God Will Not Be Distracted

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As the Fall semester was winding down, I spent weeks working on a unique project for one of my classes. I was in an independent study called Theology & Ethics of Death and Dying. At my professor’s suggestion, instead of a typical research paper, I crafted a pair of prayer services. One was written for patients with a chronic or terminal illness. The other was written for their caregivers. In addition, I included a short paper on why these services were important and should be a regular fixture in the ministry of the church.  This project started off in early October as a way combining what I was learning with my passion for invisible people while at the same time channeling my creative side. it quickly became so much more. It became a way of addressing what I was experiencing at home.

I’m the main caretaker for my mom, who has advanced congestive heart failure. Some illnesses progress in a roller-coaster with dramatic upswings and sudden drops. CHF is more like a Slinky falling down a flight of stairs. It may pause for awhile, but it never goes back up. Over the last year or so, I’ve found most people don’t understand the progression of the disease unless they’ve been through it with a family member. Over the past few months, I have politely and gently answered the repeated question: “Is she doing better?”  with an explanation that no major improvement is to be expected. But after months of this, I find myself wanting to scream “Didn’t you hear me the first 30 times I answered you?”  On one hand, I try to remind myself that the person asking cared enough to ask but on the other hand, I have reached a point in life where I’ve realized that it’s the not the people who ask that I count as friends. It’s the ones who listen to the answers. It’s also the ones who follow up with a question on how I’m doing and won’t accept my favorite lie, “I’m fine. ”

Working on this project gave me a way to acknowledge the isolation and inherent loneliness that comes with a chronic or terminal illness. I chose scripture readings that acknowledged loss but also conveyed hope in God who sustains all things. I found hymns that brought me strength and prayers that offered comfort. But even as I assembled and wrote, I realized I was struggling far more than I was willing to admit. The emotional impact of trying to be a a good mother, a good daughter, a good friend, a good employee, a good student, and still maintain enough detachment to be a good caretaker and medical proxy had pushed me to the brink of burnout. Simple everyday things, some days even getting out of bed, became emotionally taxing. Okay – so maybe I was past the brink. But what was I going to do? Everything still needed to get done and some things simply can’t be delegated.

In the midst of this, prayer had become more difficult. In the same way I felt withdrawn or removed from people around me, I also felt withdrawn from God. I simply had nothing to say and quite frankly, I didn’t feel like listening much either. And yet, God was the only one not demanding my time and undivided attention. Our time spent at the beach every morning became the only quiet in my days and yet even there, I couldn’t quite take a deep breath and relax. I showed up anyway because I really didn’t know what else to do.

As Christmas break approached, I had time to read whatever I wanted and I picked up Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters & Papers from Prison. My younger son questioned my choice of reading materials. After several conversations, he finally said to me, “Mom, you’re going to get your head stuck. You need to stop reading shop [theology and/or religion] and read something like normal people read. You can’t be a good theologian if you can’t see with fresh eyes and you can’t see with fresh eyes if you can’t look away.” And so for Christmas, he and his brother bought me a light, fluffy non-religious novel. I’ll have to admit that it helped to crawl into a book for a few days and escape for awhile. I bought another by the same author, which I also burned through in a few short days.

By the time break was coming to a close, I went back to reading Bonhoeffer, but as my 16 year-old predicted, I read with fresh eyes. At the end of particularly long, difficult day, I read the following:

“I’ve learnt here especially that the facts can always be mastered, and that difficulties are magnified out of all proportion simply by fear and anxiety. From the moment we wake until we fall asleep we must commend other people wholly and unreservedly to God and leave them in his hands, and transform our anxiety for them into prayers on their behalf:

With sorrow and with grief…
God will not be distracted.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Letter to Renate and Eberhard Bethge
Written from Tegel Prison
Christmas Eve 1943

In that moment, after weeks of feeling disconnected, invisible, and often unheard, I suddenly felt very much understood and embraced. While I had been distracted, God was not. God heard every word I hadn’t said, followed every line of thought I’d not dared bring to completion, knew every feeling I’d pushed away and then, ever so gently, God let me know I was not alone.

I’m back in classes as the Spring semester is in full swing. The demands for my time and attention are no less than they were before. I still find myself feeling detached and removed. But my time with God at the beach in the morning has again become the one time and place that I can take a deep breath and relax, even for a little while and I know that I will be heard, even when I have nothing at all to say.

