Seeing God’s Smile in the New Year

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

Numbers 6:24-26 (NLT)

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

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

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

I screamed.

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

He started crying.

Yep. Good feeling gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simply trust in it.  Soak it up.

And let the Spirit of it guide you.

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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.

Using Nature as Our Guide through the Darkness

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I’ve confessed before that relocating is one of the most painful experiences for me to undergo.  For me, it feels like the closest experience to dying I’ve ever known.  I give up so much of the “me” I’d come to be in one place… faith formation coordinator, religious education teacher, vacation bible school coordinator, book club member, Bunco player, room mother, PTA chairperson, committee member of x, y, and z, etc. etc….only to find myself uprooted and transplanted to another place where people do not know my gifts, my favorite past times, or even my (often sarcastic) personality.  It takes time to get to know others, to get to know who I will count among my friends, and who I will come to consider family.

There is no blue print for how to do this.

Much like the relocation experience for me, I believe we are not meant to stay whole during this Advent season’s experience of waiting and darkness.  Like our landscaped bushes and shrubs during this season, parts of us are meant to be trimmed away, and left broken and raw as the darkness sets in.  There we sit stunned, immobile, and unsure of where to go from here.

Then, eventually, we catch a glimmer or a twinkle perhaps, of something—someone–glistening in the darkness.  Our eyes begin to adjust, ever so slowly, and gradually we make out silhouettes of others that reflect and project the light our way.  Pretty soon, even the heavy snowfall bounces the light around and we feel ourselves lighter, brighter, more hopeful of things to come.

Finally, we realize perhaps this isn’t the end after all, but rather the increasing of Someone in us, and the decreasing of the self we are no longer meant to be. (John 3:30)

It is yet another journey for our soul.

And like all journeys, it requires trimming back some areas of our lives, so that what matters most can break forth and blossom when the light dawns.

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.

The Kingdom of Christmas

As the Advent season opens, I think many of us wonder how we can possibly find the time and space for God when the hustle and bustle of Christmas preparations (the decorations, the shopping, the baking, the meal planning, etc.!) demands so much of us already.

Many of us, as the Christmas season begins to dawn, become stressed at the thought of all the ways in which we may disappoint ourselves and others this season:  our gifts may not be appreciated, our decorations may not be admired, our meals may not be edible, and as a result our time and efforts are not validated.  This process can often leave us feeling unappreciated, unloved and rejected.

The simple truth, of course, is that in order to make room for God, we must let other things go.  And the things we must let go are very often things we aren’t meant to hold on to in the first place!

For me, the primary thing I need to let go of is my perfection.  There is no better time of year than Christmas for my inner Supermom to rear her ugly head.  THIS YEAR the house will look (and stay looking!) beautiful!  THIS YEAR our family photo will be the envy of all.  THIS YEAR the smells of my fresh baked cookies will permeate the very walls of our house and leave guests saying for months…mmmm, doesn’t their house smell yummy?    THIS YEAR our family will give so generously to our local charities that we’ll be contacted by our newspaper wanting to give us some recognition (“Oh, no thanks,” we’ll say so modestly, “we want to remain anonymous!”)  THIS YEAR our kids with their shiny cheeks and sparkling clothes will not only go to church and sing like angels but serve the local soup kitchen before they even think to look under the tree and see if there are any presents for themselves.  When they do notice, they will shriek with excitement saying, “Oh my goodness, pinch us!  We do not deserve such kindness!”…  

I will confess this is a *bit* of what my “kingdom” looks like every year.

It is my own personal Kingdom of Christmas.

And, perhaps not shockingly, it never happens that way.

While I do exaggerate my Kingdom of Christmas (at least a little), the one thing I’m certain of is that I’m not alone in my quest for making the Christmas season one of my own private perfection.  What there is “no room” for in my vision of this kingdom (despite my penciling in the extraordinary charitable donations and soup kitchen, haha) is a breaking down of my self.  Because guess who in my little kingdom sketch is really the hero?

That’s right:  me.

Most of us don’t create for ourselves a Kingdom of Christmas where we fail miserably, or where we are humbled, or where we give to the point that it makes us angry or sad that we’ve had to sacrifice our own material comforts (maybe even disappoint our children from the latest technology upgrade?) for people we don’t even know, and who will never know it was us who sacrificed at all.

