Lighten Up

Come away by yourself to an out-of-the-way place and rest awhile. Mk 6:31

The last few months have been rather intense. Short-handed at work, deadlines for work and school, juggling three classes, and taking on an ever-deepening role as caretaker for my mom – it was all piling up to overwhelming levels of stress and anxiety. Six days away on Cape Cod was a desperately needed break. Me, being me, packed light…well sort of. I brought my usual beachwear of ragged jeans and ancient hoodies, wool socks and boots but I also brought three books, my laptop, my bible, my journals (there’s two – don’t ask why) and some reading material from my pastor. Somehow, I had it in my head that although I was going away to rest and take time alone to deepen my connection with God, ponder the questions of my Lent, and to ground myself again, I was also going to write a paper on Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith and still have time to read two books and walk the beaches. Yeah – I needed a reality check and bad.

With the fourth nor’easter in three weeks coming up the coast, I was up and on the road to the Cape well before dawn. That first night, I was exhausted from the drive and just life in general. I had unpacked and settled into pajamas, snuggled up with a blanket and my phone on the couch to leisurely scroll through social media and blink… BLINK… PITCH BLACK. Yup, the lights went out. I swear to you in that moment I heard God laugh. It was the kind of laugh you get from an old friend who has just pulled off an awesome prank. After the initial shock, I started to giggle at the absolute absurdity of driving nearly four hours only to sit in the dark while the lights – and the heat – were still on back home. After about ten minutes, I shrugged and decided an early bedtime wasn’t such a bad thing. I used my phone for a flashlight and turned down the bed. No sooner did I slide under the covers than the lights came back on. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.

The next day was gray with rain, sleet, snow, and lots of wind. So while the water heated for my tea, I dragged a big chair from the living room into the bedroom. I positioned it to face the bedroom chair, planning to put my feet up and enjoy a lovely day of staring out the sliding glass doors, watching the wind stir up the water, and listening to the rain and sleet ticking off the windows. I got my tea, gathered up my journals, my bible, and my pen and as I settled myself into that big chair, it suddenly hit me that I had just walked into my morning prayer time the same way I would walk into a classroom. I was mentally in full-blown honor student mode, ready to make good use of my time and accomplish something. I had the first completely unscheduled morning I’ve had in over a year and instead of putting my feet up and soaking up the silence, I was ready to make intelligent observations and take copious notes.

And right there in that instant the full weight of everything I’d been carrying for the last six months came crashing down. All the expectations I had shouldered, some put on me and some I’d put on myself, were suddenly way more than I could carry. Add to that all the guilt I was carrying for not being able to do more than I’m already doing. And on top of all of that, I had planned to go to confession the night before I left and didn’t go because, well – life happened. I crumbled and over the rest of the morning, I cried six months worth of pent-up tears while God picked through the load of stuff I’d been carrying. God patiently sorted through it all.  This isn’t yours. This isn’t yours. This is yours. Where did this even come from?! Definitely not yours. Don’t need this. Put that down. No! Don’t pick it up again! Yes, that’s yours but it’s heavy. Let me help you with that one. Oh sweetheart, please don’t do this to yourself. You aren’t meant to carry the whole world on your shoulders. That’s my job. 

I spent the rest of that day watching the wind move over the water, listening to the rain and sleet tick off the windows. This was time to let God do God’s thing, some of which consisted of telling me to lighten up and let go and some of which – no, actually a lot of which – I don’t even understand yet. Two of my books, my paper, and my laptop sat mostly untouched for the rest of my time on the Cape. I read one book, slowly, soaking in it.

I came home in the middle of Holy Week and so much needed to be done at home. It would have been so easy to pick up where I’d left off, carrying things not meant for me. But somewhere in the middle of the Holy Thursday liturgy, as the community prayed for wisdom, courage, and strength, I remembered to let go. I remembered that it’s okay to be small, to be weak, to be vulnerable – in other words, to be human in need of a Savior.

During my days on the Cape, I had wandered my favorite beaches. God Himself had washed my feet in the cold Atlantic ocean that I love so dearly under a sky that was my favorite shade of blue. The Spirit moved in the wild March winds and carried the reminder of my baptism in sleet and snow blown in off the waves. In all the world, there is no finer cathedral to be found than this. But just in case I’d started to forget any of it, as I left the Easter Vigil, the moon was rising over the church, a stiff March wind was blowing, and I could hear the waves crashing on the beach nearby. And in that sound there was a voice that said, Lighten up kid, I love you.

