An Invitation

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I had an invitation last week to spend time with a very old friend. The timing wasn’t the greatest. I had two finals to finish – one in philosophy and one in comparative theology – both writing intensive. The kids have stuff going on as their school year is winding down. One is testing for his learner’s permit this week and his summer job has started. The usual to-do list and urgent errands have been amplified the last few weeks with lots of extra time being Mom Taxi. So even finding time to get out of the house alone wasn’t going to be easy. But I just knew I couldn’t say no. Thursday evening, instead of taking advantage of the a few hours of free time to work on my finals, I went to Our Lady of Peace and spent that time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.

That sounds all peaceful and lovely, doesn’t it? It was. Except for the part when my brain went into overdrive. This is a crazy thing to do. I have so much to do. And I haven’t been to adoration in years. Besides, this is such a totally Catholic thing to do. And I’m… I’m… well I don’t know what I am. A has-been Catholic? A would-be Lutheran? A hell-bound heretic? Why did I decide to do this? I wonder if the lightning strike will take out the whole church or just me…

Yeah, it got a little intense there for the first few minutes. But, here’s the funny thing: Jesus and I have already had this conversation, on more than one occasion, and he has no use for all those nice neat boxes that I spend so much time trying to fit myself into or fight my way out of. Jesus knew I needed a reality check and during that time I spent sitting there in the quiet, candlelit church, he gave me one. The only thing that mattered in that time and space was that I had showed up to spend time with him.

I was invited: Come. Be Still.

So I came. And I was still – or as still as I get. And that was still enough to be reminded that Jesus sees me with different eyes and when I can be still, or at least somewhat still-ish, I can catch glimpses of what he sees. And when that happens, my life doesn’t look quite so crazy.

 

 

A Soul Rekindled

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In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us through wordless groans. And God who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.   (Romans 8:26-27)

In what often feels like another life, I used to take my boys camping. Now it should be noted that my very loose definition of camping involved a 35- by 8-foot trailer with a screened-in porch, electricity, running water and WiFi. But it was the woods – okay so it is was in a campground with dirt roads, lots of trees and real woods around the borders – but there were chipmunks, bugs, and frogs aplenty. And dirt – there was lots of dirt – everywhere. In those days, I got very good at building fires and making s’mores and I taught my two little boys how to use the hose to make a giant mud puddle for their trucks. That trailer was a safe haven for me at a time when home was not a safe place to be. I had a freedom there to just be me. Many nights, I would tuck my boys into the queen-sized bunk and set them up with bedtime snacks and Scooby-Doo cartoons on my laptop. I would go sit outside and watch the fire burn down to embers. In those days, most of the time it felt like God and I were on very shaky ground. But at night, sitting in the quiet darkness, watching the fire dance in the embers, it was different. Gradually, I would realize that there was a gentle and familiar presence there that didn’t require fancy words or proper rubrics. Had you sat down beside me then and asked me if I was praying, I would have said no. I was at a point where I was all out of prayers and I wasn’t so sure God had been listening to them anyway. But I would sit and watch the fire play in the embers and feel the presence that was all around me, never realizing that just sitting by the fire was a prayer in its own right.

To say that life has changed drastically since then would be something of an understatement. Those little boys are almost grown now. Mud puddles and toy cars have been replaced by a driver’s ed classes and an old Bonneville parked in my driveway, waiting to be driven. Scooby-Doo has given way to Lord of the Rings and The Fast and the Furious. The trailer is long gone and it’s been over a decade since the last time I got down on my knees and built a fire, coaxing flames to burn ever higher. And what about God and I? I know the ground I’m standing on is solid and I know God is standing right there with me and that’s a very good place to be – most of the time. I still have my moments when things feel a little wobbly and I suppose I always will.  I’ve come to accept that it’s all part of this whole learning how to trust thing.

When I went to Gettysburg, I had some time alone in a quiet prayer space and when I first entered that space, I walked right into the gentle and familiar presence that I had known so well around the campfire. Except this time, instead of gradually becoming aware of God all around me, God was already there, fully present and waiting for me. It was so startling, I instinctively turned on my heel and walked right back out of the room and sat down in a chair in the hall. The brief inner monologue went something like this: That’s God in there! Well, duh, what did you expect?!  It took a minute or two before shock gave way to wonder and I was drawn into that space where God was waiting for me to come and sit and just be for awhile. I was invited to come in and sit down and know the presence that surrounded me. I didn’t need words, which was a good thing because words completely failed me.

