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.

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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.

2014: Starting My Year on Sabbatical

“In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”  Mark 1:35

After a wonderful Christmas with family and some time spent reflecting on what I want and hope to see happen in the New Year, I’ve felt compelled to take a step back from blogging for awhile.  I have some writing projects I’m working on with a good friend and have found after some practice that I’m simply not equipped to “do it all” (i.e., keep up a blog, and work on other writing projects, plus, you know, be a mom), or at I least I can’t do it all at once!

At this point, I do not have a specific idea of how long I will be away from the blog, though I know it will be at least a month…perhaps several…perhaps the entire year.  Time will tell! 🙂

I hope the New Year brings you much peace and prosperity.  I have embraced the word “Wellness” for the New Year, and it is already proving to be a nice navigational tool for my health and fitness focus (hello dry-roasted almonds, goodbye Peanut Butter Blossoms) as well as for the the six other areas that encompass overall wellness.

Thanks for reading along with me the past few years, and thanks for dropping comments or encouraging words along the way. They have meant more to me than you’ll ever know!

Until we meet again…have a blessed 2014!

Knock and It Shall Be Opened

“…and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”  (Matthew 7:8)

Unlike asking and seeking, which are easily done in our minds or our hearts with little consequence or true commitment, knocking is a physical action with consequences.  When we knock on a door, we are anticipating, first and foremost, that the door will be opened (but we also take the risk that it may not). Secondly, we may wonder who or what we will find behind the door, (though we also run the risk that it may just be an empty room).  Finally, we anticipate that when/if the door is opened, we will be required to take ownership for our actions (why were we knocking?) and maybe even state our purpose for doing so.  We may wonder what we will say.

My brother and I grew up in an era where school fundraisers were still expected to be sold through door-to-door sales, that is, literally knocking on our neighbors’ doors and stating our purpose for being there.  Neither my brother nor I were good salespeople.  Even before the door was opened, we realized we hated asking our neighbors (or sometimes total strangers) for anything.  Why would they want our candy bars?  we’d think.  Why should they support our school?  Before we even asked, we were always anticipating a “no” (but still hated hearing it).  At the same time, we were surprised (and maybe a little disappointed in ourselves at our lack of belief) when the answer was “yes, please.”  As we grew older, we had a greater awareness of how awkward it could be for others to be put in a position of having to tell us “no,” because we believed that even when their budgets or nutritional  limitations didn’t allow for such purchases, many still hated to tell a child seeking charity “no.”  My brother, being older, came into awareness of this fact sooner than I, and so he tailored his sales pitch to one that made it easier for our potential customers to say no.  His stellar line?  “You don’t want to buy any candy bars, do you?”  That way, saying “no” was more of a confirmation of the obvious, than a rejection of our inquiry (and perhaps, by extension, a rejection of our very selves).

With that experience in mind, I am convinced that through his final directive to “knock,” Jesus wants to make sure our spiritual journeys are ones of action and risk, not just contemplation.  Lest we forget, the Israelites were all too content to ask… and ask… and ask God to deliver them from their life of slavery, so much so that they nearly missed the opportunity (could not “see”) to escape when it was presented to them.  Even Moses, at that point seemed to be convinced that all they needed was a deeper faith in God, “Do not be afraid, stand firm and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today…the Lord will fight for you and you have only to keep still.” (Exodus 14:13-14)  But God makes clear what is needed at this point in their journey is not greater faith, but action.  God responds to Moses, a man of the deepest faith, “Why do you cry out to me?  Tell the Israelites to go forward.”  (Exodus 14:15)  I think it is easy to convince ourselves that since Jesus has won the battle over evil, that greater faith is all that is required of us.  For His part, though, our Triune God makes it clear to us, time and time again, that very often the only way that we can know the depth of our faith is through our actions.

The God of the Old Testament says, “Go forward.”

Jesus says, “Knock and it will be opened.”

And the Holy Spirit itself is God in motion.

One thing is clear to me in all of this:  that we are called not just to have faith, but also to act on our faith, even when– or perhaps especially when– we cannot know the outcome of our actions, or what remains hidden behind each and every door.  The only thing we can know for sure is the level of commitment we have to our relationship—both God’s and ours—when we dare to take action, even while questions remain.

