Unguarded Gut Level Stuff

boots

I did something crazy last weekend. I buried my old boots. I made my annual trek to Cape Cod and The Prayer Boots came along for one last walk down the beach.

Those worn out old boots were a physical reminder of who I had been when I started walking with God and letting go of them was also a way of letting go of those perceptions of myself that I had carried on my journey up to this point. That was much harder than I expected but it was time to finally put to rest the worn out illusions I had about myself and about God. I couldn’t embrace what is right in front of me until I could put down what I was carrying so protectively.

To do that meant letting my guard down. For the first time, my kids came with me to Cape Cod and so they were in a space I have jealously reserved as space for me to be alone with God. Understand that it is exceptionally hard for me to let people close to me really see me being, well… me. It’s honestly easier to be myself in a room full of people I don’t know than it is with the people who see me everyday. Because while I’ve changed over the years, people’s perceptions of me have not always kept pace. Thus, to let my boys witness me bury an old part of myself in a spot that only God and I understand was a whole new level of vulnerability. But there we were on Saturday morning, as I walked a mile or so down Head of the Meadows Beach with the boots tucked under my arm, dug a grave and buried them in not-so-random spot and, all the while, my teenage sons offered their commentary.

“Mom, you’re not seriously going to do this…?”

“Aaaaand there she goes… ooookay…walking away now…cuckoo”

And yet, despite their banter, one helped me dig and the other found a piece of driftwood for a head stone. They knew this was important to me and they accepted it as such even if they didn’t totally understand it. I had made it as clear as humanly possible that my time on the Cape is sacred to me and allowing them to be a part of that was a big deal. I’m not sure that totally registered for either of them until that moment when I put the boots down and started digging.

They were very good about giving me quiet space in the evenings to read. Knowing I had five nights to read as late as I wanted, I had brought two books with me to the Cape: Lies We Believe About God by William Paul Young and Doing the Truth in Love by Michael Himes. The latter was assigned while the former was not. As it turned out, both were important.

Himes talks about the sacramental nature of everyday life. Anything which allows us to become aware of God’s omnipresent grace is a sacrament. I couldn’t throw away those boots like everyday trash, because to me (and surely no one else) they were part of many a sacramental encounter.

Young talks about so many things but the one that deeply touched me was that God is never disappointed in me simply because God never had any expectations that I would be any different than I actually am. God knows who I am and what makes me tick better than I do so of course God doesn’t expect me to be something other than me. The one with the impossible expectations is me, not God.

On a gut level, I already knew these things to be true but to see them printed in black and white was an affirmation that I needed. There seems to be a lot of these little affirmations the last few weeks. Learning to trust my gut has become a theme of Lent this year for me. I’m rolling with things I don’t totally understand on an intellectual level because on a gut level I’m trusting that God knows what God’s doing and that God knows how to deal with me being me so I can stop apologizing for being the weird and sappy nerd that I am.

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The Prayer Boots

img_7787With a March snowstorm in the forecast and my annual trip to the Cape fast approaching, I had was heartbroken when my favorite boots gave out. The heel of the sole broke completely free from the rest of the boot and the kids talked me out of attempting to use super glue to fix it. I have a reputation for ending up hopelessly glued to stuff. So instead, I drove two sales ladies at the shoe store completely bonkers trying to find me a pair as close to what I had as possible. I came home with my new boots and, seeing the laces in the old ones were still good, I pulled the old laces out and set them aside. I took the old ones outside, but when it came time to put them in the garbage can, I started to cry. Yes, cry. Over a worn out pair of boots. Not a sniffle and a stray tear. Oh no. we’re talking a sit-down-on-the-steps, holding-on-to-the-boots, tears-rolling-down-the-face kind of a cry.

This is stupid. I told myself. Who in their right mind cries over a broken down pair of boots?! But the reaction was so visceral, I had to ask myself why they mattered so much to me. Honestly, I’m forty-some years old. It’s not like I’ve never thrown out a pair of boots before.

But these boots were different. These had a history. Over eleven years, I walked hundreds of miles of empty beaches with God as my companion. As beautiful as that may sound, I wasn’t always the most pleasant of company on those walks. And there were plenty of times when I resented God’s very presence in what had become the only safe space I had left. My life was in such a miserable state, all I wanted was to be left alone. It was not uncommon for me to walk four miles and spend the entire four miles yelling at God to either help me or get out of my way. Funny thing is, over time, something gradually shifted and those walks with God on the beach became less confrontational. Little by little, I stopped yelling. I stopped demanding. I stopped begging. I accepted God’s company and I found that even on those days when I thought I really, really wanted to be alone, what I actually wanted was to be alone with God because God was the only who understood what was brewing inside of me.