God’s kingdom, of course, is vastly different from our own personal kingdoms.  I think my good friend Anne over at www.makingroomforgod.com said it best in her post on pride a few weeks ago:

“God sent us Jesus to mimic for us – in human form – just what He wants us to do.

He wants us to realize that His Kingdom looks like a stable and a manger – not a palace and a throne.

He wants us to realize that His Kingdom serves the poor and the lowly, not the rich and the prideful.

He wants us to realize that His Kingdom will go against the rules of society.

He wants us to realize that His Kingdom will endure trials and tribulations that no person should ever endure; it won’t have a lot of uplifting, powerful moments that open the door to prideful thoughts. You may not ever be recognized for your work.

His Kingdom will require us to relinquish control, be smart on our feet, and to outwit with God’s control; it won’t have anything to do with us.

His Kingdom requires the death of ourselves on a lowly cross; it will not be a celebration of all that we have accomplished.”

It’s no wonder Luke tells us that Mary had to lay our infant King in a manger because there was no room for any of them in the inn (Luke 2:7);  many of us are so busy trying to be the heroes of our own stories, that our egos have booked every room!

The Good News, of course, is that when we do fail (and we will), and we feel ourselves “humbled and suffering” as a result of our failures, we can know that that is the precise moment in which a much more beautiful process has begun.  It is the process in which we have broken down enough for God himself to begin working in us, because, unlike us, God does not fear nor avoid the lowly places.

In fact, Luke reminds us, it is always there, where we least expect, that he begins to “make room” and build what we never could—a Kingdom that will last.

Give: A Spirituality of the Eucharist in Four Parts

(This is the fourth and final post in a four-part series.  To see my intro from Part 1 about my inspiration for this series, click here.)

Give

As I was reflecting on this final action of giving, I realized something I’d not noticed before.  In each of the three Gospel accounts where the Last Supper is described in very similar detail, (Matthew 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23) one thing is not made clear to me…did Jesus take the bread and wine and give it all to his disciples, or did he keep some bread and wine for himself, too?    It wouldn’t matter that much, of course, if these actions of his at the Last Supper weren’t, for me, so closely tied to his actions throughout his life.

Now I am left wondering here, how do I interpret this act of giving in the Last Supper?  Is it an act of total giving?  Or is it his final act of sharing (where he gives others nourishment, but also takes some nourishment for himself) before finally giving it all on the Cross?

Here I have only questions.

Theologians everywhere are probably rolling their eyes because there is a common knowledge among them to which this housewife is not privy.  No matter.  In my readings right now, I do not know for sure.  Still, even in my not knowing, I find meaning in my closing this four-part blog series with more questions.  Doing so best illustrates, I think, a final and frustrating point for Christians everywhere regarding the life of Jesus and all his actions:  an invitation into God’s Mystery.  Because in our world of instant money, instant streaming and instant access, sitting with questions and allowing a mystery to unravel can leave one feeling highly unsatisfied and uncomfortable.  After all, this is America, for crying out loud!  We need answers!

My best example of the gift of asking questions and waiting for answers, though, is Jesus himself.  In my reading of the Gospels, Jesus asks far more questions than he answers;  and what answers he does give generally come in the form of parables or similes  (“The kingdom of heaven is like…”  Matthew 13:24, 31, 33, 44) which are, in their own special way an invitation into further Mystery.

Indeed, the more time I spend with Jesus in the Gospels, he is almost never about giving answers. He is instead always about drawing us deeper.

Deeper into ourselves.

Deeper into God.

Joining the part of ourselves that is spirit, to the part of God that is human.

For me, it is where “deep calls to deep.” (Psalm 42:7)

But, regardless of whether Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper were of total giving or of sharing (lest we forget that John skips over the details of the meal itself entirely and reminds us that Jesus’ final act was to kneel down and serve  [John 13:1-20]) what we can see in Jesus is that he does leave us with one final shocking example of just how far we have to go before we may fully understand what it means to give.  It was only days after sharing (or giving away?) bread and wine with the apostles in the Last Supper, that he showed us what giving of ourselves—fully– really looks like as he allowed his arms to be hammered open on the Cross.