Questions for Lent

 

questions

There are a lot of good things I could do this year for Lent. There are books I could read, church events I could go to, reflections I could write… well you get the idea. But this year seems to be a year full of questions. And not the kind of questions that are going to have some sort of formulaic answer. I can’t answer Question A by reading Book 1 and writing answers to discussion questions 1-5. It’s just not that simple. And that’s okay.

I’ve come to realize that I’ve reached a point where I’m okay with just knowing the questions. And maybe this year, Lent isn’t about looking for answers. Maybe this year, Lent is about just sitting with the questions.

Can I accept that God sees something in me that I don’t?

Do I absolutely, positively need to see exactly what that something is?

Or can I accept – and I mean really, truly accept – that it is more than enough that God sees it?

I was driving home from spiritual direction on Friday when these hit me. That last one was enough to make me pull over for awhile. Driving and pondering is a brilliant way to end up in a tree.

So this year, for Lent I’m writing down the questions as they pop up and just letting them be. For every question I write down, it seems like ten more pop up that are related to it. And instead of indulging my perfectionist inner honor student, I’m not trying to come up with the right answers. I’m just writing them down. Answers will come in time.

My Refuge

Psalm-91-2

Trust.

Ah, the great dreaded T word. I don’t like that word. It makes me twitchy all over, inside and out. Why?

<Sigh>

Trust.

I don’t like the word trust because for me, it’s not just an abstract or a feeling. It’s very real and it has had some very real consequences in my life, not all of them good. It’s not that I don’t trust God because I do … now … most of the time… I think. Okay, honestly, are there people in my life that I trust? Yes. Do I trust God? Yes. But it takes a lot of self-reflection for me to be able to say either one of those things.

I get so hung up on that one stupid word because I have seen it misused and abused, both in word and in action. It’s easier to say I have trust issues or that it takes a damn long time to earn my trust. But that’s the thing about God: God has all the time there is … or ever will be. God has been perfectly content to wait me out. And despite all my mouth, gradually over the last ten years I’ve been moving to a place where, if I’m really honest with myself, I trust God more than I ever believed was possible.

Do you have any idea how hard that was to admit out loud? And yes – I do mean out loud because I talk to myself when I write.

Refuge.

I never really had feelings on the word refuge. It was an abstract idea for me. It made sense on some intellectual level, I suppose. It’s a strange feeling when something you’ve been reading your whole life, something you think you get, suddenly becomes very real and very tangible.

You see, lately, I find myself in a place when I have more roles to fill than I have of me to go around. I’m a parent and a caretaker, an employee and a student, and most days I have to be all of those things simultaneously. Everyone is demanding something from me every waking moment of every day. It’s like I’m juggling knives…except I never learned how to juggle.

I finally hit overload. The stress and fear I’ve experienced over the last few months finally caught up to me. What I refused to grapple with in my waking hours took over my sleep in the form of nightmares. After several weeks of nightmares, it progressed to night terrors. If you’ve never experienced that particular horror, count your blessings. The dream continued even though I was awake. I knew I was awake but I wasn’t sure where I was, what was real and what wasn’t. It wasn’t until I had walked through the entire house, checking on everyone else and finding them all sleeping peacefully, that I was finally able to calm down. I was awake the rest of the night. That’s the kind of night that makes me afraid to ever go to sleep again. I can assure you, that would not have been a good time to ask me if I trust God.

And yet… the following night when I went up to bed, I prayed. I asked for refuge for the night, a safe place to rest. You see what I mean about trust? That’s not the kind of request you make of someone you don’t trust.

Refuge.

An odd choice of wording. But that was what came out of me in that moment.

Refuge.

That word comes up a lot in the bible and, up until the other night, I don’t think I ever really understood it. I mean, I knew what the word meant, obviously. But I don’t think I ever really connected God, who I can’t see or touch, with something quite so solid.

That night, as I slept, I found myself in a yet another dream. Rather than anything scary, this time I was in a big, old building with many rooms, like an old tenement apartment building only beautiful and well-kept. All the doors were closed as I went up the stairs and wandered the hallways. Waiting for me was a room that I had all to myself where I was quiet, alone, and most of all, safe. It’s a decidedly strange thing to lay down and go to sleep in a dream but that is exactly what I did. When I woke up around midnight, I rolled over and went back to sleep and had the same dream, only with a twist. I was back in the same big, old building with it’s many rooms but now all the doors where thrown open. People wandered in and out of rooms and congregated in the hallways and open spaces. People from every walk of life had sought and found refuge here.

I woke up the next morning feeling like I’d finally gotten the rest I so desperately needed. As I sat at the beach that morning, I was a little startled to find myself able to be still. It was the first time in months that I’d been able to sit and be still. When I took the time to write down my dreams, I realized as a I wrote that God wasn’t in the building. God was the building. God was that safe place where I found rest.

