My #Saywhat Kind of Morning

I spent last week on vacation visiting my family back in Iowa.

You know…Iowa.  Kind of like Grand Cayman, or Cancun.  But without the beach.  Or the ocean.  And with lots of corn.

Don’t believe me?

I’m not surprised.  People rarely equate Iowa with exotic beach locations, but that’s what it feels like to my husband and me every year as we wind our way over the mountains of Pennsylvania and across the Midwest back to our Iowa roots.  Because it’s there that we can truly relax and get away from it all.  (Plus, enjoy some family time.)

Anyway.

Upon our return home to PA last weekend, I gradually came to realize that I had neglected many things:  appointments on the calendar, bills in the mail, and my email, just to name a few.  Since Monday, these realities have pushed their way back into my life with an unrelenting force, and I’ve been running behind them playing catch-up ever since.

This morning, though, I was determined to start the day with a plan.  Get things back to normal.  Find our daily routine again.  At heart, I’m a planning kind of girl, and I knew if I could get back into my routines and write them down, I would feel better about moving through my day, especially since I am now really tired from playing catch-up all week.  Today, it was time to get ahead a little bit.

So, I sat down, as I do every weekday morning, with my Bible and read.  I prayed, and I wrote some thoughts down in my journal.  Then I did something that is really, really new to me.  It’s a new habit I’m trying out, even though I have my doubts.  You see, I signed up for this Online Bible Study that started the first Sunday I was on vacation.  (It got ignored too, in case you’re wondering.  Because, well…VACATION!)   But, before I left on vacation, I had started reading the book the Bible study revolves around (besides the Bible, there’s another book that leads us through the study, I guess.  To be honest, I don’t really know, because all the emails that are a part of the Bible study are lumped in with all the other emails I was ignoring, so…I will get caught up on that, too, and know more soon, but most people who come to read this today know WAY more about this Bible study than I do right now, so to spare myself the embarrassment of acting like I know more than I do about this, I’ll just come clean.  I read the first two chapters of Lysa TerKeurst’s book before vacation and then pretty much forgot all about it. So there you have it.)

Anyway, before vacation I had decided to try something that Lysa does every morning.  Like I said, I had my doubts, but I also knew it couldn’t hurt.  The something she does every morning could easily be added into what is already a nice morning ritual for me of reading scripture, journaling and prayer.  The difference was, this practice would require me to ask God a question (Well, nothing new there, really, I ask God questions all the time.)  The newness came in developing the habit of LISTENING FOR AN ANSWER. Now, that’s kind of new.  I usually “listen for an answer” through a trial of doing what I think I should do and then observing the results.  Kind of like a dance.  Only I usually take the lead, and step on God’s toes a few dozen times.  And then give God no other choice but to drag me across the floor because I’m going the wrong direction and about to spin us both right out the third floor window.

It’s not exactly efficient, but it’s worked for me so far.

Like I was saying, it’s a new habit.  And I liked the idea of asking for a “daily assignment” from God and expecting an answer.  This morning was my fourth morning of trying it out, and I was beginning to think it wasn’t so bad.  After all, the previous mornings had consisted of fairly painless things.  My assignments from God up until today had been fairly simple:  journal, pray, give to charity.  Pretty harmless.  I was pretty sure God was far less demanding than I’d ever thought, and was really beginning to wonder why I’d always thought that following God would be hard at all.

So, with my plan for the day written out in front of me,   I then opened my Bible, prayed, and wrote a quick journal entry.  My journal ended with my asking the question, “What is my assignment today, God?”   Then I waited.  I had every confidence that God would see how full my day already was and just give me a pass.  He’d say something like “take a nice, long bath tonight and relax at the end of such a busy day.  You’re worth it.”  I was sure of it.

So imagine my surprise when that wasn’t my assignment.

My assignment instead was to sit down and blog.

Blog??