And so it is these four actions in the Last Supper:  take, bless, break and give, that I try to be open to every time I celebrate the Eucharist.

Like life itself, it is a process.

Like life itself, I do not do it well most of the time.

But also, like life itself, thankfully, I have Jesus to lead me through it and draw me in to the Deep.

And on this final day in the week of Thanksgiving, one thing of which I am certain is this:  whether we are offering gratitude, sharing our lives with others, or giving ourselves up in an act of service or love to our fellow-man, our actions echo those of our Lord in his final hours.

And that is reason enough for us all to give thanks.

Break: A Spirituality of the Eucharist in Four Parts

(This is the third post in a four-part series.  To see my intro from Part 1 about my inspiration for this series, click here.)

Break

As I was praying for insight regarding the meaning of “breaking” in my own life, two ideas came to me.  First came the memory of those moments when things just happen to us, and in those moments even time itself becomes broken, in a sense, from their experience.  There is only a “before” this event, and an “after” this event.  Those moments may include things like the loss of a loved one, the end of a friendship or relationship, or the relocating of our families.  But there are also times where we notice we need to “break open” in a sense to new thinking and new ways of seeing others and ourselves.  It is this latter type of “breaking” that I want to illustrate for you today,  because these moments are very often moments of “subtraction” and the “second half of life” experiences that I mentioned in yesterday’s post.

(Note:  In the interest of full disclosure, the story I’m sharing today was originally posted on my blog in November 2012 under the title “I Will Always Be a Rule Breaker,” but even now it best illustrates, I think, why we can find reason to give thanks for those moments where we find ourselves broken…and humbled…and perhaps in the truest sense of the word, “blessed.”)

Over the years, through a process of prayer and discernment I’ve become more aware of how I judge others.  Don’t let the word discernment intimidate you.  Discernment is really a fancy name for taking notice of our choices in life, and asking for (then interpreting and following) God’s advice.  In many cases, it’s where our gift of human reason gets sprinkled with some Divine Intervention.  Through this process we learn a lot (sometimes painfully) about others and ourselves.

One painful experience I had with this process took place a few years back.  I was waiting to pick my kids up at school and saw a young mom standing with a child on her hip, waiting for her other children to be dismissed from school.  On her shoulder, I noticed a tattoo of a giant feathered wing of some sort (I presumed part of an eagle) and some writing as well.  I couldn’t read the writing at all, but upon seeing this enormous (and, in my opinion– obnoxious– tattoo) I did a mental eye roll and turned away at the sight of it.

Ugh.  Tattoos!  I thought , Why do people think they need these??  And what kind of mother goes around with a giant one on her shoulder, like that?

It was that second sentence that, moments later, stung me the most.

As the woman moved closer to me, I could make out the words on the tattoo.  It turned out the wings were not those of an eagle, but of an angel.  And the letters spelled the name of her dead son.  I knew his name because it was unique, and I’d noted it as I’d read about him in the newspaper only a few weeks before.  The article had been about his battle with brain cancer, and their family’s struggles as they balanced jobs, three other children, and his illness.  It ended with his losing the battle before he’d celebrated his second birthday.

In that moment, my own thought came back at me with a stinging slap and I realized exactly “what kind of mother she was.” 

She was “the kind of mother” who had experienced depths of sorrow and grieving beyond anything I could even imagine.  She was “the kind of mother” who had seen her infant son’s face twist and wrench into pangs of terror and shrieks of agony beyond anything humanly imaginable.  She was the “kind of mother” who had to answer the difficult questions of “why” from her three other children, as they struggled with the loss of their brother,  when she herself couldn’t even really know.

And I wondered why I’d thought it logical and acceptable to cheapen and limit the depth of her motherhood all because of a tattoo.

In that moment of facing my horrible judgment of another, I realized I had a choice.  I could either dismiss and defend my thought by saying to myself something as ridiculous as, “Well, even so, I would never get my child’s name tattooed on my shoulder!”   (I mean, while that’s probably true because as a matter of preference I still don’t like tattoos–I also don’t like skinny jeans or crocheted toilet covers– that was hardly the point).   The point is that her tattoo, in memory and honor of her angelic son, was also a simple matter of her personal taste. 

