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.

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Love the One You’re With

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“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,

And in his word I hope.”

(Psalms 130:5)

Open-ended waiting is the hardest kind of waiting for me.  While waiting at stop lights, checkout lines and doctor’s offices can try my patience, at least I know for certain that I will be done with those things before too long.  I can see that my place in line is now three back, or that my appointment is now 20 minutes past due, and I can know –even in my frustration and irritation—that my needs will be tended to soon.

Waiting for God is so different from any other type of waiting.  We do not know how long we will be left to wait, if we are meant to be doing something while we wait, or if we are meant to do nothing at all.  We sometimes do not even have a clear picture of what we are waiting for.  We just know God’s voice has gone quiet, or his presence within our hearts has vanished from our awareness, and so we wait for him to return, to connect with us again.

This type of waiting requires faith and trust that go beyond anything humanly possible.

As I sat this week wondering what exactly it is I’m waiting for God to do (after all he has already become incarnate in Jesus and in a more general way incarnate in each of us and throughout all of creation) so, why wait at all?  Because what kind of Christians are we, really, if we don’t believe and understand that every day God dwells among us?  Put another way, “Every day is Christmas!” which was the enthusiastic reminder of our priest last year at the Christmas Mass we attended.

And I felt the truth in it as he said it.

So what, then, am I waiting for this season?

I would be lying if I said I knew the answer to that.

Can we always know what it is we are waiting for from God?  And are we even meant to know?

I rather doubt it.

While I did feel divinely inspired earlier in the week to point out and recognize my own personal “kingdoms” of Christmas, I know from experience that without God’s help I am completely incapable of letting them go.

Then, by mid-week I realized one thing that would help me.  Instead of focusing my sites on which of my “kingdoms” to let go of this season, I needed to keep within my vision what it is I can hold on to throughout Advent.  And it was that realization that led me to this:

“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never fails.”  (1 Corinthians 13:7-8)

It is a verse commonly read at weddings, (including my own) and is one that now, eighteen years later, I have a different and deeper understanding of than I ever could have had as a twenty-something bride.  That’s what healthy relationships do over time, isn’t it?  They broaden our perspective, deepen our understanding and unify us with another to the point that words become less necessary, expectations become less demanding, and we begin to trust the other to the point of being content and grateful just being together.  There is not always a need to do something, except be present in each moment as it comes, knowing that whatever happens next, we will face together.

And that is where I found God today.

With all the talk of “preparation and waiting” I’d begun to think I was doing something wrong by not putting up my Nativity yet, not saying the right prayers for Advent, not doing this, not doing that; when I suddenly remembered that the God of Advent is the same exact God he was before Advent.  And the same exact God he has been throughout my entire life, and throughout every year, century, and millennia before me.

He is the same God who has borne every trial with me, who has believed in me every step of the way, who has hoped all the best for me (in spite of my sometimes bad choices), and who has endured every injustice I’ve ever suffered right alongside me.

He has never failed me.

And while I may not know exactly what I am waiting  for right now, nor how long I will be waiting, I am happy and relieved to be reminded today that the One I am waiting for, is also the One with whom I wait.

Freely Given

When I was a tween, I loved the “Flowers in the Attic” books by V.C. Andrews.  They were among one of the first “scandalous” books about love and family I’d read, and they initiated my cross-over from the  babyish “Young Adult” section to the grown-up “Fiction” section of the book store.  In the pages of those books, I had become so engrossed in the lives of the characters, that I was truly sad to say goodbye to them.  So you can imagine my elation when, a short time later, I learned that V.C. Andrews was releasing a new book—the start of another series.  Wanting to read it right away, I knew it would take a while for me to get a newly released book at our local library, so I made a plan to save up my money and buy it as soon as it hit the book store shelves.  For weeks, I saved up my hard-earned money until finally, I bought the book!    That is why it was such a painful decision when my neighbor–somebody that would hang out with me out of convenience of proximity more than out of interest in being my true friend–asked me if she could borrow the book.  I hadn’t even read it yet, and I told her so.  To me, the fact that I hadn’t yet read it explained everything, but she didn’t seem to think so.  She continued to pester me for the book.  She assured me she would take good care of it.  I felt guilt sinking in.  I began to reason the possibilities.  It’s a brand new book.  She might lose it.  She might not ever give it back.  She might drop it in a mud puddle or spill food on it.  There was no way I would give it to her. But then, my Sunday school upbringing and the image of the Santa Clause-like God that was supposed to teach me goodness and save my soul, (even though He seemed a little bit scary, incredibly powerful and very judgmental), pushed the guilt I felt to an intolerable level within me.  The angel of my conscience must have been all but visible on my shoulder.  You should share. Let her borrow the book. It will get you to heaven.  In the end, my conscience overpowered me.  What could really happen? I shrugged and reluctantly handed her the book, fully expecting it would come back to me as good as new.