But, I’ve barely blogged all summer!  I don’t even know what to say!  And blogging always takes me hours.  HOURS!!  I don’t have hours today to give.  I only have minutes.  Just a few.  If You want me to write this, You’re going to have to tell me!!!  Give me the words!!!  (I get real demanding with God sometimes.  This isn’t always a good idea.  But He tolerates my outbursts and demands and tantrums  with peace and kindness.  Always.   Which I just love.)

I waited.

“Blog about your reflection,” were the only words that came to me.

I still had my doubts.  I didn’t really understand the reflection I’d read today in my Bible.  I liked it, but I didn’t really understand it.  It was a reflection from Mother Teresa and the words that struck me the most were, “Love, to be true, has to hurt.”  I had wondered if that was true when I read it.  Had I hurt for my husband?  For my children?  For my parents?  For my friends?

It took some time, because when I think of loving a parent, or a child, or a husband, or a friend, I tend to think of the things they do for me.  And that’s what makes them easy to love.  But, in truth, I do things for them, too.  And at times, on both sides, we give of ourselves.

I stopped doubting.  God was asking me to blog today, not because He needs me too.  But because love—true love—hurts.  And today, on one of the busiest of days, when I had lots of other (better?) things to do, I needed to show my love to God by giving of my time,  even when I thought there was no time to give.

I was confident now it was a test.  Would I do it?  Would I do what God was asking me?  After all, “God” to most of us is an invisible voice in our head or in our hearts.  Easy to ignore.  Easy to brush off as crazy-talk or just plain ridiculous.  I could brush it off, and there really would be little to no consequence for me.  Or anyone else.  The world would not kink up on its axis.  The sky would not fall.  America would not collapse.  My lawn wouldn’t turn black.

No one would know.

No one.

Except me.   And God.

I would know.  And God would know. And suddenly, I wanted to do it.  I didn’t know what I would say exactly, and I knew whatever I said would probably not make any sense.  And I’d look like a fool.

But that’s another side of love, too, isn’t it?  Be willing to go the distance.  Be willing to look like a fool for the one you love.

So, I heated up another cup of green tea and plunked down on the computer.   My heart was committed.  There was no turning back.

Just one thing first, I thought…let me check my email. (After all… He didn’t say I couldn’t.)

And among the randomness of the emails I felt a twinge of guilt as I saw another email from this Bible study that I’d signed up for and ignored thus far.

I clicked on it.

It was an invitation for a Blog Hop, a chance to put my words out there for more than my usual half-dozen faithful readers to see.

This was no ordinary test.

It was pass-fail.  And God was letting me know, before I even began, that I’d already passed.  I was giving of myself, at a time when I didn’t think I could, to share His words, not mine, with others.

It wasn’t about me anymore, so that made it so much easier.

It was about showing others who God is to me.

How I know Him.

How I love Him.

How He loves all of us the same.

Truly.

But the only way any of us will know that for a fact, is if we stop and take the time to ask Him what He wants us to do.

And much of the time, it will probably be easier than you think.

Some of the time it will be hard, because love—true love—hurts.

But when you say yes?

When you say yes to that voice in your head/heart that is God?

Even when you *know* you can’t?

Well, I will testify to this:   it will benefit you in ways you never dreamed possible.

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

Like most of yours, my summer has been flying!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I put myself back in the image and tried again.

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

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

And I waited.

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

It was a very peaceful image.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And my heart skipped a beat.

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

I called my questions out to the night sky.

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

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

Not yet.

Trust me.

And I do.

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

And I thank God for this lesson.

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

Because God’s invitation to rest?

Is also an invitation to be ready.

When God is Silent

I’ve been uneasy lately.

This time of year is always difficult for me, and I can never put my finger on why that is exactly. I think it’s a combination of nostalgia for all the days and years gone by as the kids grow so quickly, mixed with excitement for the wide-open calendar of summer and all the various activities we’ll likely fill those days with.

It’s also a time of year where, very often for me, God goes silent.

Or I get too busy to hear.

Or both.

