What Do You Wish?

[Jesus] said to her, “What do you wish?”  – Matthew 20:21

Yesterday’s Gospel reading was the story of James and John, “the sons of thunder,” whose mother dares to go before Jesus on their behalf, (right after Jesus has announced for the third time that he is going to suffer and die, mind you), and ask if her sons can sit at his right and left hands in his kingdom.  I’ve long been embarrassed for this mother whenever I read this passage.  Because don’t we mothers (and fathers) sometimes lose sight of the larger picture and go to extremes to try to get the best for our kids over other people’s kids?  In her defense, by asking such a thing she is indirectly implying that Jesus is the best because why else would she want her sons to have such a prominent share in his kingdom?  Still, her understanding of Jesus while well-intentioned, is a narrow view.

What struck me as I read it this time, however, was not what the mother dares to ask, but that Jesus invites her to tell him!  Surely Jesus knew what was on her mind, and yet he wants her to ask it anyway.  And I wonder why?

But then I think of all the times I’ve told Jesus what I want without his even asking.  And to this day, I can’t think of a time he’s not answered. As the old saying goes, however, sometimes his answer has been “no”, sometimes it’s been “yes”, and sometimes it has been “not yet”.  But the “no’s” I’ve received are about things I no longer desire, and it is he that I credit for taking the desire away.  The “yes’s” are those many things among which I try to count my blessings or remember when I rehearse my victories.  These are, for the most part, the “easy” answers in my life.

It’s the “not yet’s” I find most difficult.    The things I still desire to accomplish or attain, but have not yet been given. These are a struggle.  But these are also where I can give meaning to these small struggles by uniting them with Christ’s own struggle.  It assures me I am on the road of discipleship (Matthew 16:24), and reminds me that his grace will see me through.

The mother of the sons of Zebedee reminds us that we are free to tell Jesus exactly how we feel, and exactly what we want without apology.  We have no need for pretense or false humility simply because he is Lord of Lords…because he is also our friend.  And any good friend wants to give us the chance to say what we want, even when it may sound ridiculous, rude or short-sighted.  Our Lord loves us that much! But, also like the mother of the sons of James and John, we are often short-sighted in our requests.  And it is precisely because he loves us so much, that we can trust him to spare us from granting our wishes when it is not in our own best interest.

Reflect:  Sometimes we hold too tightly to dreams and desire. What are the things you’ve desired for a long time that still haven’t happened in your life?   Do you trust Jesus enough to let him lead you to your desires?  Do you trust him enough to ease your suffering by removing your desire  if what you want isn’t in your best interest?  If not, be honest!  Tell Jesus exactly how you feel.  He loves you so much and he wants to hear from you!

Pray:  Lord Jesus, just as you listened to the mother of James and John, listen to me today!  Let me pour out my wants and desires to you.  Help me to hold loosely to all of them, so that you may work in my life for your greatest good.  Open my ears to hear and my eyes to see how you unite me with my desires or relieve me of them in the days ahead.  Amen.

 

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A Map of Faith

It was not through the law that the promise was made to Abraham and his descendants that he would inherit the world, but through the righteousness that comes from faith.  – Romans 4:13

How can we have faith?  This is a question that is asked and discussed in the small groups during the Alpha course we run at our parish. “Faith isn’t a blind leap. It’s a reasonable step based on good evidence.  In some ways faith is more like a journey,” they say as the Alpha video begins.

But what is the evidence for putting our faith in God?  The answer is simple, but not necessarily easy:  by having a personal relationship with God.  Jesus is our perfect example of how to live a life of faith.  Through his example we see the person of God himself become fully human to take on the burdens of all our sins and suffer to the point of death, not to save himself, but to save us.  He gives everything of himself for us.  And out of his great love for us, God gives us a share in this life of suffering, too.  Not because he doesn’t love us, but because none of us could ever repay our debts from the wrongs we have committed against himself and others.  And because of Jesus we don’t need to.  We need only carry the share of the suffering that is given us.   And from a human perspective this can sometimes seem grossly unfair.  We see that some very good and wholesome people experience a great deal of sufferings, while others skate through life seemingly unscathed.  The question is, how do we handle the unfairness we see?  Do we turn away from God?  Or do we follow Jesus’ example and lean more deeply into him?