Not surprisingly, it took weeks for her to give it back to me.  I would ask about it and drop hints that I would like it back pronto, but it seemed that she was in no hurry.  Further, she informed me the book wasn’t nearly as good as she’d thought it was going to be.  When she finally did return it to me, I nearly cried.  While I clearly enjoyed reading books and tucking in bookmarks to mark my pages in an effort of new-book preservation, she clearly preferred to wrap the front cover around the book as she read, and dog-ear pages or leave the book cracked open, face down to mark her place.  The book no longer looked new.  I was sick to my stomach thinking about the generosity of my heart and the sacrifice I’d made to give her the book.  The world had taught me an important lesson:   Don’t be a doormat.  Stand up for yourself.  Do not be bullied into sharing things that belong to you, even if someone makes you feel guilty. 

I never forgot that lesson the world taught me.  I rarely loaned out books at all, and when I did it was only when I was sure I was done with them, totally prepared to lose them forever.  In other words, only when it would be of no sacrifice to me whatsoever.

As the years wore on, I met others who loved books every bit as much as me, but seemed to have no attachment to them at all.  Instead, where my paranoia and need to control who was taking and bringing  books from my personal library had me feeling frayed and frustrated, they would demonstrate—time and again—their lack of attachment by sharing with me books they’d enjoyed, with no expectation or deadline for their return.  Their actions demonstrated for me a new way of handling my books.  For me, it was the “Jesus way,” the flesh-and-blood-God-with-us experience that opened my heart to reconsider my death-grip hold on my books. That experience softened my approach.  I began to share my books a little more freely, but only to those I had faith in, those who were deserving, those who’d earned my trust.  This loosening of control over my personal library left me feeling God-like.  Generous. Almighty. What I failed to see though was that I had only “evolved” into the God of my youth—the Santa Clause-like God who gave toys to only the “good boys and girls.”

Years later, the fact was dawning on me that perhaps my “generous” actions to embody the “image” in Whom I’d been made were no longer a true representation of the God in which I believed.  This was barely a thought, really.  But it is clear to me now this thought was dawning on me because I’d made a new friend who was raising the bar for me in the world of book-loaning.  I had taken note with awe at countless books she’d given me.  Time and time again.  At least a dozen.  Maybe more.  And I mean GIVEN.  Freely.  “You might like this,” she would say.  And inevitably I would.  I would like it.  I would LOVE it, in fact.  And I would tuck it safely on my library shelf, partly because I didn’t know of anyone else who would be interested in reading it, but really–mostly–because I wanted to OWN those books for myself.

Then, barely recognizable, an opportunity presented itself.

Some might call it a “test.”

My husband told me of someone he knew who was really struggling, a recovering addict who was trying to hold his marriage together and stay “recovered,” but who was also feeling so lost and confused and unsure—particularly about God—that he just didn’t know what to do.

I felt for the man as my husband shared his story with me.  I wanted to help him, but how?  Suddenly, I had an idea.  I went and grabbed a book out of cardboard box.  “Tell him he should read this,” I said.  And I showed my husband what I thought would be the perfect answer for this man.  It was my newly bought, unread copy of my favorite author’s book that I had just received from Amazon.  As I showed my husband the book, I felt something stirring inside of me.  A long-forgotten memory perhaps?  I knew this man was struggling.  And I desperately wanted to help. “Tell him to get this book and read it,” I said again, tightening my grip on the book and waving it in my husband’s face.