Over the last eleven years, I didn’t learn to trust God by sitting in church on Sunday. I didn’t learn to surrender all the stuff that was killing me inside by reading a prayer book full of prayers I was supposed to have memorized and couldn’t. There were days when I was just so hopelessly tangled up inside, the only way to untangle the mess was to take a walk down the beach and let God do the untangling. And the only way that works is to let go and let God do God’s thing and accept that maybe, just maybe, the Creator has a clue about how this particular creation ticks.

All those miles, all that sand and salt water, all the tears and pain and hell I’d walked through was soaked into a clunky, ugly, worn out pair of old leather boots. God transformed all that into a life I never dared to hope for, a life touched by unfathomable grace. Sometimes a pair of boots is more than just a pair of boots. Sometimes a pair of boots become sacred objects. So maybe that worn out pair of boots isn’t going in the garbage can after all. Maybe they’ll be given a very quiet burial somewhere only God and I know about.

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Coffee Matters

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I’ve been waiting for ages for the release of the film version of The Shack. Not to worry, no spoilers here. I have read that book at least twenty times, if not more. I can recite most of the major conversations from it. And knowing the film is never quite what the book is, I can honestly say I was not at all disappointed in the movie and I’m hoping to catch it again while it’s still in theaters.

That being said, as I was driving home from the theater, there was something nagging at me. Like there was something missing in the film version that was vital and yet, I couldn’t quite place it. I knew what conversations were in it or not in it and what things had been changed even slightly. But this was different, more subtle. It wasn’t until I walked in the house and smelled the pot roast my mom had simmering on the stove that it hit me.

Much like the book, the focus of the movie centered on relationships and those relationships were framed in conversations. Mack was often split off talking to Jesus or Sarayu or Papa one-to-one as he established some sort of working relationship with each but the overall mealtime camaraderie of the book was lost. The lack of time that Mack and his hosts spent around the table gnawed at the back of my brain. Very little of the playfulness and love shared amongst the Trinity over meals made it to the big screen. In addition to lighthearted flow of love within the relationship of the Trinity and also in their love for Mack, there also was a deeper level of kindness and thoughtfulness that went into something as simple as a bag of sandwiches. While I wouldn’t say the movie faltered for lack of a bag lunch or a cup of coffee left on the bedside table, those small acts of love demonstrated a deep level of intimacy and care for Mack and an anticipation of his needs that are an important piece of the story. It’s one thing to tell someone you care for them and another thing entirely to know exactly how they like their morning coffee.

In an odd sort of way, I was kind of glad those details were missing because it forced me to really focus on what I was not seeing rather than what was right in front of me. For all my bluster about wanting God to be a little – okay, a lot – more direct, I can’t point to a single time in my life that I didn’t have exactly the right books, the right music, the right poetry, or the right scenery to show me that God is present in all those little details that make me so happy. It’s still not easy for me to accept that such little things about me would matter to God and yet if I’m being really honest, I have to say God knows how I take my coffee. And that matters.

“…if anything matters then everything matters. Because you are important, everything you do is important. Every time you forgive, the universe changes; every time you reach out and touch a heart or a life, the world changes; with every kindness and service, seen or unseen, my purposes are accomplished and nothing will be the same again.”

Wm. Paul Young

The Shack

Lent. Again.

Spiritual Homework

Here we go again. Lent starts on Wednesday. And am I ready for this? As usual, no – not in the slightest. One of the nuns I follow on Twitter tweeted that she’s hoping Lent will help her to recommit to her New Years resolution. Brilliant, right?  I thought so. Except my New Years resolution was to stop making resolutions. Ha ha ha –  yeah – so that’s not much help to me for Lent, now is it?

The last couple of years, Lent has been weird. Actually, anything and everything related to church has been weird for quite awhile. I don’t fit anywhere and add to that I feel like I’ve lost Lent and Advent since I went back to school. Both fall mid-semester when there are exams, papers, and projects due and instead of reflecting on life and my relationship with God, either here or in my private journals, I’m focused on objective, well-sourced papers on religion and ethics. Now here I am, with two midterm papers and an exam over the next two weeks and thinking, Damn, I really don’t want to go through another Lent on autopilot. 

What to do about that is an interesting question. My inner honor student likes interesting questions, thus I have spent more time this weekend than seems wise reading my own writing and thinking that maybe something from years past would offer direction for this coming Lent. It’s always a strange feeling to read things that I wrote more than six months ago. After awhile, I feel like I’m reading something someone else wrote. I mean I remember these things but somehow I’d forgotten how deeply they affected me at the time. And maybe that’s why they seem so strange now, because I’ve changed and grown so gradually, it’s easy to lose track of where I started. Or more precisely who I was then and who I have become.