The Scriptures tell us that “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)  So which is it? you may be wondering. Is faith, as Alpha says, “a reasonable step based on good evidence,” or is it as the Scriptures say “evidence of things not seen?”  When we look to the life of Jesus, we can see it’s clearly both.  Jesus did not go through life minding his own business until one day God put it on his heart to die for all our sins and Jesus did it and so now he’s a hero.  No!  Jesus was born into and shared a deep and personal relationship with God the Father from the very beginning.  And today’s second reading from Romans reminds us that years before Jesus became incarnate, Abraham, too, had a deep personal relationship with God the Father.  Without it, the whole story of the sacrifice of his son Isaac (also a young man of great faith and a prefiguring of Jesus) Abraham would appear insane!  But today we are told it was Abraham’s faith that God rewarded, not his adherence to any laws. (In fact, it wasn’t until centuries later that the Law was given to Israel, and that was only because of their many transgressions.)

Today’s readings are in celebration of the Solemnity of St. Joseph.  Joseph, another man of great faith, chose not to follow his legal right for a divorce from Mary when he discovered she was pregnant (though they had not been together), but rather to follow the commands of the angel of God who appeared to him in a dream and bring her into his home and marry her, though he stood to face much shame and rejection for doing so.

Abraham had great faith.  St. Joseph had great faith.  Jesus is our perfect example of faith.  All had a personal relationship with God.  By their examples, we can begin to connect the dots for how faith may look in our own lives:

  1. Open our hearts to God.  Alpha suggests we say a simple prayer like, “God, if you are real, show me in a way that I will understand and can come to believe in you.”  You could say this step is a “realization of what is hoped for” (Hebrews 11:1)
  2.  Watch/listen for God to respond to us.  This is the step I think that confuses many of us, as we tend to have at least two unrealistic expectations of God: 1) that God will answer us immediately, and 2) that it will be something very supernatural and obvious.  While these two things are certainly well within God’s capabilities to do, people who walk with God will generally attest to something quite different.  They see God working through the people around them, and through things that are already meaningful to them.  We, on the other hand, often mislabel these things as “coincidences.”  However, with open hearts, through the eyes of faith, we can begin to see these “coincidences” as our own personal “evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
  3.  Repeat step 1.  Once we’ve received this “evidence” in our hearts, though we can’t see it, we act on it if it calls us to act. Sometimes, the “evidence” is simply an affirmation of God’s love for us, or a reassurance of his presence with us that calls for no action on our part at all. And in many cases, we can rest assured that any calls to action will be reasonable, or at least consistent with the nature of God.  They are seldom “blind leaps”, but rather “reasonable steps based on good (but unseen) evidence.”

To us, Abraham’s sacrificial offering of his son, Joseph’s willingness to marry a woman pregnant with a child who was not his own, and Jesus’ willingness to take on death on the Cross can all seem like extreme “blind leaps” from where we sit.  But for them?  For them, these acts were their next most reasonable steps based on the lifetime of evidence they had from their personal relationship with the God of the Universe.

The same God who wants to have a personal relationship with you and with me.

From this perspective, we can begin to appreciate that perhaps the one who takes the biggest “leap of faith” in all of this is not us, but God.

Reflect:  What “evidence” do you have to point to in your life that God exists?  If you don’t have any “evidence” of God, have you considered asking for him to provide you with some? Does asking for God to provide this “evidence” seem like a reasonable step to you?  Imagine if after you die, you were to appear before God and accuse him of never revealing himself to you and his reply were simply, “Well, my child, why did you never ask?”  

Pray:  Heavenly Father, thank you for loving us even when we don’t love you in return.  Thank you for loving us even when we don’t know you, or forget to include you in our lives.  Help us to know you more fully, walk with you more closely, and experience your love and mercy more deeply as we begin, continue or renew our journey of faith with you.  Amen.

 

 

O, That I Were a Ninevite!