A little later that day, about three hours into the drive home, I suddenly realized that for the first time since I was child, I was seriously making long-term plans for my life. I had spent so many years in survival mode that I had forgotten what it was to have dreams and plans for a future. I was so stunned by that realization that I started to cry and I ended up having to stop for awhile until the tears stopped. I found myself sitting in a noisy crowded McDonald’s, looking out at the blue sky stretched over the mountains of Pennsylvania and being aware of the presence of God, even there amidst the mundane and noisy chaos of a fast food joint on the side of the highway.

That was how I spent Palm Sunday. Holy Week and Easter have now come and gone. My younger boy was confirmed last Friday night. My classes have ended for the semester. Finals week is upon me. My older boy’s graduation is coming up quickly. Summer classes will be starting soon. Life, in all of its glorious and messy chaos, goes on. And yet, in all of this, that gentle and familiar presence is still there, in the space between breaths, if I but stop to notice. I came home from Gettysburg very much changed and yet very much the same. I am far more aware not only of God’s presence but also that I am completely at home with who I am in God’s presence.

Friday evening, after coming home from a visit with Deacon Ron, I went out for a burger with my older son. On the ride home, we opened the car windows, enjoying the first warm spring evening we’ve had thus far. Someone in the area had a backyard fire pit going. The smell of a campfire brought all those memories of my nights at the trailer roaring back. And it occurred to me that all those times I had spent silently watching the embers, I had been seeing a reflection of my soul. The fire had been burning deep inside all along, waiting for the breath that would rekindle the embers to flame at precisely the right moment. It would happen in God’s time and not mine, and it would happen regardless of my ability, or lack thereof, to express it in words.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.                                                                                                                                 (John 20:21-22)

Unicorn Convention

gettysburgAt the beginning of Lent, I found myself reading through my past Lenten journeys and trying to get some sense of where this year was headed. Nothing really solidified for me and I sat down the day after Ash Wednesday and wrote Jesus a letter. While most of that is between me and him, I can tell you I wrote this: Show me a way to get closer. I’m not good at trusting but I’m learning. Help me get closer. Teach me a new way to trust. Then I closed the notebook and purposely left it alone until Palm Sunday.

They say never pray for patience or you will be given opportunities to be patient. Well, trust me on this one, asking for a new way to trust works pretty much the same way. I discovered that on Thursday as I drove from my home in Connecticut to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. What should have been a five-hour drive turned into more than eight hours of driving in the rain with limited visibility through the Pennsylvania mountains while being surrounded by more trucks than I have ever seen on any road trip ever. To add to the fun, I couldn’t take the route I had planned to take because the bridge I needed to cross has been closed indefinitely. I’m sure there’s a metaphor for my life in there somewhere but that’s another post entirely. I prayed all the way for the rain to stop. And it did. Right when I crossed the town line into Gettysburg. God has such a sense of humor.

I was there to spend the weekend talking about church and God and life. It is something of a running joke on the Sacred Heart campus that being a religion major is quite a bit like being a unicorn – a rare mythical creature that most people have heard about but no one has ever actually seen one. I spent this past weekend in the company of unicorns. It was such an amazing experience to be surrounded by people with similar passions and questions. As one person put it, “For every question I find an answer to, thirty more questions come up.” And every head in the room was nodding in understanding and agreement. Conversations over breakfast started with things like, “So who’s your favorite theologian?” or “Have you ever read…” There were more formal discussions and small group gatherings. There was time to gather in prayer with my fellow unicorns.

While I kept my usual journal the entire weekend, on Sunday morning I opened the notebook I bring with me on retreats and reread that letter I’d written at the start of Lent and laughed. Okay, really Lord, there had to be a better way to teach me to trust than eight hours of hellacious driving conditions. But then, before us unicorns gathered for the last time, I spent some time alone in the quiet prayer space. I realized that for the first time I can remember I was openly standing still with God. I wasn’t running away from God. I wasn’t chasing after God. I was standing still in God’s presence and had been the entire weekend. And as if that wasn’t huge enough, I wasn’t hiding anything. And as if all of that wasn’t shocking enough, I realized I had done the same thing the entire weekend with people I didn’t even know. Me, the quiet introvert, who loves the back left corner of any classroom, was openly engaged in deeply personal conversations with more than forty people I had never laid eyes on before in a place I had never been to. And I had never felt more at home – physically in that space, emotionally in my own skin, and spiritually at home with God. And none of those things freaked me out. All the way home, on a lovely sunny, almost truck-free Sunday, the realizations kept coming. For every one thing I came to understand led to thirty more.

So there’s a lesson here. Be careful what you pray for. Because God answers prayers and God has a sense of humor.

Unguarded Gut Level Stuff

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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.