For, like the wounds of Jesus for Thomas, who says, in essence “unless I touch and see his wounds I will not believe” (John 20: 25), we will likely never understand what it is we are meant to “ask” and “see” in our own spiritual experience unless we also move forward and knock…and feel our knuckles against the wood.

Seek and You Will Find

“…seek, and you will find…”  (Matthew 7:7)

Have you ever had an experience where you know you put something in a spot, but when you go to find it again, it’s not there?  You begin to search then, more frantically, checking other possible spots but as you come up empty time and time again, you continue back to the spot where you were sure it was in the first place, only to find it still not there.  It’s a frustrating experience to say the least.

Spiritual seeking can be this same way.  Once we have asked for God’s help in something, we begin to look for ways in which he is helping.  But, much like searching for a misplaced item, we become so busy looking for him to reveal himself to us in the ways that we expect we quickly forget that God has his own process for helping us, and that it may appear differently than we imagined.

When we do not see nor receive what we are expecting, it can be frustrating.  It takes patience and persistence to broaden our vision, to “open our eyes and see” (2 Kings 6:20).  Much like a misplaced item, spiritual seeking requires us to be willing to retrace our steps and try, try again.   Often, we must change our expectations and open ourselves to the possibility that what we are looking for may be revealed to us in a way very different from what we were expecting.

I find it interesting that Luke and Matthew tell almost identical word-for-word stories of Jesus’ “ask, seek, knock” instruction, but lead up to that sequence with different events.  Matthew opens in Chapter 7 with Jesus warning us of the danger of judging others.  In his version Jesus asks, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not see the log in your own?” (Matthew 7:3)  Luke on the other hand, starts his chapter with the apostles asking Jesus about proper prayer and Jesus teaches them not only how to pray, but also how we need to be persistent in our prayer (Luke 11:1-13).

So, whose version are we to believe?  Is the “ask, seek, knock” instruction meant to curb us from judgment or is it meant to strengthen our resolve?  The obvious answer, of course, is both!  Our ego can easily blind us from seeing things that are so clearly in front of us.  In my experience, it is always my ego that is the log in my eye.  There have been times where I have been so focused on how I would open arms in reconciling with another, that I fail to see that they, too, have open arms and are waiting for me to make the first move.  Or, I have at times become so focused on my charitable work for others, that I fail to see my own family suffering as a result of my charitable over commitments (at which point it is arguably no longer “charity” but a distraction from my primary ministry in life:  that of wife and mother).  The list goes on and on.

One thing is clear though, if we are seeking God to join us our lives in any way—large or small– we must be willing to look beyond our own ego for Him in places we did not expect and to not give up the search.  Because much like a lost possession, unless we do both, the only thing we can be sure of is that we will never find it.

Ask and It Will Be Given

It is easy for many of us to think that somehow Jesus is lying when he tells us that all we have to do is “ask and it will be given you” (Matthew 7:7). How can this be true? we think.  I’ve asked for so many things over the years and they were not given.  Dreams I’ve wanted to come true.  Wishes and hopes and even prayers that never came to be.

Over the years, of course, I’ve come to realize that my requests going ungranted was not so much because God wasn’t willing to grant what I was asking, as much as it was that I wasn’t willing to change to make it so.

Now, when I find myself asking for the same things again and again in prayer, wondering and doubting what power God has over the universe or what love he has for me, I find myself asking other questions.  What is stopping you, God?  Why do you not answer me?  And eventually, I come to realize that, in many instances, my asking has gone unanswered only because God is holding true to his promise.   He is bound by his one and only kryptonite: my will.

It is enough to help me realize that in that moment, I am standing at the threshold of a new opportunity:  the opportunity to change.  And it is only then that I hear Jesus answering my questions with questions of his own, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Luke 18:41 )  and “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5:6).

Sewing a Cushion for My Pity Pot (And Other Prayers of Gratitude)

Like most of yours, my summer has been flying!

I was pretty sure that when I posted way back in May that I’d write blog posts every Monday, I could hear God laughing hysterically with other plans. Turns out I’d heard right. It’s been a whole month now since I last blogged.  And today isn’t even Monday.  So, evidently my plan went all to pot.  (Shocker, I know.)