Jonah began his journey through the city, and had gone but a single day’s walk announcing, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed,” when the people of Nineveh believed God…     -Jonah 3:4

Today marks the first full week of Lent, and already it’s feeling like a lifetime to me.  The weather is dreary, the dog’s foot fungus won’t clear up, and the flurry of activity on my calendar for this month makes me anxious just looking at it… not to mention the fact that I’ve already failed a few times at some of the things from which I’d said I would abstain  (hello, all things sugar).

And I sit here like Jonah.  Resisting the words God is putting on my heart to share, insisting first that God respond to my own demands, OK, God, but first tell me…When will I see the sun again? When can I finally stop rubbing this stuff on my dog’s foot? Why can’t I just have one day without 47 errands to run and places I need to be? And why am I already failing at Lent and it’s only Day 7!?

And as I pray more over this Scripture the answer to everything–yes, all of my questions!– comes into focus.  But it’s not easy.  The answer is this: Return to Me.  Rely on Me. Repent and let go of so much…you.  And while I am more than happy to preach that word to everyone else (you know, all you sinners out there), God is reminding me today that having a share in the spiritual gift of prophecy does not give the prophet a free pass.  One cannot simply share God’s words and ignore it for oneself.  For Jonah, not following God’s words meant suffering in the belly of a great fish for three days and three nights.  It was only after that miserable experience that Jonah took God’s word  of repentance to the ominous and intimidating citizens of Nineveh.

But how did the Ninevites respond to God’s word through Jonah?  By immediately believing God’s warning, fasting, and putting on sackcloth  (a sign of mourning and a prayer of deliverance).

By widening the lens, we see the bigger points:  sometimes we are quick to change our hearts (like the Ninevites), other times we change more slowly (like Jonah).  Keeping our hearts open enough to leave room for God to enter into them and change us involves sacrifice. The psalmist sets the example for us today with his words, “My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.” Psalm 51:17

The self-emptying of our pride, our own agendas, and even some our earthly desires are reasonable and necessary requests for God to make of us in order to make us more like him: Perfect Love.  How we do that looks a little different for each of us, but the good news is that God is more than happy to work with and reward us no matter how much, how little, how long, or how soon we open our hearts and make room for him to do so.

Reflect: What is one thing you know you should do, but you have been avoiding doing for a long time?  What if God were to appear before you today and ask you to do it?  Would that spur you into action?  If not, ask God to forgive your stalling and help you see how tackling that one thing will free you, and how continuing to avoid it is making you a slave to something contrary to God’s love.  Then ask him to help you take one (teeny-tiny) step towards accomplishing this one thing…and be ready to take it!

Pray:  Lord Jesus, we see in Jonah a foreshadowing of you. In three days time, you entered into death and overcame death for the world! Thank you for opening the gates of heaven for us so that we may know eternal joy.  Help us follow your example by purging ourselves of our own earthly desires and sacrificing them for God’s greater heavenly desires for us. Jesus, we trust in you! Amen.

 

Pray Boldly!

“This is how you are to pray.”   – Matthew 6:9

When I was in college, I did a research project on using directives in the English language.  A directive is like a command, or “an official, authoritative instruction,” as dictionary.com states.  As an example, some simple directives that parents may use frequently are things like shut the door, brush your teeth or go to bed.  These are things we are not merely suggesting our kids to do if they feel so inclined, but are expecting to be done…and quickly!

As I read again the prayer we commonly call the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father, in Matthew’s gospel today, I’m reminded once again that Jesus not only lived with authority, he prayed to God our Father that way, too!  Viewing his prayer through a directive lens, it’s astounding to see the boldness with which Jesus prays. Give us. Forgive us. Lead us. Deliver us.  

As disciples, we surely are meant to pray this way, too!  However, it’s important to see that our directives, like Jesus’ must be rightly ordered.  Before Jesus begins praying these bold requests of God, he first praises God for their relationship as Father/Son (our Father) and praises God’s holiness (hallowed be Thy name).  Then Jesus aligns his own desires properly behind God’s desires (your kingdom come, your will be done).  Then, and only then does he begin with the directives, but these are also directives that had first come from God:  daily bread, forgiveness, and deliverance from evil are all things God has given us first!