The fact that I’d tried to judge her personal taste to be a reflection of her ability to parent, was my problem not hers.

I could only think of one thing to do.

I searched deep within my heart and asked, What would You have me do now?   And the answer came so swift and sure, I had no doubt:  pray.

So I did.

Every time I saw her.  (And, not by accident I’m sure, I saw her nearly every day).

Of course, I’d see her mostly at school pickup, but sometimes randomly around town, too.  And each and every time, no matter what kind of frenzied pace I was keeping in order to conquer my day’s activities, I would slow down, at least for a moment, and pray.  I prayed for her, for her children at home, for her spouse, for their health, and for their son in heaven.

I also prayed for me.  I prayed for forgiveness of my petty judgments (including those yet undetected), for the blessing of motherhood, for the gift of healthy children, and for the need to be reminded (often!) of the fact that despite our personal tastes, despite our harshest criticisms of others, the truth of the matter is
that most of the time we’re all just doing the best we know how with the cards we’ve been dealt.

As a result, I no longer worry about “breaking” the rule that says, “Do not judge.” (Mt 7:1)  In my fallen human state, I doubt I’m any more likely to follow that law to the letter than I am of driving the speed limit.  Instead, I do the only thing I know to do:  I observe my judgments as I become aware of them, and I ask in the depths of my heart, What would You have me do now?

And what I get in return is never the finger-wagging reprimand with a harsh command to stop judging, that I feel I deserve.  No.  Instead, I most often get the simple gift of seeing how my harshest, pettiest judgments can be turned into loving actions for others (and even myself).

And that is a “breaking” of a whole other sort.

It is judgment transformed.

Bless: A Spirituality of the Eucharist in Four Parts

(This is the second post in a four-part series.  To see my intro from Part 1 about my inspiration for this series, click here.)

Bless

It has taken me every bit of my forty years of life to see that God sent Jesus—God became human! – because we just couldn’t see how to live.

Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, it is in our very nature to want what we cannot have, and to try to find a shortcut to getting there.  The bible shares stories over many centuries of God warning us and telling us that there really are no shortcuts to the human experience; that shortcutting it would not get us what our truest selves really crave.  And so God lovingly provided us examples to follow of people who tried really hard to do as he said:  Abraham, Noah, Moses, David…the list is long.

God was very patient.

But to me it seems like we just couldn’t see what it was we were supposed to do.  And so, after years and years and years of saying in essence, “Don’t make me come down there!” our behavior gave God no other choice but to do just that.

And so Jesus came.

It seems clear to me that Jesus’ actions in the Last Supper (and later on the Cross) are a “show and tell” of sorts on how to “take,” (or accept) our lives and “bless” them.   The first definition of the word “bless” in most dictionaries is either “to hallow” or “to make holy.”  Jesus accepted his life, up to and including death on a cross.  That same act– though only recognizable to a few at the time– was also the best example of how to live a life of holiness.

For most of us, obviously, it’s not what we’d expect or choose.

But what does this look like for me?  I wondered.  How can I “make holy” my own life?  Well, certainly adding prayer to my life, and following (as best I can) the rules of my chosen religion are a good and healthy start.  But, for most of us, I think, those two things alone are just not enough to satisfy the deeper longing— The Holy Longing, as Ronald Rolheiser calls it—of our spiritual selves.  In spite of ourselves and every common-sense notion we’ve been taught about hard work equaling success, at some point most of us (particularly in mid-life) are faced with the reality that any “success” that we are going to experience has largely already been achieved.  It’s no surprise then, that at this point in our lives we are faced with a new choice.  And the choice, as I see it, is to either wish and hope for something or someone to “save” me while I wallow in misery about my failings and shortcomings, or to accept and pick up the Cross of my life and begin my own journey to Calvary, following the Way.

And, perhaps to no one’s surprise but mine, I found a simple set of directions for heading there nestled in the verses of Matthew 5:

 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 Blessed are they who mourn,

for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,

for they will inherit the land.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

for they will be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful,

for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the clean of heart,

for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,

for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you because of me.   