Advent, Music & Memories

Twelve notes. That’s all it took. Suddenly, I was 6 years old again, twirling around the living room with my father.

I took my younger son to see The Nutcracker and The Four Realms last night. I was a little shocked when the opening notes of the overture and the opening scene brought me to tears. Of all my father’s Christmas albums, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker was one of my favorites. I still listen to that music every year. He read me the story of Clara and The Nutcracker more times than I could ever count. I knew the movie was a different take on the story. And yet, with those few opening notes all the innocent wonder came flooding back. It was as if I was hearing it for the first time. 

It’s funny how much music is tied to memories. The Rolling Stones and baking endless batches of chocolate chip cookies. U2 and hanging Christmas lights. Pink Floyd and writing end of term papers. And of course, it wouldn’t be Advent without O Come, O Come Emmanuel and my father’s alternate lyrics inducing church giggles.

I have so many good memories of Advent and Christmas. And yet, as I sit on this dreary first Sunday of Advent, I find myself feeling a little off. Last year, the holidays were a time of great apprehension. This year, things are more stable but there’s that part of me that constantly asks, “For how long?” Last year was the year without a Christmas. I don’t want to be so afraid of a repeat occurrence that I miss out of what good can be this year. So, I’ve tried the last couple days to listen to some of my old Christmas favorites. I mean the really old childhood favorites from my father’s collection. These are the songs I asked for over and over that have nothing but good memories attached to them. This is my attempt at being hopeful. The Holly and The Ivy, The Coventry Carol, What Child Is This?, Carol of the Bells, and The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns lead the playlist. Yeah, I know, I was a weird kid with a great love of pipe organs, bells, and big choirs. 

What I’m finding is that trying to be hopeful is not really possible. Either I can cling to hope… or not. Either I can remain haunted by ghosts of unhappy Christmases past or I can let go and experience one full of joy, love, and wonder. The opening notes of the Nutcracker Overture caught me off guard in that movie theater last night because I went in not knowing what to expect. I was ready for something new, something unexpected, something wonderful and I was not disappointed.

Can I approach this season of Advent with that same kind of hopeful expectation? I suppose I shall have to wait and see.

Come to Me

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Come to Me

 

Come to me when you’re stressed out,

When you’re overwhelmed,

When the burnout has set in,

When the anxiety grips you,

When the exhaustion never seems to end,

When tired is the only word you know to express the emptiness you feel.

 

Come to me when the responsibilities keep growing,

When the demands are more than the resources,

When you feel like you need six of you and, at best, you’re only at half-power.

 

Come to me when the thoughts won’t stop racing,

When the words won’t stop coming,

Even when all you want is to be quiet,

Come to me and I will listen to it all.

 

Come to me when you are angry and full of rage,

When you want to rant and scream,

When you are full of hurt and trying to keep a lid on it so as not to hurt anyone else.

Come to me and let me be angry with you and for you.

Let me soothe the hurt inside.

 

Come to me when the words run out and all that is left are the tears.

Come to me, for I understand the language of tears.

Come to me and I will give you space to breathe.

I will give you time to cry.

 

Come to me when you are surrounded by people and yet you feel so very much alone.

Come to me and I will sit beside you.

Come to me and I will embrace you.

 

Come to me and I will give you rest,

I will give you peace,

I will give you silence,

I will give you stillness,

I will give you space,

Come to me and I will give you healing and strength.

 

Take my yoke upon your shoulders,

Let me share your burdens.

They weren’t mean to be yours alone.

Let me help you carry all that is heavy in life.

 

I am gentle, kind, and patient.

I am love and compassion.

I will teach you and support as we walk.

 

We will bear these burdens together,

You and I,

Every step of the way.

You are not alone in this.

You never have been.

You never will be.

I am here.

 

Come to me.

Let me give you rest.

Knowing When to Shut Up

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The remnant of Hurricane Michael passing south of Long Island. Do I see the storm or do I see the sun rising?

About a week ago I was talking with a friend about Job. I have a great fondness for Job, especially when life gets overwhelming, which it has been for awhile now. It seems like every few years, God and I circle back to this space where all I can do is shoot my mouth off about everything that is going wrong and when I get like that, it’s easy to lose sight of what is going right. Eventually though, usually after a much needed kick in the ass, I’ll end up where Job ended up:

Then Job answered the Lord and said:

I know that you can do all things,
    and that no purpose of yours can be hindered.
 “Who is this who obscures counsel with ignorance?”
I have spoken but did not understand;
    things too marvelous for me, which I did not know.
“Listen, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you tell me the answers.”
By hearsay I had heard of you,
    but now my eye has seen you.
Therefore I disown what I have said,
    and repent in dust and ashes.