In an effort to get you all caught up on things that have been happening with me this past month (because I’m sure you’re dying to hear), allow me to bring you up to speed you with my abbreviated list of our summer happenings:

  • 2nd week of July :  We entertained these adorable family visitors ↓↓↓↓

IMG_4904

  • Aren’t they sweet?  Couldn’t you just eat them up?  (I should probably mention that they brought my in-laws with them…all the way from across these great United States).  Long story short, we had all kinds of fun with everyone the entire week.   Life was SO GOOD!
  • 3rd week of July:  We sent our family visitors on their way (along with my in-laws) and almost instantly became bored with life.  It was very confusing.  One day we had three dogs and two extra people and the next day there was …just us.  I was sure we’d get over it.   I planned some things to get us back on track,  (but I think we’ve determined already  how well things work out when I make plans!)  (Did I hear laughter, again?)
  • 4th week of July :  We trudged through the mundaneness of wide-open summer days with nothing to do.  On top of it, I had NO energy.  No oomph.  Meanwhile, I watched my friends traveling on fun, exotic, and exciting vacations (I know this because I stalked casually observed them on Facebook about every 3.5 minutes).  (They were always having fun.) I, on the other hand,  was bored.  B-O-R-E-D bored.  And also tired.  And maybe a little bit disenchanted with all things fun.  And also all things God.  (Yes, I said it.)

And, as is the case when all of life becomes boring, the days and weeks get longer.  For the rarely occurring 5th week of what had become a painfully long, boring month, I STILL had nothing to say on the blog.  So, to pass the time I guess,  I took a seat up on my Pity Pot (which, to me, looks a lot like those five-gallon buckets with a lid) and started  feeling  sorry for myself.  Everyone else is having fun.  Everyone else is rich and can take exotic vacations.  Everyone else lives a better life than me. (Can I hear a “Debbie Downer” mwomp-mwomp, please?)

Trying to find inspiration, I went back to my blog to read my last post.  To my astonishment, very little had changed.  In many respects, I was still the full-of-myself older brother of the prodigal son… and I was still missing the party!  Though I tried to pray my way through it, most days the best I could do was muster a big sigh and expel the word “God.”  (Except it sometimes came out as the more blasphemous sounding “G-a-a-w-w-d,”  I’m not gonna lie.  It was kind of ugly.)

Still, I kept looking for little bits of light on any given day, even if all I could see was a glimmer.

Eventually (and by eventually I mean yesterday, or maybe the day before), I realized that this whole Pity Pot thing was getting out of control.  I wasn’t even enjoying the complaining anymore!

So, I spent some time focusing on that image of the older brother, standing outside the house (or more accurately sitting outside the house…on his Pity Pot, of course!)   I imagined the feelings  of the older brother, watching the party going on inside the house.  And realized this was very similar to watching all my friends take exotic vacations, and fill their lives with joy and laughter.  And I found some words for a question I threw at God, Why do they get to have all the fun?  (No response.)  Why can’t I go inside?  (A response this time:  You can).  I ranted on, Oh, you’d just love that wouldn’t you?  It’s bad enough watching and listening to all the fun from here, but to go inside and watch them have  fun right in front of my face?!?!  No thanks!

It was about this time that I remembered that the older brother’s being outside had been his choice from the beginning.   In the story of the Prodigal Son, the father comes outside and pleads with him.

Now I realized not only had I refused the father like the older brother had, but I was starting to blame the father for my being outside as well.

(Oh, goody.  I’m sure that story ends well.) (*Eye roll*)

I put myself back in the image and tried again.

I watched the party some more.  I finally asked a question that was not about the others and the fun they were having, but about me….Why am I so bored?

And with that question, I felt something change inside me.  It is difficult to say what exactly…A softening?  A shift in focus?  A change in perspective, perhaps?   I decided to just accept the possibility– for just a minute or two– that sitting there on my Pity Pot, watching the party going on inside was exactly where I was supposed to be. 

And I waited.

And as I did, the evening sky grew dark around me and the party lights from within glowed in bright contrast.  The moon and stars looked beautiful in comparison and the birds sang their evening song and the crickets chirped in harmony.

It was a very peaceful image.