In the Catholic Mass, before we recite the Our Father, the priest always prefaces this prayer by calling us to recite together “the words we dare to say.”  When you look at it this way, it does seem daring!  We call the God of the universe our father.  We ask that he cast his will upon us.  Then, we list the things we want from him as though they will happen.   How dare we say and demand these things!?  Yet, this is our faith.

Perhaps the words God speaks to us in today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah can help us understand,

“For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth…so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” – Isaiah 55:10-11

If we’ve rightly ordered ourselves to God, the relationship of God’s desires for us and our requests for those desires becomes analogous to the water cycle:

  1. God rains his love upon us.
  2. We absorb that love into our hearts.
  3. We grow in his love and begin to trust him, desiring even more of his love.  (But  we are helpless to give him anything, so we offer the only thing we have: our prayers.)
  4. Our prayers rise to him like water vapor, requesting ever more and more of that life-giving water pouring down upon us.
  5. God’s rain falls upon us even more, etc.

Isn’t it beautiful?

Perhaps with this renewed sense of understanding we can begin to pray even more reverently– and more boldly– to God our Father, just as Jesus did.

Reflect:  Have you ever asked God for something and didn’t get it?  How did that make you feel?  Did you give up on God after that, or did you try to learn more about what a healthy relationship with God really looks like?  Consider one thing you could do today that imitates the example Jesus gave us:  If you are baptized, do you call God your father?  Do you ask for his desires to come before your own? Do the things you request from God reflect things that God would want for you?

Pray:  Heavenly Father, we know you love everything you have created, including each of us.  Thank you for the gift of life and the gift of free will to choose you.  Thank you for the grace of baptism which makes us your children and draws us closer to you.  Thank you for the gift of your Son and your Holy Spirit who dwell among us and teach us how to draw intimately and confidently closer to you.  Amen.

 

The Killdeer

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.

-Matthew 4:1

This is the opening line to Matthew’s story of Jesus’ time in the desert.  It is a perplexing one, and one that at first glance can bring fear and a sense of foreboding. After all, deserts are known for their unforgiving, barren surroundings.  It is clear that Jesus would not have much to help him if he was going into the desert.  Survival is not a given.  Yet it is there, in a weakened state from fasting, that he is tempted by the devil.  And the most perplexing part is that the Spirit led him to this!

The message then, is a strong one:  go to the place where you are vulnerable, hold onto that place and endure it for a while, and you will find something new.

I see the truth of this in nature each spring.  We have many killdeer in our part of the country.  And they are chatty and somewhat pestering birds when you get near their nests.  You will often stumble upon their nests unknowingly because unlike most birds who build nests in trees or high places, killdeer put their eggs right on the ground and use camouflage as their main source of protection.    They sit on their eggs like most birds, but when you get too close, they do an interesting thing…they feign injury.  They run off their nests and, as my dad says, “flop around and give you the broken-wing treatment.”  Which is exactly what they do.  They flop around on the ground, squawking and carrying on so that you think they are injured.  For animals who act on instinct (like my dog) this is a wonderful distraction as it drives their potential threat away from the nest towards the bird itself (who is not really injured at all), as a means of protecting their young.  It also works for distracting humans as they make quite a scene!

I’m on to their act now, though, so I know not to be distracted by their carrying on, and I go poking about in the rocks and stones looking for their nest, careful of my steps as I could easily crush the eggs if I weren’t careful.  Twice now, I’ve found some eggs hidden right among the rocks.  And there, for me, the message is the same:  new life is waiting to burst forth in the unlikeliest of places, vulnerable and exposed, lying against the harsh backdrop of raw, barren earth.

There is a measure of Jesus’s trust in the Spirit, that I see mirrored in the trust of the killdeer.