That lesson of the world was still with me.  I knew that giving things away that were special to me, could leave me feeling very short-changed. This book was unread.  Brand new.  Mine.  I was starting to panic a bit because I had a sinking feeling that I should give him this actual copy, and not make him order his own.  Let’s face it, I knew that when I am struggling–full of fear and doubt and concern and worry—like this man, what helps me most has never been someone telling me to spend my own money, order a book, wait for the book to arrive, and then begin reading.  What has helped me has been someone putting a book in my hand and saying, “Read this.”  Just like my friend had done for me time and time again.  But then a voice of reason chimed in:  if I haven’t read it yet, how do I even know if it’s what he’ll need.  A good point, but quickly forgotten, as my eyes came to rest on the spines of all the books on my shelf given to me over the years by my friend who’d never once asked for reimbursement, nor for their return.  In fact, in that moment I came to the full realization that she’d never even asked me if I’d read them.  And I didn’t know a single person who was more at peace and content with life than her.

I realized then that she, through her actions, had provided for me the experience– the Spiritual embodiment –of “gifts freely given.”

It was the God-like image I was being invited to become myself.

It was also the same opportunity to experience transformation now, just as it was when I was a tween.  The only difference was that now, so many years later, I had the Triune wisdom—the Father, Son and Spirit–of my choices to topple the “worldly wisdom” that had been prevailing within me for so long.  What seemed like “common sense” to hold onto something I’d just bought and hadn’t yet had the chance to enjoy, suddenly seemed hollow and empty in comparison to the opportunity to provide something that just might be the tool this man needed in his struggle.  The “ramifications” of my choices were crystal-clear now:  I was no longer choosing between an angel on my shoulder and my so-called friend’s guilt-trip.  Now, I was choosing between my own selfishness and reaching out to a man in the midst of struggle.  I was experiencing the promise that Jesus made of “his yoke being easy and his burden light.”  The decision was so easy, it could hardly be called a decision.  It was more of a shifting in the wind.  A change in perspective. A “giving in” to the flow of a current much more powerful than I.

“No,” I said then to my husband, “scratch that.  Don’t tell him to get it.  Just give him this one.”

And I see now that both as a tween and as an adult in these two opportunities, I said yes.  But, the first time, I didn’t have the life experience to understand the benefit of my actions, and so I was left with only the “world” pointing out the foolishness of my ways.  Don’t be a doormat.  Stand up for yourself.  Do not be bullied into sharing things that belong to you….  Those thoughts transformed me in ways that I am only now– decades later– beginning to undo:  the hardening of my heart, the giving in to reason, the berating myself for being “too nice.”

For me, had I not stayed on a spiritual journey– not “found God”– I believe it wouldn’t matter how old I lived, I would still have the mindset of my tween-self.  Because without God, without Jesus, without the Holy Spirit to guide me, there are really only two choices in every decision:  one that leaves me feeling like I did the “right thing” or one that leaves me feeling like a “fool.”

Now, as I continue on my journey, I am reminded time and time again through similar opportunities to give away, to share, to be made a “fool,” that it is not so important what we give, or to whom, or even why…but that we do give.  Freely.  Because the truth is that I am neither the “good person” I once thought I was, nor am I the “fool.”  I am merely an “image” of the God I love. And that “image” –in every instance –has the power to transform.

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?

Piloting Through the Storm

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Summer break has officially arrived at our house today!!!

(And wouldn’t you know, it’s raining.)

((So the youngest one is already bored and it’s only 9:20 AM.))

(((Oh, goody.)))

Lucky for me, though,  this gloomy weather provides me with the perfect backdrop for what I wanted to write about today:  storms.

My sister-in-law captured this great photo from a midwest storm brewing near their house a week or two ago, and I thought it was a great illustration of something that is easy to forget when those more invisible, but equally– or sometimes even more severe–storms start to churn on our insides.  Whether it be a spiritual storm that tests your faith, a social storm that tests your integrity, stormy thoughts that test your attitude, or a physical storm that usually tests all three,  I thought this photo was a great reminder of something I read in Marianne Williamson’s Return to Love a while back.  In it, (and I paraphrase here) I read that in every storm, the sky does not go all black or all gray, the gray or the black temporarily blocks out the blue, but the blue is always there.