Today, I felt there was only one solution.  I took a walk along  Baxter’s and my favorite trails this morning for the first time since my solo memorial walk after his death.  It was muggy, warm and overcast, as we are expected to get rain later today.  But God has been silent around here, and so I went off looking for him in the places that I used to hear him best–nature.  Immediately as my feet took to walking, I heard the call of the birds, I saw wildflowers blooming, and I thought of all the miles Bax and I covered along those trails as I huffed and puffed my way through the hills and valleys.

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Before Baxter, I was never really one for the great outdoors.  I was content to slide my thermostat from the warmth of 68 degrees for the winter to the refreshingly cool 72 degrees of summer.  It wasn’t until I had Bax that I suddenly had a reason to be outside every single day, even if only for a moment sometimes.   Because let’s face it, with a dog, getting outside is necessary.  This morning, it was time to admit to myself that I’d been avoiding walks ever since his death.  Without Baxter (or at least without having another dog) the walks seemed pointless somehow.  And I suppose there was at least a small part of me that felt like I’d be betraying him if I walked his favorite trails without him.  Still, God had fallen silent and it had reached a point that I knew I’d need to get back out into nature in order to hear him again.

It didn’t take long.

As I felt the warm breeze on my face, I was reminded of the fiery, windy, breath-filled Spirit of God of Pentecost (which we celebrated this past weekend).  As I stepped into the shade under the canopy of trees on the hills, I was reminded of St. Catherine’s meditation, and I thought about my life and how the Tree of Me must look.  As the sun beat down on me in the wide-open blacktop as I passed over the parking lot, I remembered that this is still  the same sun– so many thousands of years later– that shined for Noah after the flood, working with the sky to make a rainbow of God’s promise that the world would never be destroyed.  (This took my thoughts to animals going in two by two, of course, and I was reminded again of Bax.)  I suddenly realized, though, that while I missed my walking partner terribly, I was happy to have my feet moving again.  The whole process this morning seemed to be nature’s way of saying that things must change.  Life is moving on, and I can either go with it, or resist it, but it’s moving on all the same.

It’s an easy decision.

I’m going with it.

And as I heard the birds calling to each other in the treetops, and watched the squirrels hurried movements up and down the trees, I remembered that while I can get caught up in my head with all kinds of to-do lists and nostalgia and plans for the future, the truth is,  life is always only happening right now.

Yours and mine.

And I took a deep breath.

And I felt the silence.

And I breathed in nature’s perfume.

And I remembered I AM.

Every Knee Shall Bend

I knew this would happen.

Me and my big mouth.  Or big words from my keyboard.

Or whatever.

Remember three weeks ago when I had the brilliant idea that I needed to discipline myself to blog every Monday, Wednesday and Friday through Lent (but really, if I’m honest my intention was through forever, I was just too chicken to admit it)?   Well, here we are at the day I feared as soon as I published those words…the day I’m too full of thoughts about my unending To Do list to really settle down and put thoughts together to share.  (I was hoping for a short thought at least, but so far, I got nothin’!).  I even laid the groundwork for a topic to write about today on Monday’s post but can’t seem to focus my mind enough to even tie into what I thought I was going to say clear back then.

And now, instead of being able to put any thoughts together about Mary and the women’s roles in the story of Christ’s Passion, I am instead  full of thoughts about volunteer work I’m behind on, laundry that needs to be done, and housework and groceries and upcoming meetings and Easter and Mass times and fasting.

The good news is that in writing this post, I have succeeded in my discipline of blogging every Monday, Wednesday and Friday (so far).

The bad news is that other than sharing my To Do list with you, I’ve failed at writing anything even remotely significant.

Fortunately, I have been taught that failure is always a good thing.  And I can see it right now as I fail before you.  What you may see right now are my meaningless ramblings and a half-hearted attempt to fulfill an obligation to discipline myself and my writing.  But what I see is me allowing myself for the first time to step out of the room, completely naked (speaking figuratively here, folks!) , and show you my true self:  scatter-brained, with nothing to offer you except evidence that I have made a promise to you and I will keep it.