To me, the message of Jesus’ experience in the desert and the message of the killdeer are one and the same:  don’t be afraid to start a new life by making yourself vulnerable.  In many ways, this is what the Lenten season is about, really.  Giving up something we’ve been holding onto in place of God.  Letting go of old habits that have gotten a little too comfortable, a little too routine.  We are to shake things up a bit.  Only by doing this, can we see ourselves in a new light and observe how we react and protect ourselves (our egos) from the absolute truth of God.  Only here can we see how easily we let the devil—that is, the great distractor– take our eyes off the new life that God wants to create in us.

There was an encouraging email that went around a few years ago that said, “The will of God will never lead you where His grace will not protect you.”  As we witness Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the desert, we can be certain this is true.  In the end, God sent angels to come and tend to him. Yet, as we read the story in its entirety we find that not only was Jesus able to withstand the temptations of the devil all on his own, but he came out of the desert now sure of who he was.   We’d be remiss to never notice that it was only after the desert experience that Jesus began his ministry.

Reflect:  How has my act of giving something up for Lent, or starting a new habit for Lent, helped me make room for the Spirit of God to create something new in me?  Have I made myself vulnerable enough to let God move in?  If I haven’t gone searching in the “desert” of my heart, what am I afraid of?  How might the Spirit be leading me to discover a deeper calling for his work through me?

Pray:  Guiding Spirit, help us trust you as you lead us into places within ourselves that we’d rather not travel.  Remind us that while we may feel vulnerable and exposed, our fear is nothing more than a distraction keeping us from carrying out your work.  Hold us firmly as we lay open our hearts to you.  Breathe into us the confidence that angels will tend to us, if we are willing to let them, and that a new life awaits us on the other side of our shadowed, broken selves.

Doing Nothing

Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples,  “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”

-Matthew 26:36

Certain aspects of this moment with Jesus and his disciples in Gethsemane during his time of agony, are relatable for many of us.  Any time we’re “up against the ropes” torn between doing what is right and running from, hiding, ignoring or denying doing the right thing, we are in our own little garden of agony.  Those times of wishing our life could be another way, but knowing we must do what is right even though it will come at a great cost to us –be it to a relationship with others or to our reputation, or our integrity—are our personal moments of agony.  Here in the garden, Jesus gives us a clear model to follow in how to pray our way through accepting our fate, facing our suffering and holding onto hope that somehow, when it’s all over and done with, we too, will find a “new life” and be “resurrected.”

But what has perplexed me for some time now are the words Jesus says to his disciples in Matthew’s gospel while he is suffering. “Sit here while I go over there and pray,” he tells them.  Not knowing what to do with these words, I’ve chosen for a long time to focus instead on Mark’s telling of this same event where Jesus says, “Sit here while I pray,” (Mark 14:32), which can sound a lot more like “Sit and pray with me,” and to my ear, at least, is much kinder.  But Matthew’s recalling of Jesus’s words makes it seem as though Jesus wants to be all alone and gives the disciples nothing to do—not even pray with him– while he prays.  In essence, it has, at times to me even sounded like, “You knuckleheads go over there and leave me alone.  Something important is happening here and I need it to be quiet.”  And while “over there” the disciples fall asleep, not once, not twice, but three times.  Each time Jesus wakes them and reprimands them for falling asleep.  In Mark’s account, where their job of praying can be implied, it makes sense for Jesus to be upset that they fall asleep.  But in Matthew’s account, why would Jesus care if they are awake or not if he sends them “over there”?

Then, yesterday, as I held Jesus’ words in my heart, pondering them, I read a reflection by Macrina Weiderkehr, a Benedictine monastic nun, where she talks about herself waking early in the morning to go and pray in the cafeteria of her monastery and spotting another sister near her each morning who was also praying.   Upon seeing the other sister day after day in prayer, Weiderkehr is moved to tears recalling something she’d read earlier about the importance of a younger person being mentored by an elder:

Mentoring takes place…when a young person sees in an older person a bright flame of life, which is a reminder of his or her own small flame.  When these two flames connect, the younger person gets his or her flame blessed, while the older person moves into deeper wisdom. (pp. 14-15)

Weiderkehr goes on to say she realized then that seeing another sister’s faithfulness to prayer each morning was blessing and strengthening her “own tired flame.”