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

From my vantage point now, forty years in, I see that this journey for my “second half of life,” as Richard Rohr calls it, is not one of addition but of subtraction.  Rohr calls it Falling Upward.  And what it has done for me is helped me realize that while I spent my earlier years striving to answer the world’s definition of success (Supermom, domestic diva, and volunteer extraordinaire); I have found freedom in this “second-half” of my life to let go a little.  Let go of expectations (my own and others’).  Let go of perfection.  Let go of the world’s view of everything.

And in that letting go, I have found a new sense of freedom.

I am free to not take myself so seriously.

Free to try.

Free to fail.

Free to define success for myself, through God’s eyes.

And while I would have never guessed in my twenties that the road to success and the road to Calvary are the same road, my spirit now sees the truth in it.  And with that realization I have come to understand and experience for myself why this particular teaching from Jesus in some bible translations does not call the people who follow them “blessed.”

Instead, it calls them “happy.”

Take: A Spirituality of the Eucharist in Four Parts

A few years ago, I was studying the history of the eucharist for a presentation I was going to give to my adult faith formation group.  As I prepared for my presentation, I was forever changed by the words of Tad Guzie in The Book of Sacramental Basics when he said:

“Most people, when they are asked what are the eucharistic  symbols, will answer ‘Bread and wine.’  (What answer did you just give?) That is the answer that medieval theology gave.  Bread and wine are the matter of the sacrament, the words of institution are the form.  But the original eucharistic symbols are actions, not things.  The original eucharistic symbols are breaking the bread and sharing the cup.” 

This got me thinking about the four actions of Jesus during the Last Supper when he took, blessed, broke, and gave bread and wine to the apostles.  (Matthew 26: 26)

Since eucharist is a word deriving from Greek that is generally translated as “thanksgiving,” and since here in America we will be celebrating a national day of Thanksgiving this week, I wanted to spend some time looking at how some of our most difficult moments can be celebrated, through Jesus’ example, as an offering of “thanksgiving.”

As we head into our Thanksgiving holiday, I will touch each day on one of these actions of Jesus, and what they might mean for us as we prepare ourselves to “give thanks.”

Take

I have read a few reflections by others on how we can interpret Jesus’ directive to his apostles when he said, “Take it;  this is my body” (Mark 14:22, NIV)  For instance, Henry Nouwen interprets “take ” as “choose”1 and Ronald Rolheiser and Joyce Rupp interpret “take” as “receive;”2 but,  to me, what Jesus is saying here is “accept it.”  And the “it” that we are to accept?  Well, I believe is whatever life we’ve been given.  For instance, in my life, when I follow Jesus’ directive to “take it” it means I am accepting that in this moment I am a white, middle-aged, middle class, female American wife, mother and housewife who also blogs and writes.  Some of these things could change.  Some of these things cannot.  But the only way to truly “give thanks” for the life I’ve been given, is to accept my life (in this moment and in all future moments) for what it is in each moment.

One of the best ways to do that is to follow God’s example through the life of Jesus and apply his experiences to my own.  As a result, through Jesus’ example, I know that the human journey is one that contains moments of deep love (John 13:1) , and great joy (Luke 2:10), where some of us will be fortunate to see –and even participate—in miracles (John 4:48).  (Try telling any mother that the experience of childbirth isn’t a miracle. I’ve given birth three times!)  The human experience is one in which I will also know wonder (Mark 9:15) , blessings (Mark 5:34) , and friendship beyond measure  (Mark 2:1-5).  Accepting the life I’ve been given, however, means I cannot deny—because Jesus certainly didn’t–that part of the human experience will also involve temptation (Matthew 4: 1-11), suffering (Matthew 26: 37-38) , agony (Luke 22:42-44) and death (Luke 23:46).  It will likely include experiencing what it means to be misunderstood and misjudged and unappreciated, too (Matthew 27:27-31), but it will also include resurrection (Luke 24:5-6).  From this vantage point– this “big picture” view–  it is easier to see that every part of our life, both the so-called “good” and the so-called “bad,” is God’s gift to us.

It is ALL gift, or, as Richard Rohr says, “Everything belongs.”

Accept it.

“Take it,” urges Jesus.

And give thanks.

1.  Life of the Beloved, by Henri J.M. Nouwen

2.  Our One Great Act of Fidelity, by Ronald Rolheiser and The Cup of our Life, by Joyce Rupp.