Sneaky Jesus

img_9014

A few quiet moments alone in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit

This has been one of *those* weeks. You know the type when absolutely nothing goes the way you planned. Monday morning started out with me tripping up the stone steps of the back porch whilst juggling the morning Dunkin run (my tea, mom’s coffee and doughnut) and managing to save the combined 24 ounces of very hot liquid for the price of a couple of colorfully bruised shins. Tuesday and Wednesday weren’t much better. Thursday started at 5 AM, making PowerPoint slides for a group presentation – have I ever mentioned how much I detest group presentations? – followed by Dunkin royally screwing up my order. I got home with mom’s coffee and doughnut but instead of my simple black tea (hot water, tea bag – not hard), I had a medium coffee with 6 creams and 7 sugars. Yes – you read that right – 7 sugars. And because I was already running late and caffeine is a thing necessary for functioning during short-handed busy seasons at work, I drank it anyway and was twitchy most of the day. After work, I had to drop my younger son to the bus for his after-school mentor program and remind my older son that he was in charge of picking his kid brother up later. That gave me about an hour at home to sit down and contemplate whether or not I really, really wanted to drive down to the university in rush hour traffic, in the dark, on a cold, raw, drizzly November evening when I did not have to be in class. And here’s the thing – that was a long hour. I came up with a laundry list of excellent reasons to stay home. Top on the list was that I was already exhausted and I had to present in class on Friday morning. But Sr. Helen Prejean was speaking at Sacred Heart and I have admired her work against the death penalty since I was a teenager. How many chances was I going to get to see her speak in person?So I dragged my sorry self off the couch earlier than I needed to because I figured it would be better to sit and wait in the chapel than to hang out at home, thinking up excuses to change into pjs and stay home all cozy and warm. Inertia is, after all, a dangerous thing.

My efforts were rewarded with a half an hour in an empty, quiet chapel – a rare luxury these days – interrupted only by a pair of texts assuring me that my sons had managed to connect with each other and arrive home in one piece. The crowd and Sr. Helen arrived soon enough.

I was blown away by the energy and humor of this feisty 80-year old nun from Louisiana. She spoke about her new memoir – now neatly added to the stack of books I Will Not Touch Until After Finals, So Help Me God – and about how she came to find herself sitting in the death chamber on the night of the first execution she witnessed. Before Vatican II, she said, following the will of God was found in obedience to your superiors. There was no independent thought involved. But after Vatican II, in the midst of all the changes within her order, she found herself trying out a number of different ministries. She soon found herself working in a literacy center in a poor, urban area. And it was as she was leaving the center one afternoon that she encountered Sneaky Jesus. She was invited to write a letter to an inmate on death row. She said that seemingly innocuous invitation was the way Sneaky Jesus flipped her whole life upside down and she found out that doing the will of God sometimes means being in over your head and learning things as you muddle your way through. Honestly, I have heard Jesus depicted in so many ways by so many different people over the years but none of those descriptions made me really sit up and say, “Hey – I know that guy!” – until now.

I know Sneaky Jesus quite well. Sneaky Jesus shows up and says things like:

“Hey Chris…

I think you should come to the Week Guided Prayer.

you want to come to the healing Mass with us?

you want to be part of this discipleship group working on how to live out your God-given strengths?

you want to teach kids in the school how to keep a spiritual journal?

you’re going to be a Eucharistic minister tonight. Yeah, I know you aren’t trained.

you want to come over and watch this documentary, Pink Smoke Over The Vatican?

you want to come over for dinner and liturgy with this lady priest?

well, what’s stopping you from going back to school?

I think you need a silent retreat.

We’re going to pack bags of food and sort coats. You want to come along?”

All these small, simple invitations that have turned into so much more than I ever expected. And those are only some of the ones that came through other people. Sneaky Jesus shows up in all kinds of other ways, always when I least expect it.

I had the chance to have Sr. Helen sign my copy of her memoir and she looked up at me like she’d known me my whole life and asked me, “So what are you up to these days?”  When I told her, she smiled like she’d already known the answer and nodded, saying “Sounds like you’re on the right track.” I told her I knew this Sneaky Jesus guy she was talking about and she laughed and said, “Yeah – I kinda figured you did.”

