Ask and It Will Be Given

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

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

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

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

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When You’re Not the Prodigal Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why is the reward so important, Lisa?”

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

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

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

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

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

But no.

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

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

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

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

Still.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

And I’ll admit that’s me right now.

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

And do you know what happens next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I know how I want my story to end.

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

And when I do?

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

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

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

Making the Grade

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

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

The story goes like this:

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

I, too, have many possessions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And for the Christian?

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

Going Deep

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Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore.  Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.  After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”  (Luke 5:3-4)

So it’s been just over a year and a half since we uprooted ourselves from Packerland USA and settled here in Steelers Country.  And one of the hardest parts of moving is happening again.  Right now as I type:

I’m starting to get to know and care about and really like the people here.

I love them, even.

I know. Cry me a river, right?

I know.

But here’s the thing about moving around every couple of years or so:   it hurts.

It hurts to start over.  It hurts to say goodbye.  It hurts to leave the place where “everybody knows your name” and go to a place where nobody does.  It hurts especially because when I’m making new friends, I know something that most of them don’t (even though I tell them right away).  I know that they’re going to get to know me–really know me–just in time to say goodbye.

So unfortunately, what happens, to me at least, (not to everyone, because I’ve learned it really depends on your personality, and some people really love being nomads.  I’m just not one of those people.), is that I try not to get to know too many people.

Which is just wrong.  Because I really, really like people.

(Most of them, anyway).

(Most of the time).

I love them even.

I’m fascinated by them.

Fascinated by what they think, how they feel, how they act, the things they say, and how they say them.  What makes them mad, or happy, or relaxed or defensive.

I love watching it all, hearing it all, and learning from it.

But it’s safer from a distance.  Because then it doesn’t hurt so much to say goodbye.

But, now,  I’ve been getting signs pointing me into the direction of The Deep.

I’ve found myself getting phone calls or emails to volunteer more.  (I was going to cut back on that “this time around” here in PA.  Though I can’t help but wonder… did I really think I could cut back on getting involved in activities and helping out with school and church functions for two or three years?)  I have more lunch dates with friends, and more GNO’s.   (Sidebar here:  when I first saw someone post on Facebook that they were having a “GNO Tonight!”  I thought they had an appointment with their GyNecOlogist, and wondered why in the world they felt the need to announce it to the rest of us.  Then I learned that GNO stands for Girls’ Night Out which makes more sense.  But I still don’t like the acronym).

Anyway, like I said, it’s happening.  I’m making connections.  I’m getting involved.  I’m making more friends than before.

And it already hurts to think about saying goodbye.

Again.

*sigh*

But.

Here’s the thing.

Getting involved and helping others is still the best way to effectively share your story.  I can write for days and weeks and months and years about how God has changed me, how much I love God, how I believe that we are ALL God’s children.

But those are just words.

And words?  As much as I love them?  All by themselves, they seldom transform people.  Transformed people transform people, says Richard Rohr.   And, hard as I’ve tried to keep my distance, it’s difficult to make a difference in someone’s life if you aren’t involved in it.  And I know he’s right.

Sure, I’ve enjoyed teaching here “from the shore.” And I hope I’ve said some words that have maybe touched some hearts from time to time.  And that is good. In return, many people whose hearts have been touched by my words have turned around and touched mine right back.  So, of course, I will continue this work.  It feeds me!

But it is not enough.

So, now, after a year and a half, I know it’s time to do what I was led here to do.

I’m realizing now that more is being asked of me here in the land that I’m trying so desperately to dwell on, rather than in.  It’s time for me to share myself– all of me– and whatever gifts I have to offer.   In the past those gifts involved creating new ways for others to learn and grow in their faith, and working closely with others… and…making lifelong friends.   It’s time for me to open my heart and do what I can in that capacity here, and share with others who I am.  And Whose I am.

Not with my words, but with…me.

So…even though I still carry the sadness of having done that before… in my last towns… (right before I left), it’s been a year and half now.  And it is time to “cast” again.  Cast out my doubts.  Cast open my heart. Plunge into the Mystery of the new waters around me. And share my gifts.

Because the only way to make a good catch?

Is to go deep.

“Do Not Judge!” (Oh,But I Do…)

The older I get, the more I understand that any rule I am given out of concern for my own well-being, is worth taking a second look at.  Especially because such rules, at first glance, are ridiculously easy to understand, (i.e., go on green, stop on red), but many more, while just as easy to comprehend are far more difficult to carry out  (i.e., while I understand a speed limit of 55 mph means that 55 mph should be my maximum speed for the safety of myself and those around me, I very often go 60 mph because that is the speed that I deem will keep me “safe” from getting a speeding ticket).   Such rules, then, as we grow more confident and comfortable with the intention of them, quickly become something we dub to be “rules of thumb” rather than “hard and fast” rules (i.e., don’t drink and drive).

Many of the rules that Jesus gives us can begin the same way:   easy to understand, but difficult to follow.  Most recently, I came across this passage in my Bible study class on the Gospel of Matthew:  “Do not judge” (Mt 7:1).  And upon reading this, I was hit with two thoughts:  Yikes!  That sounds impossible!   and almost at the same time:   Thank goodness I don’t judge people as much as some people I know!  (Read that sentence again if you missed the irony of it).

The truth is that both of my reactions to this rule are just that:  reactions.  And reactions,  by their very nature, don’t take into account the larger picture of the reason for the rule.  Reactions don’t cast light on the myriad of ways in which we judge others, ourselves, and even God.   In fact, because I was so busy reacting, it wasn’t until I read the passage a second time that I was even able to comprehend the rest of the sentence–the part that  explains WHY we shouldn’t judge– “so that you may not be judged.” (Mt 7:1)

I was reminded then of how, years earlier, I’d made a Lenten promise to “give up” my sins of judgment and jealousy.  Now, I knew this would be a challenge, but I thought I could at least go a day or two before I would really be tested in the process of “giving them up.”  Much as He always does, though, God had other plans.

Ash Wednesday morning, (a.k.a. the FIRST DAY of Lent), I had a petty thought about a friend of mine:  I immediately “predicted” she would fail to “properly observe” the Holy Day by wiping off the ashes on her forehead after attending morning Mass.  (As Catholics, we are taught from a young age that doing so is a big “no-no”).  I’m embarrassed for having entertained this thought now on so many levels, but at the time, I didn’t see my “prediction” as a judgment at all.   I merely saw it as a “logical prediction of future behavior based on past behavior” and all but accepted it as “fact.”   Later that day, when I bumped into my friend,  I was shocked to see the ashes still on her forehead.   Shocked only because I’d been proven wrong.

After some introspection, (a.k.a. an inner tantrum-throwing fit whereby I attempted to vehemently defend my inexcusable judgment of my friend to God), I was able to be grateful for the gift of having been shown my fault.  If my friend had behaved as I’d expected, I would likely have been able to go the course of the entire day patting myself on the back for having successfully “given up” my sins by having made no judgments at all.  It was only in being proven wrong, that my eyes were opened to the fact that I’d judged my friend.

To this day, I think that being wrong about such a “prediction”  of my friend’s behavior on the first day of Lent was one of the best things that ever happened to me.  I shudder to think about how long it may have taken me to realize that I was judging someone else if my “prediction” had been “right.”