I realized I didn’t mind the party at all now.  Instead, I felt a little sorry for everyone missing this glorious night sky!   And I realized I wasn’t bored anymore.  There was nothing mundane about what I was seeing and feeling.   I felt calm.  I felt peaceful.  I felt relaxed.

It occurred to me then that perhaps God and I had different words for the same experience.  What I called boring and mundane, God saw as an opportunity for me to rest and relax.  I had a choice in the matter:  I could fight it and complain (like I’d been doing) or,  I could take and accept his gift of rest and relaxation which—ironically–I always complain about never getting.

Something had changed me.   I was no longer the hard-hearted fool I’d been before.  I was now aware that even there on my Pity Pot, I was loved.

With a new heart, I sent up prayers for those partiers inside, happy for them that it was their time to party.  Joyful for them and grateful to God for allowing me this time to sit outside …yes, on my Pity Pot… and rest.

I laughed to myself when I wondered, could I sew a cushion for my Pity Pot ?  Maybe post it on Pinterest?  I would title it, My Summer Project , and it would be God’s and my joke to share.

I’d forgotten what a difference it makes when I ask God to share His vision for my life’s plan.  In this example, with His vision, I understood instantly that my “boring” life was really an invitation for me to rest.  I also realized a second truth about my life and God’s plan.  This second truth was about my future and some long-forgotten prayers about His using me for a greater good.

And my heart skipped a beat.

And I gripped my Pity Pot with anticipation and excitement (and some fear and trembling, too).  Because suddenly more questions come What is it that I need to be rested for?  What will God call me to do?

I called my questions out to the night sky.

Not yet, the stars and moon sing down to me.   Not yet.  Sit a while longer.

And I know they are right.  Because… while I may anticipate changes coming,  I do not know how much those changes will take of my focus, my time, my energy (my sanity?)  So…

Not yet.

Trust me.

And I do.

I sit.  And rest.  And watch.  And celebrate.  And pray.

And I thank God for this lesson.

Because if God wants me to rest for something that I cannot see coming?  Believe me, I want to be rested.

Because God’s invitation to rest?

Is also an invitation to be ready.

When You’re Not the Prodigal Child

“I’m just getting really tired of being so good.”

Those were my words to my good friend and spiritual advisor a few weeks ago.

She chuckled in reply and said, “Life can feel that way sometimes, can’t it?”

As she and I dug a little deeper, I outlined for her (with extreme humility, of course) all the things I’d been doing in the past weeks and months for others…family, friends, church, school, etc. and how very little thanks or reward I felt I was receiving in return.

“It just doesn’t seem worth it!”  I exclaimed to her, frustrated and exasperated.  Desperate for something to break through to me and help me see differently.

Then it came in the simplest and sweetest of words.  A thought she shared aloud, expecting no reply in return,

“Why is the reward so important, Lisa?”

Well, if that didn’t jar me awake, nothing would.

Had I not been needing that comment so badly, I’m sure I could have supplied any number of responses…

Why?  Because we’re Americans!  Hard work equals rewards (usually monetary rewards, but at least lots of praise and recognition)!

Why?  Because according to the law of averages, all this hard work is bound to pay off big eventually!

Why?  Because doesn’t what goes around come around?

But no.

I knew this question was an invitation to go deeper.  So I had to spend time with that question and answer the question for myself…why is the reward so important?

That evening, I saw something that helped a little.  It gave me hope at least.  It came in the form of a “tweet”  from Iyanla Vanzant and said simply this,

When you do what you can for the sake of doing it, the reward is an improvement in your skills.

While this was not exactly the ticker-tape parade thrown in my honor that I was seeking, it certainly was balm to my wound.  I was encouraged to think that perhaps even if no one had given me a gold-engraved plaque with my name on it for “Greatest Sacrifice of Self to all of Humanity,”  I could at least find comfort in the fact that I was getting stronger in an area where God saw I needed it most:  humility.  (I don’t know why he would feel I needed this exactly, considering I did not expect that plaque to be 24K gold…only 18).

Still.

It made me think about the kingdom of heaven as Jesus taught it.  And, I thought about the “thanks” given to him for all he did for humanity– death on a cross.   (And, suddenly, in comparison to  that, I realized that perhaps receiving less thanks than I was hoping for maybe wasn’t the worst thing ever.)