Now, maybe you’d realized that before, but I hadn’t really thought about it until just then as I read it.  It made me think of the few times I’ve been on an airplane and left the ground in the middle of pouring rain.  It’s not long until the pilot pushes the plane right through the storm and  finds that blue sky– making it a smoother ride for all of us on board– that I realize the vastness of the sky itself was a calm, constant blue all along!  I felt like this photo was such a great illustration of that very thing:  you can see the darkness beginning to creep in and cover the bright light, but you can also see that the light really isn’t going anywhere…it’s just getting covered up!

I thought about this as I walked with my family during the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life this weekend.  I was privileged this year to be joined by my friend, who has survived (and thrived) after a breast cancer diagnosis 18 months ago, along with her mother, a survivor who has been cancer free for 19 years!  I had just gotten to know my friend around the time of her diagnosis a year and a half ago, so I doubt I was much of a “blue sky” in her time of darkness.  But, I know of other friends of hers who were.  And I watched that process as people flocked to take care and help out where they could.  Today, she is healthier, stronger and arguably, “more alive” than ever after her difficult “storm”.

And while it didn’t seem related at the time, as I look back on it now, I realize there were two other events from this weekend that I’ll share because in my mind, they are relevant to this same idea.

The first event was a rather ordinary one for us, because after Relay for Life, we went to our usual Saturday evening Mass (the only difference being that all five of us looked more casual than usual in our flourescent green RFL t-shirts.   But, last year on RFL day, we arrived in rainbow tie-dye, so I think the congregation is getting used to it!)  At any rate, the homily by our deacon that day was about the miracles of Jesus and the variations in the understanding and explaining of these miracles over the last 2000+ years.  I know I’ve heard explanations before that some people feel takes away from the “miracle” of these events– particularly in regards to the feeding of the thousands.  That explanation is that it was through witnessing the action of Jesus’ sharing of the loaves and fish, he prompted others to take what little food they had hidden away in their cloaks and share it, too.  For me personally, I like this second explanation every bit (or maybe even more!) as much as I like the idea of  Jesus  mysteriously and miraculously multiplying the loaves and fish himself.  Because frankly, to me, whether we are fed miraculously by God, or we collectively come into the heart and mind of Christ to feed each other, a miracle has occurred as far as I’m concerned.  The details don’t really matter much to me.

Finally, the third event was the sharing of a story by my husband that one of his co-workers had shared with him.  It was a beautiful essay by Robert Fulghum, the author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  The essay is a great illustration for learning the difference between an inconvenience in life and a problem.  And the essay summarizes the difference like this:

“One of life’s best coping mechanisms is to know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem.   If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire, then you’ve got a problem.  Everything else is an inconvenience.  Life is inconvenient.  Life is lumpy.  A lump in the oatmeal, a lump in the throat and a lump in the breast are not the same kind of lump.  One needs to learn the difference.”

And in that moment I thought of my friend, a survivor of breast cancer.

And I thought of Jesus working his miracles.

And I thought of my sister-in-law capturing this photo of the darkness temporarily moving in to cover the light.

And I hoped and I prayed that the next time I find myself in the middle of one of life’s storms, God sends me someone (or several someones) to help pilot me through that storm to be an earthly illustration of his constant light for me.  Because even though I claim to have the faith to get me through anything, like everything else in a storm, even my faith can become lost in darkness  from time to time.

And then I hoped and I prayed that during all the other times– the times of sunshine and brightness and peace in my life–that God gives me the strength and the wisdom and the courage to help pilot others through their storms.  To be a pinpoint of light for them in their darkness.

Because when it’s all said and done, whether I’m piloting others, or they are piloting me… being able to weather any storm life throws our way with the support of others?

Well.

That’s miracle enough for me.

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.

What Surrender Looks Like: Lessons From a Vole

As I sat in my basement office one day struggling to string words together for the church presentation I needed to make in only a few days’ time, I became distracted by a vole.

Do you know voles?  I tend to think of them as the ugly cousin of the field mouse.  Or, more positively, the better looking cousin of the mole.  I found a picture of one to post here for you, but to be honest, the ones we’d see in our back yard weren’t as cute as this one.