I stepped out of that university chapel into the cold rain and walked back to my car, physically still exhausted but revived in spirit. I’ve spent the last five years in over my head and muddling through and somehow, all along the way Sneaky Jesus has managed to get me right where I needed to be, right when I needed to be there.

I survived my crazy week. I made my very last presentation at Sacred Heart on Friday. I have 3 weeks left of actual classes, then finals, and then finally, I will have achieved the impossible. At least until the next leap of faith…

 

The Stories We Tell (or Don’t)

Friday was one of those days that gave me a reason to stop and take stock of my life. It was a gorgeous Fall day and thus, not a bad day to park aways out and enjoy a longer walk across the quad at Sacred Heart. That was a good thing, because, as usual, there was precious little parking available. My stroll took me past the administration building where, five years ago, I had so nervously filled out an application to be re-admitted after having failed out at 19. There hasn’t been a single day on campus in these last five years that I haven’t felt the specter of the anxiety and sense of failure that plagued me all those years ago. When I dropped out of school in 1992, it wasn’t something I talked about. If pressed, I’d say I didn’t really want to go college or that it was more practical to earn my bookkeeping certification from a business school and go to work full-time. That was my cover story and I hid behind that for the next three decades.

Friday was special to me. Not just because I was enjoying one of my dwindling days on campus. It wasn’t that it was Friday the 13th and a full moon or that Halloween decorations are showing up everywhere (and I live for Halloween). No. This day was special because I was so keenly aware of being at a tipping point in my life. 12 years earlier, I had walked out of Superior Court with my copy of a restraining order and the filing for divorce in my hands. I had finally decided that after 12 years of abuse, I was done. I’d had enough and I wanted to build a new life for myself and my sons. I had no idea – none whatsoever – what that life might look like, but it had to be better than where I was.

12 years in. 12 years out.

Friday was the tipping point and I felt it with every step I took. I can still remember every moment of that day 12 years ago. Walking out of the courthouse. Taking off my wedding ring. Picking up my kids. Turning off my cellphone and turning on the new one I’d secretly purchased. Every mile on road was one more mile of safe distance as we went into hiding until the marshals could serve the papers. The deep breath I took as we crossed the state line felt like the first deep breath I’d allowed myself in years. And now, walking across campus 12 years later, watching the sun play across the bell tower of the chapel, every step was one more step out of that long, long shadow of my past. Every step now is beyond it’s reach. I’ve been out now longer than I was in, free longer than I was caged. I know what it feels like to dream again, to look ahead to what life might be in a few years, to allow myself to plan for a future rather than simply survive the present.

For the first few years after leaving, I didn’t talk much about what happened behind the closed doors of my marriage. I was afraid to for many reasons. It took me a few years to find my voice. But once I did, I learned there is power in these stories. What had once seemed an impenetrable darkness, ready at any moment to take over my life again, became a shadow that shrank back from the light of the truth. The flame of truth that I once feared would burn me alive instead became the light that showed me my way forward.

So why is that I don’t have that same profound sense of freedom when it comes to being back in school? Why is it that I’m still competing with a ghost? Why is it that I will obsess over the difference between a 98.01 and a 98.87 when ultimately, it will count as a 4.0 either way? Because, even now, I don’t talk much about those stories. I crack jokes in my classes about having the dubious honor of having spent two semesters simultaneously on academic probation and the Dean’s List. It’s my go-to “fun fact” about myself. But I don’t talk about the emotional toll that failing so miserably had taken on me. I walked out of one of the best high schools in the state ranked 32 out of 182 and felt like a total failure because I was outside the top 20. I suffered panic attacks on the college campus, missed classes, and when I fell behind, I gave up entirely. But that hasn’t been a story I tell.

Until now. This past week, during a break out session in my social work course, one of my much younger classmates asked me a series of rather point blank questions about why I’d come back to school at my age (translation: OLD), why Sacred Heart, how did I fail out, and when I told her my GPA from 1992, she asked, “Like, did you just not even try?”