I thought of something else, too.  I thought of this blog, and how it’s only fair that when I’m feeling less than loved by God, less than appreciated, or just less than, that I need to be honest with you about that.

Because I think it happens to all of us, at least from time to time.

And what I’ve come to believe most recently, is that there’s yet to be anything I experience in my own life that isn’t biblical.  And this event is no exception.  In fact, right now, I think I’m standing in the shoes of one of the most empathetic characters in all of the bible.  You want to know who it is?  It’s the older brother of the Prodigal Son.  (And if you need a refresher on that story, check out Luke 15: 11-32)

But also know this:  that brother and I are one right now.

I’ve been sitting here for weeks now feeling smug. (Well, not exactly, “sitting here.”  There was a nice family trip squeezed in that was lots of fun, and is partly the reason for my missing my Monday blog deadlines.  I hope to write about that event in the near future.) (The other reason was  a bad computer virus that wiped out nearly all I had on the computer. But that’s a story for another day, also.)

But I digress.

My point is this:  though I’ve been carrying out a fair amount of my regular parental and social duties, my heart has been stuck in the same place as the older brother in the story of the prodigal son for probably months, now.  Like him, I’ve been seeing all my own “good deeds,”  making mental lists of others’ “squandering,” and wondering when God is going to scoop in and let the world know that I have astounded him with my kindness and generosity.  When will he kill the fatted calf in my honor to celebrate?

(With this kind of modesty, it’s a wonder I’m still waiting, isn’t it?)

Then some words from the story about the older brother catch my eye as I re-read them, “Then he became angry and refused to go in.” (Luke 15:28)

And I’ll admit that’s me right now.

Still holding on to anger, and resentment.  Still upset that the “lost brother” (or in this case, everyone else), is getting all the attention.  Still standing “outside,” trying to will  (or guilt) everyone else to where I am, and make me the center of the celebration.

And do you know what happens next?

“His father came out and began to plead with him.”  (Luke 15:28)

And I’m certain God’s been pleading with me, too.  To change my heart.  To let go of my anger.  To just come inside already and celebrate.

But, also like the older brother, I don’t even listen.  I insist instead on my being heard, and shout.  ” ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command;  yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ ”  (Luke 15:29-30)

Ha!  Take that, God!  Open your eyes!  Now, surely you’ll see how good I am!

And to that, the Father–who has left the party to tend to the older brother’s (a.k.a. my) needs–responds with this, ” Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” (Luke 15:31)

Well, you’d think that would be enough to straighten out that older son and bring him inside.  But, I’ll be honest and let you know that right now it’s not enough for me.

I’m still standing “outside” and holding on to my anger and resentment.  I’m willing (or guilting) everyone in the party to want to come outside and move the party where it should be…outside in my honor!

But, I also realize that Jesus has very cleverly left how this story ends open for our own interpretation.  Does the brother join the party?  Or does he hide out in the barn until it’s over?  Or does he, too, then pack up and decide to leave?  I’d like to think Jesus knew that all of us (or at least me) would come to relate to this older brother in their own way.  And so the choice of the older brother…to go back “inside” or not…is really the choice of each of us.

And I know how I want my story to end.

Because the longer I stand “outside,” the more the light and laughter from “inside” softens my heart.  And the music takes over my spirit.  And I pray that the last of my pride will fall away soon, so that I can turn around and make way for that door.  And step inside.

And when I do?

Well…when I do…my life will become one big celebration again.

I believe that’s the kingdom of heaven that Jesus wants for us all.

And how could we ask for a greater reward than that?

Making the Grade

A few weeks ago in my bible study group, we read and reflected on the story of the rich young man in the gospel of Matthew.

If you’re not familiar with this story, I’ll warn you now, it can be unsettling.  Especially for those of you who are, like me, all caught up in our First World problems.

The story goes like this:

Now someone approached [Jesus] and said, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?”  He answered him, “Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good.  If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”  He asked him, “Which ones?” And Jesus replied, “ ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother’; and ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” The young man said to him, “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

I, too, have many possessions.

I may not have as many as my neighbor.  Or some of my friends.  Or Oprah.  But I have many.  Clearly, more than I need. (Otherwise why would I have missed blogging last week to have a garage sale?)