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Anyway,  the vole had fallen down into the window well of our basement office window.

The window next to the desk holding the computer where I sat trying to create my presentation, thank you very much.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw it fall into the window well.  I got up to glance at it and see if it was OK (to be honest, this was not an unusual occurrence).  I saw that the vole was fine, and I made a mental note to go outside and rescue it once my presentation was more complete.   But, to my surprise, the vole began clawing his way up the window screen trying to get to safety.

Yeah.

It was creepy and distracting all at the same time.

 Well, I thought as I tried to ignore him, because, after all –PRESENTATION!– maybe I won’t even have to save him.  But no.  He got to the top of the screen and could not scale the expanse between himself and the grass where he needed to be.

So, fall again, he did.

(Total sidebar here, but I can’t help but think of Yoda with the way I just strung those words together…can you?)

Anyhoo, my point is, this climbing and falling went on not two or three more times, but probably half a dozen or more.  And the whole time I sat there, further distracted, each time hoping he would save himself, so that I could continue with my creative process.  Finally, defeated,  the vole stopped trying.

And I thought, Great!  Now I will finally be able to GET SOMETHING DONE in the peace and quiet.

But, I couldn’t. stop. thinking. about. that. stinkin’. vole.

So, in a huff and with a sense of complete disgust, I went upstairs, grabbed a bug net, and went out to the window well and rescued the vole.  I  released it out into a part of the yard where I thought he would be much more happy–near the wood pile.  (And since he didn’t reappear in the window well, minutes later, I can only assume he was happier there.)

By the time I got all done with that whole exercise, what little sliver of a creative process that I’d had up to that point,  was now completely lost.

I sat there staring at the blinking cursor on my computer screen and had nothing to say.

As the cursor blinked away at me,  my thoughts became jumbled with the laundry list of things I needed to get done in addition to my presentation.  And I began sweating at the thought of it all.  Come on!  Come on! THINK!  I’d shout internally.  Give me the words, God!  I’d scream inside.

But my thoughts would always go back to the vole.

WHY CAN’T I STOP THINKING ABOUT THAT VOLE?!?!!? 

And then, though I’d barely realized that I’d asked a question, an answer formed in my heart with  these words, It wasn’t until he stopped trying to save himself, that you rescued him.

Hmmm.

Maybe the reason I couldn’t stop thinking about that vole, was because that experience was a lesson meant for me about trying to force the creative process, especially when I’m trying to force it for God.

Lesson learned.

I realized then and there that I can think (part of the creative process) about what I want to say while I’m doing just about anything else.  And I can write down notes (also part of the creative process) as the thoughts come to me.  And I can sit down and write more when the time is less forced (creative process again!).

And you know what?

It all worked out.

My presentation got done with time to spare.  The house and kids didn’t suffer (too much, anyway) as a result of my neglecting ALL OTHER THINGS for the sake of the presentation.

I can’t tell you how often, still, I think of that vole.  But, I definitely think of it anytime I feel that creative process being forced in me (which is often).  And it’s that vole that make me think of ways I might be able to surrender myself a little more to the circumstances of my life and trust that all will still be well in the end.

Yep.  That vole sure knew a thing or two.

Because, three years later, it hasn’t failed me yet.

The Pharisee In Me

Of all the characters throughout the Gospels, the least relatable to me are the Pharisees.  Those well-to-do, high-and-mighty, laa-dee-da, goody-two-shoes men who have taken their jobs of upholding the law (Their God-given law! The Church’s law!  Man’s law!)  so seriously that they do not see what we, some 2000 years later, have the full benefit of seeing:

They are killing God.

And so I look for the Pharisees around me, and I speak out against them when I see fit.  “Get behind me, Satan!”  I say.  (Only it sounds more like, ”  “That’s just stupid!”  or  “You are so blind to the Truth!” or “How can you say that?”)

And when I’ve successfully changed their hearts and minds, I walk away feeling triumphant in my battle.  I have won!  I have shown “them” the way of Truth!  (Because I know it).

I am impressed with myself.  And sometimes, I can see others are, too.

And I smile to myself, “Look what I’m doing for you, God!”  I say.  (And secretly, I think I’m his favorite).