 

Or in my own paraphrase: I shot my mouth off about stuff only God can understand and I’ll shut up now because I know God better now.

Am I ready to shut up now? Am I ready to stop trying to justify the things in my life that aren’t going well – or more precisely as well as I’d like them to be? Can I stop coming to prayer with my scorekeeper’s math of working half time and going to school three-quarter time and trying to find time to shop, cook, and do laundry? It’s not like God doesn’t know already. Can I now come to prayer and shut up and let God speak to me with the love and encouragement that God knows I need?

Maybe. Maybe it’s time for the perfectionist honor student to sit down and listen for awhile. Maybe it’s time to remember why I went back to college at 41. Maybe it’s time to remember it’s a miracle that I was able to go back to college at 41. Maybe it’s time to take a look at the people God has brought into my life, including an incredibly loving and supportive church community.

Part of looking around at the mess around me means taking a look over my shoulder at how far I’ve come and then taking a look ahead to see how close I am to the next steps in life. Instead of focusing on how College Algebra makes me feel incredibly and unbelievably stupid, I can focus on the renewed energy I’m finding in a uniquely creative assignment for an independent study in the Theology and Ethics of Death and Dying.

I’m thirteen months away from graduating. There was a time, not all that long ago, that I could never have seen myself in a college classroom. So yeah – life is a mess right now. But maybe where I see a mess, God sees something more. And maybe if I can shut up long enough, God might be able to show me just a glimpse of what God sees in that mess.

A Step Back

beach roseOne of the most important lessons I’ve learned in the personal chaos of the past nine months is that I need to know when to step back and breathe. And it’s not always easy to know when to take that step. It’s easier for me to double down and keep going than to have to explain to others that I need a break, some room to breath, time to process or decompress. Perhaps the aspect of that lesson that alarmed me most is that because I’ve trained myself to keep trudging until I fall on my face, sometimes I’m blind to the fact that I need to step back.

Two weeks after Easter, God called me out. I’d spent two full days reading for my theology class and making notes in the margins as I went. God is real. The experience of God is real. The stories are real. These same themes kept popping up for me as I read. Then as Sunday afternoon wound down, I went back to my former parish on a whim hoping that maybe Fr. Tom, my former pastor, would preach the 6:00 evening Mass. I was not to be disappointed. He stepped up to the pulpit and began his homily: “God is real. The experience of God is real. Especially those experiences of God’s love for you.” I damn near fell out of the pew. If God wanted my attention, believe me that worked. I cried through the rest of the Mass. Not a stray tear or two either but full-on thank-God-I-have-tissues-with-me waterworks.

That was a serious wake-up call. I’d been submerging myself in my schoolwork because it was an escape from the chaos of taking care of everyone else and it was an escape that was somehow respectable. What I’d caught a glimpse of during my time on Cape Cod had now come into sharp focus. I was hiding out not only from the people around me, but also from God. I wasn’t happy with where I was on my journey. I wasn’t happy with myself for a variety of reasons. And somehow, I was going to work myself out of that dark space all by my lonesome. So after chewing on this for about a week, I instinctively did what I do best: I sat down to write about the experience. I spent the next three hours alternating between staring at a blank screen, typing a sentence or two and then deleting the words in disgust, and staring out the window wondering why the words just wouldn’t flow like they usually do.

I realized as I sat there in front of the blank screen that nothing was going to flow out of me because I was spiritually running on empty. Even the fumes had burned off. I knew something had to give. Over the next ten weeks, I stopped trying to write publicly. I stopped trying to explain myself to anyone. I started taking extra time out to spend in prayer, even if that was simply ten minutes of sitting on the back porch watching the birds in the afternoon while dinner was cooking. During those ten weeks, I had some incredibly reassuring God moments, which is good because when I read through my journals for the past year the one theme that appears over and over ad nauseam is a sense of being overwhelmed. And if I’m not taking that extra time to stop, breathe, pray and write privately, I lose track of those God moments. When I submerge myself, either in the chaos that is my life right now or in my schoolwork, I intentionally let myself drown when I have a Savior who walks on water and calls me to walk with Him. Sometimes that walk means taking a step back, standing still, and catching my breath.

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

 

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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.