On that note, it has occurred to me that perhaps “showing up” today wasn’t really about me at all.

Perhaps it was about you.

And what I can offer you. (Despite my long To Do list).

And the one thing I could offer you as we prepare for Maundy Thursday, the traditional day of the “washing of the feet”– a reenactment of one of the greatest acts of service in Scripture–is my prayer.

I offer you my prayer.

Sure, my To Do list is long, but I do my best to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17).  I would be happy to pray with you as I work through my To Do list today.  If you have anything or anyone special to pray for drop it in the comments below.  Though I’m not overly talented at multi-tasking, prayer is the one thing I can do well with anything!  (Even if you just “like” it, I’ll be sure to pray!)

I believe that Jesus set this example for us– bending down to offer us his service in the most humbling way–so that we would in turn go out and do the same.

After all, he never did become a king the way his followers expected, so what else could it meant that “at the name of Jesus, even knee shall bend.” (Phil 2:10)?

LOVE IN ACTION and THE FAMILY DOG

It’s important to me that you understand something. When I embraced SIMPLIFY as my theme for 2013, it wasn’t my intention to never blog again. That would be OVERsimplifying, which I almost never do. In fact, I had intentions to blog at least every Monday, and then add a second day to each week next month.

The thing is (as is often the case), Life had other plans for me.

So, in my case, instead of blogging, Life has kept me preoccupied by playing nurse to my golden retriever. In an attempt to keep the story SIMPLE, let me just outline for you the past two and a half weeks of my life:

  • Left Dog in kennel for vacation.
  • In an attempt to escape and find us, Dog tried to secretly eat his way out of the kennel, but told no one.
  • We returned from vacation and brought Dog home.
  • Dog was happy, but had trouble sleeping and seemed unable to relax. Since, in our presence, Dog can easily be confused with a throw rug until you say the words, “walk” or “yum-yums,” this had us concerned.
  • Dog went to vet and was treated for acid reflux.
  • Dog slept like a baby that night, and we breathed a sigh of relief.
  • Symptoms returned for Dog the next day and we took him back to the vet.
  • Dog was given a special “cocktail” to soothe his stomach and “clear things out.”
  • Dog slept like a baby, but refused to eat the next morning.
  • Dog went back to vet to undergo x-ray.
  • X-ray revealed a mystery item in stomach that would not move.
  • Dog had surgery to remove the “largest mass of foreign body” our vet has ever seen in his 20+ years of vet medicine. They saved a “small fraction” of it for all of us to enjoy (it’s a gallon-sized bag, just so you know):

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  • We feel Dog deserves a plaque like on Man vs. Food that announces “Food Won” (or in this case, “Foreign Body Won”), but I guess the vet thought we were joking because no such plaque has yet been presented to Dog.
  • Dog seemed much better.
  • The next day Dog got worse again.
  • Dog has been at the vet two of the past three days and was treated for gas and other things.
  • As a result of trying to guess what all may be wrong with him, I get to give him all these meds at least twice each day. On a good day he’ll take them wrapped in the cheese slices, but he hasn’t had a good day yet this week:

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  • To date Dog is still eating very little and/or refusing to eat altogether.

So, I’m at that scary place right now where I don’t know how the story will end. And so I don’t want to write, because it’s difficult to write when you’re in the middle of something scary and painful.

But that’s kind of why I realized I had to write. Because I want you to show you how my mystic mind has learned to deal with scary, painful times.

