and fill the earth.”

-Genesis 9:1 (ISV)

I see woven within in the story of Noah a recipe from God for what to do when we find ourselves faced with regret:

  1. Acknowledge our regret. For many of us, this is done best through the acknowledgement—or what modern psychologists might call “owning up” – of all of the ways in which we may experience regret.   This act of acknowledgment comes most powerfully in the form of a humble and contrite confession to God and is not limited to acknowledging only our poor choices but also the many ways in which regret and sin may find us, “in my thoughts, and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,” as Catholics say in the Confiteor.
  2. Find something good to hold onto from the situation that brought on the regret. Most often it will be a new awareness or appreciation for something that perhaps was previously taken for granted. Regret over a poor parenting decision, for instance, may bring the “fruit” of a new appreciation for our children.
  3. Tuck that goodness into your heart and lock it safely inside. While God’s forgiveness is immediate and complete, the process of forgiving ourselves generally takes much longer. During this time, our emotions rage. All those Why did/didn’t I…? What if I had…? ‘s can be very taxing, but in time, the harshness of these thoughts will diminish if we let the tides of God’s love wash over them. Most importantly, while the storm of regret rages, do not forget that goodness, too, can and will eventually come from the darkness if you are willing to let it.
  4. Remind yourself of God’s promises. First, that he loves all of us and does not seek to destroy us, yes. But secondly, that throughout all our time on earth we will know “sowing and harvesting, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night.” In other words, we will know suffering, but we will also know joy! Again and again and again. This is not just a promise to love us always, but also a promise to reassure us that everything—even our moments of regret—are all a part of God’s blessing and design for us!
  5. Use any goodness from your moment of regret for a greater good. If your regret brought a new awareness of a social injustice, consider taking action to promote awareness of it, or donating your time and money to its cause. If your regret brings new insight into what led to your poor choices, remind yourself to make a better choice the next time you are put in a similar situation and give thanks to God for helping you see another option. If your moment of regret led you to find a new appreciation for life or family or Church or freedom, cherish that gift and give thanks to God for it and celebrate that gift with others.

It seems in the story of Noah, we can take comfort in believing that it is normal, maybe even necessary, to have some regrets. It is a gift to use them and learn from them. A life without any regrets is seemingly impossible, and arguably would provide little growth. As the Dalai Lama went on to say in his book, “But even though that feeling of regret is still there, it isn’t associated with a feeling of heaviness or a quality of pulling me back. It would not be helpful to anyone if I let that feeling of regret weigh me down, be simply a source of discouragement and depression with no purpose, or interfere with going on with my life to the best of my ability.” Put another way, we can realize through Noah’s story, that what we do with regret is our choice.  God gives us the freedom to choose whether we will hold onto the good that comes from moments of regret and move forward, or let them sink us.

Reflect: What is my moment of deepest regret in life? How am I a better person for having that experience, despite any regret I may feel? What did I learn about myself or others from that experience that has given me a deeper wisdom? How can I use my regret as a catalyst for good moving forward to make my life better for myself and others?

Pray: Cleansing God, though they are painful experiences and memories for me, thank you for giving me moments of regret as milestones in my life. Help me to use them as reminders that growth is sometimes a painful process. Help me also to see that even in painful moments, your love for me and all of humanity endures. Like you sealed Noah and his family in the ark during the storm, seal the regrets of my life with the balm of your love. Amen.

Doing Nothing

Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples,  “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”

-Matthew 26:36

Certain aspects of this moment with Jesus and his disciples in Gethsemane during his time of agony, are relatable for many of us.  Any time we’re “up against the ropes” torn between doing what is right and running from, hiding, ignoring or denying doing the right thing, we are in our own little garden of agony.  Those times of wishing our life could be another way, but knowing we must do what is right even though it will come at a great cost to us –be it to a relationship with others or to our reputation, or our integrity—are our personal moments of agony.  Here in the garden, Jesus gives us a clear model to follow in how to pray our way through accepting our fate, facing our suffering and holding onto hope that somehow, when it’s all over and done with, we too, will find a “new life” and be “resurrected.”

But what has perplexed me for some time now are the words Jesus says to his disciples in Matthew’s gospel while he is suffering. “Sit here while I go over there and pray,” he tells them.  Not knowing what to do with these words, I’ve chosen for a long time to focus instead on Mark’s telling of this same event where Jesus says, “Sit here while I pray,” (Mark 14:32), which can sound a lot more like “Sit and pray with me,” and to my ear, at least, is much kinder.  But Matthew’s recalling of Jesus’s words makes it seem as though Jesus wants to be all alone and gives the disciples nothing to do—not even pray with him– while he prays.  In essence, it has, at times to me even sounded like, “You knuckleheads go over there and leave me alone.  Something important is happening here and I need it to be quiet.”  And while “over there” the disciples fall asleep, not once, not twice, but three times.  Each time Jesus wakes them and reprimands them for falling asleep.  In Mark’s account, where their job of praying can be implied, it makes sense for Jesus to be upset that they fall asleep.  But in Matthew’s account, why would Jesus care if they are awake or not if he sends them “over there”?