God is my refuge.

I know what that means now.

A Year Without A Christmas?

lights

I’ve never made any secret of how much I despise the fakery of New Years Eve or the whole new year/new me nonsense. And I’ve had a few years where Advent has been a little more difficult to navigate than others. But I love Christmas. I always have. I’ve tried over the years to make sure my boys have a Christmas that is about a lot more than a tree and some presents. Because the boys spend Christmas Day at their father’s house, we open presents on Christmas Eve morning. That gives us an entire day that is about time spent with family and we end the day with Midnight Mass, by which point the excitement over presents has more or less worn off. We come home and the one of the boys will put Baby Jesus in the manger. But sometimes, life is beyond our control and this was one of those years.

My mom went into the hospital Christmas Eve morning. Even as we opened presents, I knew we were headed there. My sister made sure the gorgeous roast beef I’d picked out was served as planned. And the boys texted me all day and into the evening. I finally came home around 9:30, too exhausted to go to Mass. I reheated my dinner and sat at the table with the boys as they proudly recapped how they helped cook dinner. They had saved the Christmas wine until I got home and we toasted a Merry Christmas that felt anything but merry. By 10:30, we were all worn out and after my younger son declared that this was the year without a Christmas, I had to remind him (and myself) that nothing can ever take the real Christmas away from us.  We talked for a bit and together we decided Jesus wouldn’t mind coming into the manger a wee bit early this year so that we could get to bed and get some much needed sleep.

Come New Years Eve, Mom was still in the hospital, improving slowly, and the rest us at home toasted good riddance to 2017 even before toasting the beginning of 2018. As it turned out, I spent the Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and the entire 12 days of Christmas trekking back and forth to the hospital. While the doctors were busy figuring out how to help Mom feel better, I was busy trying to find little ways to brighten her spirits. You’d be amazed at the healing powers of a few bites of homemade ham with pineapple and few sips of New Years punch in a crystal punch cup carefully packed and brought from home. And yes, there were more than few Miss Daisy jokes made during her stay.

Mom was able to come home just in time to celebrate Little Christmas. Last night, I brewed a nice pot of tea for us. We sat at the kitchen table and talked about all that had happened in recent months and especially her stay in the hospital. Eventually, we came around to the subject of trust. My mom is trusting me, as her medical conservator, to work with our family doctor to make sure she gets the care she needs but also to respect her wishes regarding treatment. That kind of trust is one thing when you’re feeling well enough to care for yourself and it’s another thing entirely when you’re really sick, in a strange place, on strange medicines and you’re not even sure what’s real anymore.

This morning as I spent some much needed, albeit very cold, time at the beach, that conversation kept running through my head. It made me consider the way I trust God – or don’t – on a far deeper level. I’m not shy about acknowledging that trusting God is not something that comes easily to me. Yet, over the last ten years, I gradually grew to trust God more than I ever thought I could – not without lot of protests and tears, mind you. But all of the sudden, these last two weeks, trust became something far more visceral. It became about letting go, surrendering to whatever was going to be, and trusting that somehow, someway, whatever happened, I wasn’t going to face it alone. And I didn’t. God showed up in a myriad of ways big and small in family, in friends, in strangers, even in nature as a whopper of a snowstorm gave me a desperately needed day of rest and time with my boys and gave Mom an extra day of excellent nursing care.

This Advent was not an easy one. And it has been said in this house that this was the year without a Christmas. But I don’t believe that. It’s just that this Incarnation stuff is a messy business that doesn’t translate well to Hallmark movies or sappy three-line greeting cards. This year, Christmas was not without miracles. Nor was it without an epiphany.

Joy

joy

Joy. Third Sunday of Advent. This is the week we traditionally put up our Christmas tree and our Nativity. We usually haul out the old records – yeah, remember records? –  and we sing along, badly. I turn out cookies in big batches. The house is loud and bright and smells like heaven.

Not this year. The tree is up, lit, and decorated but we did it quietly. The Nativity boxes are all stacked in the corner for later. Maybe tonight. Cookies might happen before Christmas Eve.

The traditional Christmas preparations that usually make me feel lighter inside feel heavy this year. The excitement that usually bubbles up in me just hasn’t been there this year. The closer we get to Christmas, the heavier things weigh on me.