Until today.

Good Friday.

The day I see what God’s love really looks like:

…the buzzing coud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up….  Herein is love.  This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.   -C.S. Lewis, from The Four Loves

Today I see that if this is what love looks like, I am more like the Pharisees than any other character.  Me, still thinking God’s love is “earned” through careful score-keeping.  Me, still thinking I can “see” God’s truth better than anyone else.  Me, still thinking it is my duty (and my God-given right!) to uphold the Law.

But not willing to open my arms, and my mind, and my heart to those who think differently.  Who live differently.  Who sin differently. And who love differently than I do.

Not willing, despite the fact that I say I am.

Who else can I be in these stories, if not the Pharisees?  Why am I so willing to see myself in any other character of these stories–even Judas, who at least has enough sense to just get rid of himself!–but not the Pharisees?

I don’t know…probably because it stinks to admit that I’m killing God?

I. am. killing. God.

And my breath catches at that realization.

I am a Pharisee.

And the thought sinks into my core.  The awareness dawns that even though I am just now beginning to see the Pharisee in me, our Triune God has seen it there in me the whole time.

And I wonder at that for a while.

I am speechless.

The tears begin to fall, as I want so desperately to hate myself for God.  But how can you hate yourself when God has commanded you only to love?

I don’t know how to remedy that.  In fact, if I understand the stories right, I don’t even think *I* can.

But, what I see in Jesus on the cross, is an act of love.

“Follow me,” he says.  And I want to.

What will my act of love be?

Today, it will be that I will go to liturgy, and I will kiss Jesus on the cross.

And I will ask for forgiveness.  (Again).

And I will feel his love. (Again).

And I will accept his love. (Again).

And I will cry.

Because my heart spills over with this impossible realization:

I am a Pharisee…and he loves me, anyway.

21 Days

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By this midpoint of Lent, I hope you’re finding your Lenten journey has been fruitful!  It is amazing the things that can be revealed to us, as we sit quietly in the desert of our hearts.

I’ve had a bit of a startling realization myself this morning.  Although, to be honest it really shouldn’t be that startling, because it’s almost always the same realization, shown to me in a new way:  the realization that I have a real knack for getting in God’s way.

This morning’s realization came to me after finally writing out in my journal exactly what I’d hoped to accomplish when I began this blog last Lent.  And when I wrote out those memories of what I’d hoped to achieve, I had to face the reality of what was wrong now.

Here’s what I remember about my reasons for the launching of The Mystic Mom:

1.  To share with “the world” (which at that time consisted of my mom, my mother-in-law, and a few friends of mine–Hi, Faithful Readers!), how I “see” God working in my life all the time.  Since I felt that the “mud had been wiped from my eyes” after reading several books by and about mystics (in various faiths…not just Christianity) I wanted to share how the Being that I call God really is a very ordinary and real part of our everyday lives.

And that’s it!  That was the start and end of my list at that time for starting this blog.

But, here’s where I get in the way.  Because as soon as I hit that “publish” button for the first time, a whole new list of thoughts began to form.  You know, those sneaky little thoughts that you try not to even entertain, but somehow seep into your being and attach themselves to the other, simpler, intention?  Thoughts like:

  1. Maybe someone would tell me how much my writing has changed their life.
  2. Maybe that person will tell some other people and one of those people will be a publisher.
  3. Maybe that publisher will want me to write a book.
  4. Maybe I won’t have an idea for a book, and my one chance for ever writing one will be gone!
  5. On the other hand, maybe I will have an idea for a book and it will be published, but not sell.
  6. Or, maybe that book will be a New York Times best seller!
  7. Maybe I will become famous for that best seller.
  8. Maybe I will have to travel the country promoting my book.
  9. Maybe I’ll have to travel the world!
  10. Who is going to watch my children while I’m traveling the world?
  11. Will my husband be jealous that I’m now traveling the world and the kids are more his responsibility than ever?
  12. Will our marriage survive this jealousy?
  13. What will we do with all the money, too?  Will we give it to charity, or hoard it for ourselves and become all focused on riches and wealth and forget all about God?
  14.  OK, Reality check.  The book will never get written.  The world doesn’t need another book.  Especially a book by me.
  15.  I’ll just blog sometimes.  For fun.
  16. Or , when I have something really important to say.   And that I know is coming from God.
  17. And also if I have the time to blog. If I don’t have the time that’s OK, too.  God will surely understand that.  I mean, he blessed me with motherhood three times over.  Surely he knows how busy I am!
  18. God probably doesn’t really need me to say anything anyway.  He’s got a whole slew of angels to deliver his messages.
  19. Plus, there are lots of better messengers than me.  More gifted.  More talented.  Just…better.
  20.  Why am I doing this again?

