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.

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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.

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.

Knock and It Shall Be Opened

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the Holy Spirit itself is God in motion.

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

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

Seek and You Will Find

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freely Given

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

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

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

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

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

Then, barely recognizable, an opportunity presented itself.

Some might call it a “test.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eucharist: A Meditation

It is a shame how often I make God so small.  He is so much greater than any word can say.  Even the word “he” is such a minimalizing pronoun, because God is not just father, but also mother, love and spirit.  Yet, this God who is so great is happy to shrink Himself to something that I can understand.  Any ounce of my love and attention He can have, He celebrates and rewards.

I see it most often in the Eucharist.  He starts as the seed that must first die in order to grow into wheat.  There, He sits, innocent and vulnerable to, trusting that drought and insects will stay at bay, and trusting the hands of the farmer to pluck Him out as food for all.  In the act of harvest, He is pulled from the soil and beaten and broken into death again, trusting in the hands of the baker, now, to use Him as flour that will rise again in the bread that feeds all.  He is in every grain of it!

He is likewise in the wine.  He is the seed that grows into the vine that becomes fruitful and multiplies, only to be plucked from its source and mashed and beaten into juice and bits.  Bleeding and broken, He is left to rot and ferment to become a source of nourishment for all.

In these ways He gives us life!  He dies.  He rises.

And He offers Himself this way not again and again, but always and forever to be consumed—devoured—by those who love Him!

He is the Perfect Father, the Perfect Mother, the Perfect Lover, the Perfect Provider…and yet.

Yet.

So often, I miss all that.  I do nothing more than get in line, march to the altar and briefly bow my head, and say “Amen” when He is put before me and declared, “The body of Christ.”  Instead, I do it hoping that I have “earned” His love for another week.  Hoping that He is the winning lottery ticket of my life.  From Him I ask so much:  life and health and wealth and luxury and fame.

But for Him?

For Him, my bowing and agreement that this little wafer of bread and this cheap dime-store wine, blessed and broken, is in fact Him?

For Him, this is enough.

Because in that simple act—despite any doubt on my behalf—He has come to rest in me through the violent act of my chewing , swallowing, and digesting His flesh and blood.

And somewhere in that simple act, is the Paschal Mystery taught by the Perfect Teacher in two lessons:

  1.  You are what you eat.
  2. He dies.  He rises.  We die.  We rise.

Amen.

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.

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

Like most of yours, my summer has been flying!

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

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

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

IMG_4904

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I put myself back in the image and tried again.

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

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

And I waited.

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

It was a very peaceful image.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And my heart skipped a beat.

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

I called my questions out to the night sky.

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

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

Not yet.

Trust me.

And I do.

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

And I thank God for this lesson.

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

Because God’s invitation to rest?

Is also an invitation to be ready.