I hadn’t gone to school Wednesday night prepared to make a confession of my academic sins, nor was it really a part of our discussion for class and yet, somehow I found myself sitting in the hallway, with a dozen much younger students, telling my truths rather than recycling my worn-out old cover story. I told them I had been through a lot of grief and trauma between 14 and 19 and it had taken a massive emotional toll on me. I couldn’t handle it and I didn’t know how to find help, so I shut down instead. And lo and behold, that old darkness of failure started to fade into shadow, losing it’s power in the light of truth.

There is a great deal of power and light and grace in our stories, even the ones that feel so overwhelmingly dark and shameful. There is strength and courage to be found in speaking the truth, even in the tiniest, shakiest of tear-filled voices. I can’t help but be reminded of listening to the stories of alcoholics when I attended an AA meeting as a guest of my best friend. I told him over dinner afterwards that I’d seen more of real church in that church basement than I’d ever seen in any church on any given Sunday. And as I listened to the gospel story this morning of the shepherd leaving the 99 sheep to seek out the one who was lost, then returning with that formerly lost sheep on his shoulders, I couldn’t help but think that that lost sheep probably had one hell of a story to tell when she got back. I have to wonder: did she tell the other 99? I hope she did. I really, really hope she did.

 

How A Resurrection Really Feels

Every summer, I plan around the Week of Guided Prayer retreat. And every year, even before this blog was a thing, I’ve written up a reflection on what came out of it. In some ways, this year is no different. The Week is coming up soon and I’ve made sure to keep my calendar clear, even working ahead in class so as to have no homework due. But in other ways, it’s very different. I’ve always been a little apprehensive going in – one year I didn’t even sign up until three days before it started. But this year, it’s more than apprehension. It’s open dread. And I don’t know why. Okay, that’s bullshit. I do know why. I’ve been sitting here the last couple days reading back over the last few years’ worth of post-Week reflections and seeing the memories that pop up on Facebook and the level of raw emotion that comes up every single year is frightening. Every year, I go in not knowing what to expect and something that needs healing comes bubbling up to the surface and in the end, I’m better for having dealt with it. That sounds all wonderful, but I assure you it’s not in the moment.

For a long time after my divorce, people asked me what I was going to do next. When would I start dating. What about going back to school. And for a long time, it looked from the outside like I didn’t do much at all. But on the inside, the changes were incremental and monumental and terrifying. Because healing isn’t all warm fuzzies. It means walking through the dark stuff and coming out the other side. The best image I have to describe it is more than a little disturbing. In the opening moments of the anti-war film Grave of the Fireflies, the protagonist, Seita, stands in a field full of fireflies looking back at his own dead body lying on the floor of Kobe train station. His face conveys confusion, then wonder, and finally, peace before he moves on. That’s what healing feels like. It feels like dying until you find out you’re not dead but are standing on the other side quite whole, albeit, perhaps, a bit shocked and confused.

Now here I stand, looking back at the many things I have faced that felt like dying, and I find that I am stronger, bolder, and freer now than I ever thought possible. So, yes, in spite of my feelings of dread, I registered for the Week. And I know going in that I may wish for the walls to fall on me or the floor to swallow me when I have to face what God is trying to show me or when it feels like I’m a small rose bush that’s been run over by a lawnmower – twice. But I know that in a week or a month or maybe three, I’ll look back at some part of me that has died and be freer and more whole because of it.

In baptism, God claimed me as God’s own; an act of God that can never be undone. As a believer in Christ, I have come to believe in the resurrection, not just as some eschatological event but as a common occurrence. There are ten thousand tiny deaths that I will face in this life. And after each one, I will be raised up to look back in confusion and wonder before walking forward with new peace to the face next one.

So I stand in this space, not quite sure what’s coming next, knowing it’s probably going to hurt like hell, knowing I’ll be better for it in the end, and knowing that, technically, I could walk away. But, in the words of Martin Luther, “Here I stand. I can do other.”

Pray for me during the first week of August. I’m gonna need it.

The Hard-to-See Stitches

I spent the past week alone on Cape Cod as I’ve done every year for the past several years. Long before I left, I had reached the point of burnout and I suppose it was that feeling of having way too much coming at me that prompted me to start up a needlework project in early February. Starting something that I know will easily take me months to finish seemed a little crazy but at the same time pulling a needle through fabric has long been a way for me to find order and calm when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the chaos around me.