And what did I learn? I have a few recurring themes: guilt and confession, being too hard on myself, trust issues, learning surrender, separating God and church, and finding God in little things. And in the process I remembered that this long-running New Years resolution of mine didn’t come about because I’m too lazy to make or keep a resolution. It came about so that I would stop crucifying myself for being human and so that I would stop setting difficult and/or impossible goals to be reached by arbitrary dates. Little by little, I learned to stop. And little by little, I’ve learned to see myself with kinder eyes -as I can give myself the benefit of the doubt – on most days anyway.

So maybe this year, Lent will be a time to spend time with each of those themes I found. Maybe reading through my own writings asking God to let me see what God sees would be a good start. Maybe working from there try to understand what has changed and what has not, what needs to change and what needs to simply be let go of makes more sense than plowing ahead trying to spiritually ‘get somewhere’ by trying to give up Twitter (that would require an intervention) or chocolate (that would be ugly) or trying to unravel every last one of my church dating questions between now and Easter (that just ain’t happening).

Between the nine years of blog posts and the decade plus worth of journals in the box under my bed, this should be interesting. Lent – again. God help me.

 

 

Essence of Water

candleThere are a lot of days, especially since the start of the Spring 17 semester, that I get to the end of my day and wonder what the hell just happened. How is it bedtime already?! I’m running like a crazy woman trying to keep up with everything going on in the family and add homework and papers to that. Yikes!! Forget bedtime, how is the week over already?! But then there are days that suddenly bring a new sense of focus on where I am and what I’m doing. I feel like I’m finding answers to questions I barely knew I had. Those are days I want to hang on to tightly – and trust me when I say this – that doesn’t work. They just slip by that much faster, like trying to hold on to water with a fist.

Taking three classes, all on campus, sounded a little ambitious back in October when I chose my Spring classes. By the third week of February, when I look at the stack of reading I have to do, it starts sounding completely batshit crazy. It’s an odd combination to read fifty pages on spousal abuse and then read eighty pages of Zen philosophy and then write a paper analyzing Cartesian and Lockean theories in the film The Matrix.  And yet, I have never felt so at home and so alive as I do in this set of classes.

The first day, first fifteen minutes into Comparative Theology, my professor declared me the class unicorn – yes, religion majors are that rare, even on a Catholic campus. He was rather excited that I had been closely following the dialogue between Pope Francis and the ELCA and the events surrounding the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We chatted about Luther and Bonhoeffer and their views on the Roman Catholic Church. He promises I will absolutely love the second half of the semester. Meanwhile, reading Zen Philosophy, Zen Practice has suddenly made some of the conversations in Alice In Wonderland make sense. I finally get what Absolem was rambling on about. Yeah, I know, not at all the point of Comparative Theology but hey, little things make me happy. And as it turns out all that time I spent over the last nine years reading Rohr and his explanations of non-dualism was time well spent.

Philosophy and theology are comfort zone classes for me, so even though both would be a lot of reading and paper writing, I was happy. But I was genuinely concerned about my third class. I was afraid that taking a sociology class focused entirely on family violence would dredge up a lot of old stuff. It’s been a couple years since anything has triggered a seriously bad reaction for me and as much as I’d like to keep it that way, I also don’t want to spend the rest of my life hiding from would-be triggers. That was a hard choice to make and one I am so glad I made. Unpleasant as most of the subject matter has been, it’s been like having someone walk into a dark room full of scary shadows and turn on a light.Turns out I still blamed myself for more stuff than I had realized. Also turns out some of the things I’d chalked up to my own weakness were entirely not my fault. Being able to talk about some of the reasons why women stay and were the system breaks down has been healing and empowering for me and it’s been important for the 15 soon-to-be social workers, teachers, nurses and cops to hear.

“A Zen master once said that water is of one essence, but if it is drunk by a cow, it becomes milk, while if it is drunk by a snake, it becomes poison.” – Thich Thien-An

The more I’m able to bring my painful past experiences into the light, the more I understand them. The more I understand them at their essence, the more I’m able to transform that pain into something healthy instead of into poison. So no matter how crazy this semester gets, I know I am exactly where I need to be and doing exactly what I need to be doing. Who knows, maybe by May I’ll be be able to stop trying to grab on to answers and be able to hold them lightly and even let them go.

Small, Faithful Minority

candle_in_the_darkEvery man is called separately, and must follow alone. But men are frightened of solitude, and they try to protect themselves from it by merging themselves in the society of their fellow-men and in their material environment. They become suddenly aware of their responsibilities and duties, and are loathe to part with them. But all this is only a cloak to protect them from having to make a decision. They are unwilling to stand alone before Jesus and to be compelled to decide with their eyes fixed on him alone.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – “The Cost of Discipleship”

And then Jesus spoke to the disciples saying: Go forth and become the majority. Build for yourself a great nation. Create laws and ordinances to ensure that all of the nation obeys the precepts of that you, as the church, shall create. And those that do not obey or seem a threat, you shall punish, ostracize, and ban them. And I shall pour forth blessings upon that nation and they shall inherit the earth.