Through her sharing of this experience, I had a new appreciation for Jesus’ words and actions towards his disciples in this garden scene in Matthew’s gospel.  Perhaps it was Jesus’ intention to not just model for the disciples (and us) what to do in times of agony and personal suffering, but in doing so, to give them (and us) a final blessing. Perhaps Jesus wanted the disciples awake and attentive to his prayer because in his time of suffering, it was the only thing he had left to give to bless their “old, tired flames” of faith.  Perhaps there really was nothing for the disciples to do but witness the scene as it unfolded, and by their witness, Jesus could be moved “into deeper wisdom.”

In light of this reflection, my eyes have now turned from seeing not just how we, like the disciples, often “fall asleep” to the suffering and agony around (and within) us, but how we are, at times, like Jesus and like Weiderkehr’s faithful sister in the cafeteria, modeling for others how to continue our relationship with God no matter what.  To know that sometimes we are the witness and sometimes—hard as it may be to believe– we are the mentor.

Isn’t it marvelous that the miracles of God are so great, my friends, that even in these small moments of seemingly “doing nothing”– save remaining faithful and prayerful to God– that we are both a blessing to others and blessed?

Reflect:  What person or persons has been the greatest strength and blessing to me and my “old, tired flame”of faith?  How might I thank or acknowledge that person today?  What actions and behaviors do I demonstrate that may be a source of strength for others without my even having been aware of them in the past?  How might I make room for more such actions or behaviors to “deepen the wisdom” of God in me?

Pray:  Dear God, thank you for the gift of faith-filled mentors in my life.  Thank you for Jesus’ triumphant example of faith unto death and new life.  Help me to never falter in following his example.  Forgive me when I falter anyway.  Show me how I mentor others through my faith in you.  Shine in and through me. Use me now and always for your greatest good.

Nail Me Open: A Love Story

Dear Lord,

I am tired. I cannot think straight and I am finding it hard to understand your love for me right now.

But your love is all I can think about.

This morning, I am remembering how in years past I’ve spent this Holy Week feeling the heaviness of your suffering, the sadness of your death.

But not this year.

This year, I sit here thinking of your glorious return. Your unfathomable Resurrection.

Your story is such a beautiful one of joy and love and true power over self and the world, how can I feel anything but joy in remembering this story?

This week, you remind me that you are here to serve me (John 13:5), you are willing to give up all for me (Mark 15:37) you are willing to suffer, be beaten, ridiculed and punished unto death, for me (Matthew 27: 1-56). You tell me with each and every action of your life and with love pouring from your Spirit that I am worth it (John 3:16).

How can that be? Who can love me that much? What have I possibly done to deserve that kind of love? Why am I even here, that you should love me so?

You do not answer me with words, only actions. You wash my feet (John 13:5), you give me food (Matthew 26:26), you ask me to sit with you while you pray (Mark 14:32), and then you wait.

You wait for my betrayal.

And sooner than later, my humanity wins out. I hold onto the world and all it offers me (30 shekels of silver!) and I betray you with a kiss (Mark 14:45-46). Or, at the very least I deny you (Mark 14: 66-72).

And you are taken away (Luke 22:54).

Separated from you, I am without hope. What have I done? I wonder and worry while you are sentenced to death. Even as I don’t want it to happen, I know I will not speak up, will not defend you. I comfort myself with my sinful reasoning that “at least I’m not joining the throngs of people chanting for your death.”

But I can’t prevent your dying.

Even if I could, you wouldn’t let me.

And why?

Because death (yours and mine) is necessary.

And here’s where I’m confused—how can that be true? Why did we have to kill and betray you? Why did you let it happen?

Your answer comes again not in words, but in actions.  You offer yourself up and stretch out your arms in love—and as a reminder to me– you have them nailed open.

Always, always, always I will love you, this says to me(Ps 100:5). And you pour out your Spirit of life into me (John 19:30).

As I sit stunned at the horror of your death, your words echo in my heart…

“Follow me,” you said. (Matt 8:22, Mark 1:17, Luke 9:23, John 21:19)

And I try. Though I am so much more human than you, I do try.