Here’s a punch list of how I’ve been dealing with this:

  • I write down the things I’m grateful for every day. It can be as simple as “The dog pooped!” and as deeply sad as, “I am so grateful that if I have to experience a loved one suffering it is my dog suffering and not my children, husband or other  human loved one.”
  • I lower my expectations for the day. I don’t expect the world to understand how much my dog means to me. But I know our story. I know how much he means, and so I know I need to hold myself more gently right now. I’ve cleared my schedule so that if I need to stay busy, I get busy with housework, and if I need to lay low and watch TV for a bit while the dog walks around backwards into things (which he’s been doing a lot), then I can watch him and use the TV as a distraction.
  • I stay focused on what matters. This is, for me, at least, much harder than it sounds. I get distracted so easily with thoughts of “what if’s” and “then what’s” that I tend to miss the big picture of what these series of events will mean in my WHOLE life. Yes, it’s hard to watch my dog in pain. And yes, it is EXPENSIVE. Yes, it’s hard to think of having to let him go (if it comes to that). Yes, it would be sad…BUT…Yes, my kids are healthy. Yes, my husband is still gainfully employed so we can pay those bills. Yes, when you can fix a problem with money it’s really not the biggest problem you’ll ever have. Yes, in spite of however this ends, I am still so happy and grateful and better for having known my dog that I would do it all over again– even if the end of our relationship comes much sooner than I’d expected.
  • I (force myself to) practice what I preach. I’ve embraced a new mantra, and when I do that, I know from experience that Life has a way of testing me on it. My new mantra has been this: THERE IS NO BLAME. And these are the words on which I’ve tried to focus this whole episode. The people who supervised my dog at the kennel where he ate the stuff? They are not to blame. The doctors who didn’t have x-ray vision and know that my dog ate something? They are not to blame. The dog who should just KNOW BY NOW how to be calm in our absence? He is not to blame. And that leaves me with the one person left I like to blame the most for things going wrong: Me. The old habits are hard to break: I should have known….I should have said…I should have told them…I should have been more diligent…. But if I go down that road, I’m not helping anyone. Not the doctors, not the kennel workers , not my kids and husband who are just as concerned and hurting as I am watching our family pet suffer, not my friends and family who have called to check on his progress through this seemingly endless journey, and– most especially–not the dog.

In the meantime, I’m waiting and watching and praying. These acts are the silent language of LOVE IN ACTION that my dog understands. And whether these past few days end up being but a bump in the road of an otherwise long, enjoyable life with him, or they end up being his *gulp* dying days, it is most important to me that he see his life lesson has not gone unnoticed, that his message for me has been received, that his purpose for being has transformed me.

And I feel the Spirit within smiling and nodding and bringing me peace with this SIMPLE revelation:  Through the ages, few earthly beings have been more consistent about the message of LOVE IN ACTION than the family dog.

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Closing thought: If you have a family dog that you love and have learned some of life’s SIMPLER lessons from, feel free to post his/her name (or names if you have more than one) in the comments section below. I will know through that SIMPLE act, that you are joining your hearts with ours in prayer for a speedy recovery for our beloved Baxter.

xx oo

Lisa

Impossibly Grateful

One of the down sides of having something you perceive to be “impossible” happen for you at a young age,  is that it becomes pretty easy to believe that “impossible” things will become possible for you just because you write them down and want them to happen.

I think for years I believed (still do sometimes, when I forget that I know better) if I just wanted something enough, willed it into my life, it would happen.  Then, when those things did happen, not knowing any better, I’d call it “karma” or “dumb luck” or a “blessing.”  And as long as life continued on, more or less as I planned for myself, than it was easy for me to continue believing that way.

The problem came, though, when suddenly life was not going according to my plan.  People I loved died for no reason, friends turned on me, distance came between me and the ones I loved.  What was I to make of my “dumb luck”, then?  Was this what I’d willed for myself somehow?  And, if so, how could I will it away?

Very often, for most of us, it is in these more desperate hours that we turn to  God.  What do I have to lose?,  we reason.  And so we try our hand at prayer.  We hope that the Being we are praying to somehow picks up on our invisible “smoke signals” of desperation and makes things right for us.  But until then, we have to live with the unknown.  Which can feel a lot like suffering.