So, it’s easy to think that there’s no hope for anyone who has many possessions.  But when my group was reading this story in my bible study class, another story came to my mind that I thought had a similar message.  It’s a story about my brother, who is a college professor (having grown up with him and his antics, I have to stifle laughter when I say “brother” and “professor” in the same breath, but it’s true!)   And he’s a professor who has earned his job through a lot of sacrifice, hard work, and discipline.  He’s a professor of graphic design at a distinguished art school and he’s passionate about his work and his teaching. He’s worked long hard hours to hone the skills he both uses and teaches.  And like any great teacher, he is also always learning.

For some reason, as I read the story of the rich young man, I remembered this story my brother told me during one of his first years of teaching.  It was about a young girl who’d come up to him with a question about the grade she’d received on her project.  As my brother began to critique her work and explain to her the ways in which she would need to improve her skills in future projects, she interrupted him with a loud sigh and said (carrying with her a certain attitude and air of having lived a life full of only getting what she wants),  “Just tell me what I need to do to get an A!”

My brother looked at her and smiled and said, “Unless you change your attitude, you already can’t get higher than a B.”

My brother’s message to his student, and Jesus’ message to the young man, I think, are one in the same: change your heart.  To be an artist you need to be willing to take on the heart of an artist.  That means going to the tender, rawest parts of yourself, and offering them up in the form of art to others.  It also means exposing yourself to others’ criticism.  You must also keep in mind that your work and who you are not necessarily one in the same, but that you will not discover the artist in you  unless you make yourself vulnerable to criticism.

In a similar way, as Christians, we are called to take on the heart of Jesus.  This means allowing our own hearts to change.  We must examine  how we feel about ourselves, observe our actions, and examine our possessions.   And we must allow God to critique them all.

Just like the girl in my brother’s story, I think it’s easy for us to want to know what we have to do to get the Christian equivalent of an A: eternal life in heaven.  And in the essence of the question posed by the girl and the rich young man is the truth of what we’re really asking:  what’s the minimum I have to do to get the best grade possible?  Or, what’s the minimum amount I need to change in order for me to get into heaven?  In both stories, the teacher is quick to point out that to become what we’re trying to become, we need to do more than just follow a rubric, we need to be willing to give up everything we believe about who we are, and what we are capable of.   And for the artist, it is in that most vulnerable state of deep inner offering, that her best works are created.

And for the Christian?

For the Christian, it is in that most vulnerable state of emptiness and void– detached from all earthly things– that we are finally able to discover the eternal Being that lives within us all.

Something’s Gotta Give

May day!  May day!

Yes, it is the first of May.  And my introductory shout is both a celebration of that long-lost holiday of putting out flowers on doorsteps for others, and also that call of desperation we hear from captains of the air and sea when they are in trouble, and their ship or their plane is out of control.

Today I feel both a reason to celebrate, and a need to get my “ship” back in control.

The most obvious celebration in our household today is for my middle son, who turns 11.  Eleven!  As usual, my mind screams where did the time go?  It seems like only a few years at most that my husband and I were celebrating both the blessing and the bewilderment of having a second  healthy boy (11 pounds and 6 ounces of healthiness to be exact!) Still, celebrating him and the young man he’s rapidly growing up to be is so much to celebrate!

Then, there’s my call for help.  It’s to get me out of my own mess.  I keep reminding myself these are really and truly only problems faced by people privileged enough to live in First World countries like the good ol’ US of A.  So, please know that as I complain, I am also grateful.

The last month or two for me has been a ton of ridiculousness of volunteer activities and the like.  Not to mention anything that can go wrong seemed to go wrong for my husband at work, which meant later than usual nights for him as well.  It all ended last weekend in a big hurrah when I decided (only about a week beforehand) that being part of our neighborhood garage sale was also something I should do.

That makes perfect sense when you’re already exhausted from too much chauffeuring of kids to lessons and activities, volunteer commitments at their schools, and not disappointing the tens of people who look forward to my thrice-a-week blog.

Yes, when better to do a garage sale?  Oh, and a lemonade and bake sale put on by the neighborhood kids, along with my kids.  At my house.