I try to serve others.

I try to feed the hungry.

I pray.

And then?

Then I experience suffering, and betrayal and rejection in my life and I wonder and worry and blame you for punishing me for my goodness!

And you wait and you watch, wondering what will I do? Will I follow you?

But in my humanity, I become afraid and angry and I demand better. I do what you never did: I resist.

This is where the mind boggles and buckles, as the ego tempts…am I really to follow you all the way? Am I to give in now? Give up? Lose?

Then I think of the times you could have been killed, but you slipped away (Luke 4:24-30, John 10:39-42).

And I see now that your death has opened the door for me to slip away, too (1 Cor 10:13). In your forgiveness and mercy you give me another chance to try again, to serve more, to share more, to forgive more…until I, too, can finally let go of this world for the next one (Luke 23:46).

Again and again, bit by bit, ever so slowly, I let go (goodbye excuses, goodbye self-loathing, goodbye perfectionism, goodbye ego) and I open my arms to you (hello love, hello forgiveness, hello reality, hello acceptance).

And I ask you to nail me open, too.

Do not let me close my heart to you, nor to others.

And never, please never, let me stand in judgment without mercy.

Nail. Me. Open.

You taught me this. You showed me this. You lived for this.

You died like this.

I live because you loved me into being.

I die because you love me into New Life.

That is the love… that is the joy…that is the hope of Easter.

It is the Paschal Mystery. It is the Mystery of Faith.

It is a Love Story unmatched in history.

A Love Story for the Ages.

Amen.

Embracing Our Need to Receive

“Life is not a solo but a chorus.  We live in relationships from cradle to grave.”

           -Anonymous

This past weekend I had the great pleasure of spending a day in retreat with some women in my parish.  Many of the women who sat at the same table as me, shared things that have stayed on my heart and in my mind since that day.

It seems I have been called out of my blogging sabbatical to share with you about one thought in particular:  our need to receive.

The story we were reading as a group was the story of a paralyzed man whose friends carried him on a mat in order to meet Jesus and be healed (Mark 2: 1-12, Luke 5:17-26, Matt 9:2-8).  Before reading this story, we were asked to “tell about a time a friend went above and beyond to help you in a time of need.”  Many of us shared how, while we were grateful for those times when others do things for us as part of social convention (like bringing us meals after the birth of a child, in times of sickness, or after the loss of a loved one), what stood out to us most, were the little things others have done for us when we were least expecting them.

Later, we were asked if we could see ourselves as a kind of friend that could appear in the story of the paralyzed man.  One woman bravely admitted that while she would gladly help a friend in need, she had a hard time seeing herself as the one who would allow others to do this for her.

Her comment struck me. While I didn’t say it at the time, I felt the exact same way.  Hearing it come from someone else, though, made me wonder what if we all felt this way?  What if we all wanted to be the one to help, but are not willing to be helped except in times when it’s “socially acceptable”?

If we are truly followers of Jesus, the point is clear.  In his own life, he demonstrated for us that receiving the help of others is a necessary part of humanity.  Jesus was open to receiving from others.  He received baptism through John the Baptist (Matt 3:13, Mark 1:9, Luke 3:21), he received anointing with expensive oils from a woman others rejected (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, John 12:1-11).  Beyond that, in the garden as he agonized, Jesus requested help from his apostles to stay with him while he prayed.  (Matthew 26:36, Mark 14:32).

If Jesus, who needed nothing, was able to receive and even request help from others, why should I think I am above similar help?  Seeing Jesus in this way, makes me question whether I have, in fact “picked up my cross” at all, or am I trying instead to create  my own twisted, incomplete version of one?

This first week of Lent–when the spotlight often shines brightly on our call to serve–I am grateful for having also been reminded of our need to receive.  As a result, perhaps the next time I find myself waving away someone trying to offer their help to me I will remember one stark observation made by another woman in our group:  if the paralyzed man had not allowed others to help, no miracle could have occurred.

Using Nature as Our Guide through the Darkness

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

There is no blue print for how to do this.

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

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

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

It is yet another journey for our soul.

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

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.