Do you see what happened there?  Over the course of the past year, I’ve drifted away from my original intention of taking my enthusiasm for understanding God through mysticism to “the world” and convinced myself that I should fear failure, and success, and just about everything in between.  So the posts have dwindled, the keyboard was broken, and The Mystic Mom was silenced.

And in that silence, God was able to be heard.

So this morning, when I  asked God to walk me through this whole process again and show me what it is HE intended (if anything) for me on this whole blogging journey, he very conveniently pointed out how far I’d strayed from my original intention.

Then he very conveniently also pointed out the one thing I’d promised to “give up” this Lent…my excuses.

And I know from experience, that excuses can only be extinguished with actions.  If I begin to act, then the excuses disappear.  This type of action is called discipline (from the word disciple), and it takes a lot of effort–especially in the beginning–to follow, and trust, and allow yourself to be transformed in the being God intended you to be.

For me, the act of discipline is, in most cases, the same thing as forming new habits.  I’ve heard it said that forming a habit takes only 21 days. I hope that’s true.  That’s why I’m announcing today that I will now be forming the habit of publishing a blog post every Monday, Wednesday and Friday through the end of Lent.  I will also tweet and post some other encouraging words on my Facebook page five days a week. 

It’s a start.  I don’t promise my posts will be good.  And I’ll probably surely fail the schedule at least a few times.  But, I promise I’ll get up again, when I do.   Also, in the beginning at least, I’ll probably be doing a lot of sharing of other people’s writings and words instead of my own.  But it’s the action of writing every day that I need in order to get rid of the excuses.

I learned a long time ago that what the Catholic church calls “sacraments” are really actions, not things.  They are actions of God for people.  We call them visible signs of invisible grace.    They are not “received” by us, so much as they are “celebrated” by us.  Because God is always everywhere, so is His grace ever-present.  Sacraments are the principal action through which Christ gives his Spirit to Christians and makes us a holy people.  We celebrate by affirming, honoring and praising our life in Christ through the sacraments.

With that reminder, I am now keenly aware that my writing…this blog, my journal, (a book?), whatever…is my sacrament.

My only real “job” here is to TAKE the experiences God gives me, BLESS them with a grateful heart, BREAK them into a lesson, and GIVE that lesson to others.

Why would I want to make an excuse for that?

Little Rays of Light

Every once in a while we moms have a moment where we are caught off-guard and realize that maybe we’ve not done EVERYTHING wrong.

This morning I had one such moment.

Between bustling one kid off to the dentist and dragging another along who woke up with a fever, I felt like this was going to be one of those mornings where I just couldn’t win.  But then, after dropping the Middle One at school after his appointment, there I was with my Little Bean in the van when I noticed off in the distance, through our overcast, cloudy, sky a hole in the clouds where a bright ray of sun shone down.

“Look over there, Bean, isn’t that pretty?” I asked.

She looked up.  “Wow!,” she said, “It looks like Heaven!”

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She read my mind, I thought.

There was a pause.

And then, “I bet it’s Baxter looking down on us from Heaven,” she said with a smile.

“Hmmm.  That’s a beautiful thought,” I said, “I bet you’re right.  He probably dug a hole through the clouds to peak at us.”

She giggled.  “Hi, Baxter!  Hi, Jesus!”  she shouted from the back seat.  She was so happy and matter-of-fact about her greeting–so sure of herself and her faith–that for a moment, I wondered if she might actually see something I didn’t.

But then.

Then,  God pressed down on my heart real hard, and said, “Or maybe she just remembers everything you’ve taught her.”

Amen.

“Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” – Mark 10:14