As I prepared to leave for the Cape, I made the decision that I would not take any homework or school reading with me. I brought my bible, my journal, a novel and my needlework. I also brought my little Peter Rabbit and that Tale of Peter Rabbit and the Tale of Benjamin Bunny with me. I also made a promise to myself that I would listen to what I was feeling. I would rest when I was tired instead of trying to push myself to go see everything I possibly could in the time I had on the Cape. I knew I desperately needed some downtime, both mentally and physically.

img_6822Much to my delight, the townhouse I had for the week faced due east. I could sit by the sliding glass doors in the early morning sunlight and it was warm enough most days to open the doors in the morning and listen to the flock of blackbirds who lived in the marsh grasses. I spent several hours every morning working on my needlework, using the abundance of natural light to work on the lighter, harder-to-see colors and saving the darker colors for the evenings. By the third morning, I sat down to stitch and needed to work in nearly 100 white stitches, which barely even showed up against the pale ivory fabric. Given that these were the edge stitches between a pale yellow sunbeam and a bit of blank fabric, I pondered whether or not they were really necessary. They were very hard to see and seemed to serve little purpose. But after working over 1200 stitches over the course of the week, I noticed those 100 barely-there hard-to-see white stitches added texture and light in the larger scheme of things.

Sunday afternoon, as I sat by the ocean on a hidden gem of a beach, it occurred to me that maybe the time I spent every morning in my favorite pink hedgehog pajamas, sitting with my feet up, soaking up sunshine and birdsong whilst sipping my tea was just as important as the time I spent doing anything else. What might be considered wasted time actually added texture and light to the rest of life. And those four or five hours a day spent quietly pulling thread through fabric was time spent with mind and body at rest, time when prayer didn’t involve me reminding God of all the things in life that needed fixing. Instead, it was time simply spent in God’s presence. It was precisely that kind of time that I desperately needed.

img_6777Maybe that was what Peter Rabbit showed up to teach me. He sat in the chair opposite me the entire week and was rather pleasant company. I re-read those old stories every night and remembered when life wasn’t so complicated. And by the end of the week, I had realized that maybe it was okay once in awhile to flop down on the sand and rest or to go to bed early with a cup of tea when my own misadventures have me feeling worn out. Peter’s mother wondered what he’d be up to, but she didn’t get upset with him for losing his coat or his shoes. Instead, she took care of him. God certainly wasn’t upset with me for showing up worn out. Instead, God drew closer to me and cared for me as I rested in God’s presence.

img_6936

Work in Progress

 

God In Aisle 7

God has a funny way of showing up in unexpected ways. Moses got a burning bush on a desert mountain. I got a stuffed bunny rabbit in Aisle 7 of the grocery store. God told Moses, in rather dramatic fashion, that God was the God of his ancestors. Me? I got a nudge to notice a cardboard display of Beatrix Potter’s rabbits. Moses stopped and listened and asked questions.  I noticed. Yep, there’s Peter, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail. And I kept walking. I’m about to be 46 years old and I do not need a stuffed bunny rabbit from my childhood. That’s just silly.

But God seemed to think otherwise.

Honey, don’t you remember this? img_6533

Of course, I remember. I can still practically recite those stories. I loved Peter Rabbit.

But it wasn’t really the story of Peter Rabbit that mattered so much now. It was the memory of a time when life was simpler, back when someone was taking care of me instead of the other way around. It was remembering that sense of security that comes with being held and loved so completely, especially now, when I am feeling so completely tapped out.

Yes. I remember. 

And cue the waterworks. Right in the middle of the Aisle 8. And I don’t mean a stray a tear. I mean a good old dig-for-tissues cry next to the Pepsi display. And of course, I still had half the shopping to do yet. But, before anything else, I doubled back and picked up Peter Rabbit.

The grocery store may not look much like a desert mountain, but some days, it sure feels like one. The same God who has been at my side through the darkest times in my life is here with me now. And while a burning bush might freak the neighbors out just a bit, a stuffed bunny riding shotgun in my car’s cup holder barely raised an eyebrow when my son saw it. God let Moses know that he had the cries of his people. And God let me know – yet again – that he hears mine too.

God will not be distracted. And it seems, God will remind me of that fact from time to time in whatever way it takes to get my attention.

 

 

God Will Not Be Distracted

distracted

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.