Of course, I should do that, too!

So, Friday was a flurry of activity here trying to set up and price items for Saturday’s sale.  (No time for blogging that day).  Saturday morning the doorbell rang at ten to eight with the neighborhood kids raring to go. (Not entirely unrelated to my whole theme of the post today, their sale was *mostly* for charity–they each kept $5–and they ended up raising over $50 for Autism Speaks, so their story, too had a great ending!)

Anyhoo, then there was me, bleary-eyed and staring through the steam on my mug of hot green tea as I opened the garage door and the car loads of bargain shoppers swooped in.  And,  while most of the whole sale is a blur, I do remember this:  I remember having to use the calculator for a woman who was buying $6.70 worth of clothes and miscellany because she gave me a $10 bill.

I know.

(I know.)

As I slowly punched the numbers in she blurted out, “$3.30My change is $3.30!”

Yes, I know monkeys can do math better than I do.  But, my question is, can they do it on about four hours of sleep and with so many distractions going on around them?  My garage was full of people milling about and every other second one of the kids was asking me a question!   Anyway, luckily for me,  at the moment she told me what her change should be, my calculator simultaneously concurred.

And that’s when I realized I had no dimes or nickels for change.  (I’d planned on only pricing things in quarters, but obviously changed my plan without consulting my brain).

Lovely.

Anyway, it all worked out.  I told the lady to take the two 10 cent items for free.  She quietly thanked me and then, very kindly went to her car and returned with a dollar and 20 cents worth of dimes to not only pay for the two 10 cent items, but to also provide me with future dimes for change.

What is my point, you wonder?

I have no idea.  (I’m still really tired and it’s now Wednesday).

Which kind of is my point.  I had reached a point where nothing much was making sense at all anymore.  Why was I doing all this volunteering?  Why was I adding more things to do to an already overworked brain and body?  Why was I continuing to say yes to things, even though the most obvious answer should have been to say no?

I’m still not entirely certain, but I do know this:  no matter how hard we try to do everything and then some, we all have a breaking point. And at that point something’s gotta give. And, unfortunately, in my life, that usually means my husband and my kids have to put up with a tired, cranky wife and mother.

Sound familiar?

I wish I had a better answer.  All I know for sure is that along with my kids and husband, I suffered for taking on so much.  I didn’t want to be grumpy.  I didn’t want to be so tired.  And I didn’t want to be doing anything on the weekend besides enjoying my family (which I was not at all able to do because of all my “yeses” to other things).

So, when Monday came, I worked all day on some of the other volunteer things I’d committed to doing, and as I was able to cross more and more off my list,  I started to feel a sense of peace.  (Even though I had to sacrifice the blog again to get them done).  I started prioritizing and making a punch list.  Tackling one thing at a time.  And bit by bit my load has lightened.  And I have found stillness and peace and quiet again.

And yesterday, there in the stillness at the bottom of all of it, was God.  Waiting.  Holding it all up with me (or for me).  Reminding me that every decision I make impacts others.

Every decision.

It’s how I’ve come to understand what Catholics call “original sin.”  Our decisions have a ripple effect: on ourselves, on God, and on others, even  through the generations.

It’s a tough row to hoe, knowing this.

Still.

There is hope!  And my hope comes from knowing this:  that the ripple effect is also true of our good deeds, when we follow the promptings of the Spirit.  I remember having a conversation with my priest at my last parish in Wisconsin, and he told me that following the Spirit is like throwing stones into a pond.  We let the Spirit carry out our work like ripples on the water…and sometimes?  Sometimes, they touch something and bounce back to us!

And that’s why I have hope.  Because, while I know that my crabbiness and crankiness has a ripple effect, I believe that my good deeds do, too.  Otherwise, why would the lady who was only minutes earlier yelling at me about her change (and hinting–not so subtly– at my idiocy) return with not only payment for items I’d offered her for free, but also with change to spare?

It’s the miracle of mercy.

And it is why I have hope that when my earthly life is over, those who have known me will  remember me not for the stained and blotted effects of my thoughtless,  hurried and sometimes cruel choices, but rather that they will feel their hearts flooded by the loving and heartfelt goodness that comes from the light of the Spirit within me.

Because it shines in us all!

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  John 1:5