And yet, joy is not absent.  Joy showed up in the simplest, most unexpected way. A little piece of candy from an old lady’s purse was all it took to brighten my whole world. Earlier this week a new client, whom I had never met, was introduced to me as I was leaving work. As usual these days, I was in a whirlwind with a long list of things I needed to do after work. She smiled and we shook hands. Then suddenly, she reached for her bag and dug out a strawberry-filled hard candy and handed it to me. Everything instantly lightened up for me and it must have been all over my face when I thanked her because she caught my hand, dug out five more, put the whole handful in my hand and then stood up and gave me a big hug. She could not have known but those particular candies bring back the sweetest memories of my childhood. As I walked to my car, I still had a long list of things I needed to do after work but the whirlwind felt … well… a lot less whirly. And I caught myself noticing the way the sunlight hit the snow and the sparrow singing in the tree over my car and how chubby the squirrels have gotten all of the sudden.

The next day, I came into work, still smiling like a little girl over that little handful of candy. There waiting for me was a whole bag of the same candies. After I’d left, the client had gone out to her car and come back in with a full bag and left it for me. That was enough to move me to tears.

I’ve always been one to find joy in the littlest things in life: the way the dew hangs on a spiderweb or a buttercup growing up through a crack in the cement or the way the snowflakes stacked up precariously on the bush outside the kitchen window reflect the light of Christmas lights. The last ten weeks, my mom’s health suddenly declined and I’ve been more and more caught up in taking care of her and running around trying to get the house ready to celebrate the holidays in the way we always have. I’ve been so caught up in all of it that I didn’t even realize that I had started to miss seeing the little things that had always brought me so much joy.

strawberryJoy for me this year was found in the simplest, smallest act of kindness from a total stranger. A little piece of candy and a smile was all I needed to remind me to stop, breathe, look up, look around and remember the innocence and wonder of childhood. Because when God shows up, at least for me, it’s usually in the littlest of ways.

 

 

Peace

peace two candles

Many images come to mind when I think of the word peace. Quiet. Stillness. A snowfall. An empty beach. An early morning cup of tea. A winter night sky full of stars. But what happens when those things are not readily available, or least not available uninterrupted? What happens when life feels like it has been picked up and shaken around like a snowglobe in the hands of an overeager three year-old – what does peace look like then?

I wish I knew. The best I can come up with is that’s something to hang on to. It’s the wall I find to lean against during a panic attack. It’s the warmth of the sun on my fair or the wind in my hair or the voice of a friend that gives me something to hang on to until everything stops spinning or falling in on me or both.

But here’s the thing – all of those are outside of me. The good images that come to mind when I think of peace and the things I hang to when I’m falling apart – all those are outside.

Peace, true peace, is a gift that lies within. It means digging deeper than surface images and finding something – or rather Someone – greater to hang on to. Or perhaps it means allowing myself to be held. Perhaps the path to peace means letting go and allowing myself to be held by the same hands that hold the whole universe steady. Perhaps true peace can only be found through surrender and trust.

It seems like this Advent, if I’m to know peace, I’m going to have to surrender and trust. And I think I’ve been shaken around enough that surrender and trust are less terrifying now. Ask me again around Christmas.

Hope

hope

The First Sunday of Advent: Hope

What is hope anyway?

I hope I sleep tonight. I hope she feels better tomorrow. I hope this new medication works. I hope work isn’t crazy on Monday. I hope the new U2 album doesn’t suck. I hope this new recipe turns out to be decent. I hope I didn’t forget to buy milk again. I hope we can get the Christmas tree up without drama. I hope I get the classes I want. I hope we don’t end up in another war. I hope the tax plan doesn’t ruin us.

I hope… I hope… I hope…

It seems like whenever I talk about hope what I really mean is a wish. A wish for the ways things used to be. A wish for the way things ought to be. A wish for things to be better than they are right now. Or sometimes even a wish for a different reality.

But is that really hope?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, “Our eternal message of hope is that dawn will come.”

Dawn. A new day. But a new day doesn’t mean a new reality, merely a continuation of this one. Maybe things will change. Maybe they won’t. Maybe those things are beyond my control and all the wishing in the world won’t make a damn bit of difference.

But true hope is more than a wish. Hope in the dawn is understanding, as Dr. King said, “That the contradictions of life are neither final nor ultimate.” Hope is a belief that God can and will bring good out of the realities of this life. Hope is rooted in faith. Hope grows in trust. Hope thrives in perseverance. Hope holds fast in the darkness. Hope is that which carries me when wishes no longer matter. Hope is that which sustains me when reality seems more than I can bear.

Advent reminds me to stay rooted in faith, to trust, to persevere, to hold fast in the darkness. Advent reminds me to hope for God has promised me that the dawn will come.

“The King shall come when morning dawns 
And light triumphant breaks, 
When beauty gilds the eastern hills 
And life to joy awakes.”

The King Shall Come 
By: John Brownlie