Then, yesterday, as I held Jesus’ words in my heart, pondering them, I read a reflection by Macrina Weiderkehr, a Benedictine monastic nun, where she talks about herself waking early in the morning to go and pray in the cafeteria of her monastery and spotting another sister near her each morning who was also praying.   Upon seeing the other sister day after day in prayer, Weiderkehr is moved to tears recalling something she’d read earlier about the importance of a younger person being mentored by an elder:

Mentoring takes place…when a young person sees in an older person a bright flame of life, which is a reminder of his or her own small flame.  When these two flames connect, the younger person gets his or her flame blessed, while the older person moves into deeper wisdom. (pp. 14-15)

Weiderkehr goes on to say she realized then that seeing another sister’s faithfulness to prayer each morning was blessing and strengthening her “own tired flame.”

Through her sharing of this experience, I had a new appreciation for Jesus’ words and actions towards his disciples in this garden scene in Matthew’s gospel.  Perhaps it was Jesus’ intention to not just model for the disciples (and us) what to do in times of agony and personal suffering, but in doing so, to give them (and us) a final blessing. Perhaps Jesus wanted the disciples awake and attentive to his prayer because in his time of suffering, it was the only thing he had left to give to bless their “old, tired flames” of faith.  Perhaps there really was nothing for the disciples to do but witness the scene as it unfolded, and by their witness, Jesus could be moved “into deeper wisdom.”

In light of this reflection, my eyes have now turned from seeing not just how we, like the disciples, often “fall asleep” to the suffering and agony around (and within) us, but how we are, at times, like Jesus and like Weiderkehr’s faithful sister in the cafeteria, modeling for others how to continue our relationship with God no matter what.  To know that sometimes we are the witness and sometimes—hard as it may be to believe– we are the mentor.

Isn’t it marvelous that the miracles of God are so great, my friends, that even in these small moments of seemingly “doing nothing”– save remaining faithful and prayerful to God– that we are both a blessing to others and blessed?

Reflect:  What person or persons has been the greatest strength and blessing to me and my “old, tired flame”of faith?  How might I thank or acknowledge that person today?  What actions and behaviors do I demonstrate that may be a source of strength for others without my even having been aware of them in the past?  How might I make room for more such actions or behaviors to “deepen the wisdom” of God in me?

Pray:  Dear God, thank you for the gift of faith-filled mentors in my life.  Thank you for Jesus’ triumphant example of faith unto death and new life.  Help me to never falter in following his example.  Forgive me when I falter anyway.  Show me how I mentor others through my faith in you.  Shine in and through me. Use me now and always for your greatest good.

Birth Stories

 

 

And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.

– Luke 2:19, NAB

Every once in a while, I gaze upon my children in wonder.

I wonder at the people they are becoming.  Their kind and gentle ways.  Their warm and giving hearts.  Their open and receptive minds.  His strong, quiet leadership. Her grace and beauty and laughter.  His creative mind while he works.

And I wonder where did you come from?  How did you get here?

But, of course, I know.

I was there for every bit of it.

I was there when the idea of them began forming in my mind even when I was only a very small girl, playing dolls, playing house.  Mimicking and practicing the role of mother, long before I knew how a girl even became one.

I was there dreaming and wishing as a young woman about my Mr. Right.  Scribbling his name and mine together over and over again.  Trying them on for size.  Spending every free moment  with each other, but never getting our fill.  Waiting and hoping and dreaming until finally two became one.

I was there as the thread of my old life was picked up and sown into the fabric of a new one.   In this new life together, strengths and weaknesses could be measured and balanced.  Neither had to bear all the weight of any burden alone, and joys and blessings were multiplied because not only one felt it, but two.

I was there when this love for our life together could not contain itself.  When he and I gave of ourselves so much to each other that our love grew, right within me, into a life all its own.

I was there when that love spilled out of me and gazed right back at us with its own two eyes, not once, not twice but three times.  Him and him and her.   Lives of love themselves, born into love, and creating love anew.

All of this I know as I gaze at my three children, each one of them a miracle of our life and love—my husband’s and mine.

I was there for every bit of it, and still I look at them and wonder where did you come from?

While my children are my most profound and miraculous birth stories, they are not, however, my only birth stories.

In my life I have also given birth to other ideas and dreams that have manifested themselves in other ways:  faith formation programs and presentations, this blog, handmade gifts and goodies for family and friends just to name a few.  Simpler, sure, but nonetheless ideas of love birthed into being.

Even if only to a few people.

Even if only for a short time.

Yesterday, as I sat in church I listened as our deacon reminded us that Mary is not “just” the mother of Jesus.  She is the Mother of God.  She is The God-Bearer, fully human.