But then eventually, somehow, in a way we can’t explain, things do get better for us.  Easier somehow.  Is it time that has healed our hurts?  we wonder.  Is it maturity?  Wisdom?  We don’t really know, but life is suddenly good again, so we do not question.  We simply pick up the pieces and move on.  Hoping for the best, once again.  Perhaps a little more cautious now, but moving forward all the same.

And that’s a shame.

Not that we move forward, or that we remain hopeful, but that we Do. Not. Question.

On a spiritual level, if we do not begin to question our own thinking at some point, especially when life is “good,” then it becomes really easy to say that either God does not matter at all because he has no part in anything we do, or contrarily, that when we make “good” choices God “rewards” us for them, and when we make “bad” God  “punishes” us for those.

Because I’d been brought up a “believer,” I never really considered not “believing. ”  Instead, my belief system for years was more that of  “reward and punishment.” I was especially mindful of it in college and my early adult years.  I’d go to church to “earn God’s favor,” and I’d find life looking up for me.  Then I’d get cocky or bored or self-righteous, stop going to church for a while (which for me was virtually the only time I would pray), and eventually find myself struggling again.  The problem with this kind of thinking is that this makes God moody and vindictive.  A God who wants for us what is good, only when we ourselves have earned that goodness.  A God who then punishes us unless and until we can figure out where we went wrong.  This is very often the God we are introduced to as children in nearly any Old Testament story:  God creates the world and it is good.  Woman (and man) makes a wrong choice, therefore they are punished.  They begin to make better choices,  life gets better.  The world they populate continues to make bad choices,  so God sends a flood to wipe the earth clean.  It goes on and on.

Hopefully all of us at some point, reach a time in our lives when we are forced  to ask, Is this really the God I believe in?  One who gets great joy out of watching me walk through a minefield of missteps and explosions only applauding me when I’ve avoided the mine?   And if we don’t ask different questions, force ourselves to see a bigger picture–ask God to show us a bigger picture– we can all too easily think this is how we are meant to live.  As if God is some sort of Master Programmer who insists on making us guess the rules of  the game.  The problem here is that, if we don’t question Who it is we believe in, we might easily end up believing in a God whose love we must earn, and we forget entirely about the God who from the very beginning “looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good.” (Gen 1:31)

For me, it wasn’t until I  became a parent myself that I finally began to ask the bigger questions.   Suddenly, I had to take into account what I would teach my children about God.  And I had to take into account how I felt about my children, and weigh that against what I believed God felt about me — one of His children.  This helped me grow a bit and see that while, yes, I do punish my children from time to time for making bad choices, I also –most of the time, in fact–am simply content to let them be, discover, learn and grow on their own.  They do not have to earn my love.  Ever.  Because, as the famous movie line goes, “They had me at hello.”  And if I, in my fallen human state, can feel this kind of love for my children, I reasoned, then how much greater must God’s love be for me?  For us all?

The  journey becomes easier then, when we change to that mindset.  Suddenly, from this perspective we realize that the question is not “What did I do to deserve this suffering?,” but rather, “Have I ever done anything to deserve any part of my life–good or the bad?”

And the seed of gratitude is planted.

Gratitude is often the “cure” for just about anything that ails us.  In a state of gratitude, I am reminded that nothing is promised me.  Not wealth.  Not fortune.  Not fame.  Not motherhood.  Not marriage.  Not success.  Not recognition.  Not power.  Not wisdom. Not even My. Next. Breath.

It’s all a gift.  Freely given.

From the vantage point of gratitude, I can see that while I’m disappointed because I’m not getting what I want right now, at the same time, I can see all the things I’ve been given up until now that I also didn’t deserve.

For me this makes God a much more lovable Being.  A Being worth believing in. Someone with whom I really wouldn’t mind spending all of eternity.

That is the pilgrim’s journey that I am celebrating this holiday.

It is the best and only way I know to honestly “give thanks.”

I Will Always Be A Rule Breaker

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, doing her best to answer 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’s judgment transformed.