Wait… What?!  That’s not at all how scripture reads. Jesus came into this world 2017 years ago and we’re still fighting petty moral battles, much as the religious authorities were during biblical times. Why? Because we human beings are a damn stubborn bunch. We are also social creatures and thus, we seek safety in numbers. We prefer to be surrounded by like-minded people, with similar goals and aspirations. As American Christians, whether we admit it openly or not, we hope to secure our moral authority through attaining a majority rule. Somewhere a notion has arisen that we must establish a Christian nation. Is that really what Jesus taught? I don’t know about you but as a follower of Jesus, I don’t go to bed at night reciting the Pledge of Allegiance nor do I awake in the morning to meditate on the Bill of Rights.

Jesus told the disciples that they are salt and they are light. The kingdom of God is a tiny seed and a small bit of yeast. God has chosen the foolish, the weak, the lowly, and the despised. Those who are blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who desire righteousness (note that says desire, not enforce), the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers (again, not enforcers) and the persecuted. Do any of those sound like a majority?

One uses a bit of salt to flavor the whole dish. If the whole dish were salt, it would be inedible. One lights a lamp to light a dark room. If the whole room were filled with flame, everything would be burned. Mustard seeds need room to grow into large bushes. Planted in a clump, the plants would be stunted, and likely not survive. Yeast alone cannot produce bread. It must be a tiny portion mixed into the dough.

It can be hard when the darkness becomes powerful and we begin to feel overwhelmed to remember that we were never told to subdue or conquer the darkness. Our calling is to stand against the darkness and we may fail at times. And when that minority feels impossibly small, we must remember that Jesus started, not with a conquering army, but with a wandering band of 12 average men who brought the flickering light of hope into a dark world. You can look around for the secure religious majority or you can decide with your eyes fixed solely on Jesus. Love God. Love your neighbors. Love yourself. Love your enemies. Do good to those who curse you. Defend the widow and orphan. You are light that holds back the darkness and gives hope to the people in darkness around you. Or not. Your choice.

 

Salt and Light

I’ve been know to ask (beg, plead, whine, demand, politely request) God to be a bit clearer at times. An email would work. Three foot flashing neon sign would be nice. Text message would be awesome. Ha ha – right? I mean, God doesn’t work like that. Except that all three of those things have happened to me over the years that I’ve been writing this blog. God speaks through the people and the world around me in ways that never fail to catch me off my guard – and that is impressive because I’ve had a tendency to be fairly guarded.

The thing is, little by little, God has been undermining my defenses in a thousand little ways and while I’ve noticed, I haven’t resisted. Does that count as surrender? I don’t know but it’s about as close as I get to it. I’ve learned that God actually does answer me – not on my timetable and not in ways I expect – but answers nonetheless. So I’ve learned to watch and listen and while I’ve cracked the joke to friends that God has picked up a megaphone lately, I suspect the truth lies less in God’s megaphone usage and more in my being open and paying attention.

So paying attention to a bunch of little things stretching all the way back to last Easter led me to these words on the twelfth day of Christmas:

‘Ye are the salt.’ Jesus does not say: ‘You must be the salt.’ It is not for the disciples to decide whether they will be the salt of the earth, for they are so whether they like it or not, they have been made salt by the call they have received.

The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

And in case that wasn’t quite clear enough…

‘Ye are the light.’ Once again it is not: ‘You are to be the light,’ they are already the light because Christ has called them, they are a light which is seen of men, they cannot be otherwise.

The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Ever read something that so rocks your world, you have to put the book down and talk a walk?  Yeah. This was one of those. I’ve spent so much of life trying to grow into or step into or become some ideal that I’d made up in my head. I had some vision cobbled together from a hundred different sources but not one of them was Jesus. And having realized my error and going to the only source that mattered, I was now reading as direct an answer as I could have dared to ask for. By virtue of following Him, I am salt and light, whether I like it or not, and cannot be otherwise, even when I can’t (or won’t) see it in myself. That means all that work of “becoming” really isn’t up to me. Which also means I’m not really in control of it. That is both a relief and scary as hell. Relief because I have been known to make my life way more complicated than it needs to be. Scary because… well…control.

Mary Schmich once wrote: Do one thing every day that scares you. So I made up my mind to do same thing every day until it no longer scares me. I will trust the One I’m following.