And, like the old song, I wondered did she know?  I like to think she didn’t know–at least not fully–what the miracle of her child meant for the world.  I like to think she only had a hunch sometimes, or caught a glimpse here and there, limited, in her own humanness because it makes her more relatable.  I like to think she doesn’t mind my doing so.

And I wondered how else I might be like her.  How we all might be.  And I thought about all of these things as I’ve told you.

And I’ve ended up with this:  Mary allowed God to enter into her and create in her so that she could bear God into the world for all to know Him and see Him anew.

As we start a new year, may we all take some time to gaze back upon the miracles in our lives–big and small–that God has created in us over the past year or years.   Like Mary, may we “keep all these things, reflecting on them” in our hearts, staying open to the possibility that God is still working in us creating life anew—even long after our child-bearing years– so that we may continue to bring Him forth to others.

Reflect:  What do I consider the biggest miracles in my life?  How/when have I been the face or hands of God to others?  What is the one big miracle growing within me right now?  How might that miracle be made manifest to others?

Pray:  God, thank you for the miracles in my life.  Thank you for making me part of your divine plan.  Help me see and celebrate the ways you’ve created things through me.  Help me stay open to your plans for me.  Take me.  Enter me.  Create in me.  Bear yourself to others through me.  I am yours.

Nail Me Open: A Love Story

Dear Lord,

I am tired. I cannot think straight and I am finding it hard to understand your love for me right now.

But your love is all I can think about.

This morning, I am remembering how in years past I’ve spent this Holy Week feeling the heaviness of your suffering, the sadness of your death.

But not this year.

This year, I sit here thinking of your glorious return. Your unfathomable Resurrection.

Your story is such a beautiful one of joy and love and true power over self and the world, how can I feel anything but joy in remembering this story?

This week, you remind me that you are here to serve me (John 13:5), you are willing to give up all for me (Mark 15:37) you are willing to suffer, be beaten, ridiculed and punished unto death, for me (Matthew 27: 1-56). You tell me with each and every action of your life and with love pouring from your Spirit that I am worth it (John 3:16).

How can that be? Who can love me that much? What have I possibly done to deserve that kind of love? Why am I even here, that you should love me so?

You do not answer me with words, only actions. You wash my feet (John 13:5), you give me food (Matthew 26:26), you ask me to sit with you while you pray (Mark 14:32), and then you wait.

You wait for my betrayal.

And sooner than later, my humanity wins out. I hold onto the world and all it offers me (30 shekels of silver!) and I betray you with a kiss (Mark 14:45-46). Or, at the very least I deny you (Mark 14: 66-72).

And you are taken away (Luke 22:54).

Separated from you, I am without hope. What have I done? I wonder and worry while you are sentenced to death. Even as I don’t want it to happen, I know I will not speak up, will not defend you. I comfort myself with my sinful reasoning that “at least I’m not joining the throngs of people chanting for your death.”

But I can’t prevent your dying.

Even if I could, you wouldn’t let me.

And why?

Because death (yours and mine) is necessary.

And here’s where I’m confused—how can that be true? Why did we have to kill and betray you? Why did you let it happen?

Your answer comes again not in words, but in actions.  You offer yourself up and stretch out your arms in love—and as a reminder to me– you have them nailed open.

Always, always, always I will love you, this says to me(Ps 100:5). And you pour out your Spirit of life into me (John 19:30).

As I sit stunned at the horror of your death, your words echo in my heart…

“Follow me,” you said. (Matt 8:22, Mark 1:17, Luke 9:23, John 21:19)

And I try. Though I am so much more human than you, I do try.

I try to serve others.

I try to feed the hungry.

I pray.

And then?

Then I experience suffering, and betrayal and rejection in my life and I wonder and worry and blame you for punishing me for my goodness!

And you wait and you watch, wondering what will I do? Will I follow you?

But in my humanity, I become afraid and angry and I demand better. I do what you never did: I resist.

This is where the mind boggles and buckles, as the ego tempts…am I really to follow you all the way? Am I to give in now? Give up? Lose?

Then I think of the times you could have been killed, but you slipped away (Luke 4:24-30, John 10:39-42).

And I see now that your death has opened the door for me to slip away, too (1 Cor 10:13). In your forgiveness and mercy you give me another chance to try again, to serve more, to share more, to forgive more…until I, too, can finally let go of this world for the next one (Luke 23:46).

Again and again, bit by bit, ever so slowly, I let go (goodbye excuses, goodbye self-loathing, goodbye perfectionism, goodbye ego) and I open my arms to you (hello love, hello forgiveness, hello reality, hello acceptance).

And I ask you to nail me open, too.

Do not let me close my heart to you, nor to others.

And never, please never, let me stand in judgment without mercy.

Nail. Me. Open.

You taught me this. You showed me this. You lived for this.

You died like this.

I live because you loved me into being.

I die because you love me into New Life.

That is the love… that is the joy…that is the hope of Easter.

It is the Paschal Mystery. It is the Mystery of Faith.

It is a Love Story unmatched in history.

A Love Story for the Ages.

Amen.