Big Ideas

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When I was a kid, my father once told me that I was too damn smart for my own damn good. It wasn’t a bad thing or a good thing really, more of a general observation. It was an observation I didn’t fully understand until my younger son Eugene was about three and gave me a detailed explanation of why God must be blue. God is in heaven. Heaven is in the sky. The sky is blue. We can’t see God, so God must be the same color as the sky. Ergo, God is blue.

I lectured the same child for acting up during Easter Mass when he was five. As I buckled him into his car seat, I gave him the standard lecture about how he was going to sit in his seat and think about what he’d done. He said nothing the whole time I was buckling him in but after I climbed into the driver’s seat, this very self-assured little voice piped up, “You can’t control my mind. Only I control my mind. I can sit back here and think about anything I want.”

At seven, he left me talking to a friend after Mass while he cornered one of the priests to debate of the existence and potential whereabouts of the Holy Grail for the next thirty minutes, much to the delight of a circle of adults who had gathered around to listen. I’ll never forget the seriousness of his little face as he challenged a Jesuit to “Define mythological.”

Over the years Eugene has been insulted that Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter without asking him first. Maybe Simon was named after his grandfather and he really liked his name.  And then Eugene wanted to know what the apostles drank with dinner at the Last Supper because during Mass, the priest very clearly says “AFTER dinner he took the cup…” so what about during dinner? He insisted on having  “all of creation” on his First Communion stole because Noah’s ark was his favorite bible story. When I explained that a Jesus story would be more appropriate and that Jesus wasn’t on the ark, he stared me down and replied, “No, but God was and you can’t have one with the other two.” I gave up. I wasn’t debating Trinitarian doctrine with an eight year-old.

Too damn smart for your own damn good. Oh yeah, I get it now Dad. Boy, do I get it. I have no doubts that my father is on the other side watching this all unfold with a great deal of amusement.

Eugene is now fifteen and he’s as likely to challenge what I’m learning in my theology classes as my professors are. This past week, I was supposed to be reading parts of St. Augustine’s Confessions for homework. But at the same time, I was also reading Henri Nouwen’s Discernment just because it crossed my path and a page or two was enough to pull me in entirely.  Anyone who has ever been in my car can tell you getting into the passenger seat usually means waiting for me to move a notebook, a journal and a book or  maybe three. So my son wasn’t surprised to have to move Discernment out his way when we went out to run errands earlier this week, which resulted in the following conversation:

Eugene: It’s a God book isn’t it? No wait – don’t tell me – it’s a ‘find-yourself-but-in-a-spiritual-way” kind of book.

Me: Yeah kind of. Like who you are in relationship to God and understanding what God wants in your life.

Eugene: Soooo yeah it’s a ‘find-yourself-in-a-spiritual-way’ book. Why are all religion books like that?! I mean why can’t they just be – you know – straightforward. Like the Bible. That’s not a “find yourself” book. That’s more like a history book – but with … with… spice!

Me: Spice???

Eugene: He’s raising people from the dead! I’d call that some spice! And not that stupid Starbucks pumpkin spice stuff either.

This comes on the heels of a conversation earlier in the week on the Greek mythological themes in the new Wonder Woman movie. He told me he couldn’t understand the recent fascination with humans vs. gods movies when the humans always won. “Who wants to worship a god they can beat?”

Nouwen talks about hearing God in the people around us and cultivating spiritual friendships. I have been blessed all my life to have people around me who were comfortable with big questions about life, about truth, and about faith. Usually those people have been friends who are older and wiser than myself. But then, just to mess with me, God also dropped into my life this little bombshell of an old soul in a young body. Sometimes this kid, who is not so little anymore, with his big questions and his own very distinct ideas on God and the world, has more to teach me than anyone else. If nothing else, I have learned that there are times as a parent when my job is to simply shut up and let my son talk through his big ideas and questions and leave it to him and God to figure out the answers.

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)

Of Life and Death

 

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Three deaths in ten days. That certainly got my attention. While none were family, each had touched a part of my life and it forced me to think about how often we impact the lives of those around us in ways we don’t always comprehend or even stop to consider. My son’s 16 year-old classmate who committed suicide, the 93 year-old priest I hadn’t seen in eighteen years, and the 57 year-old rockstar I knew only by his music, these three are the most unlikely combination and yet each touched my life in ways they never really knew.

I spent most of this semester trying to keep life and death confined to the five-page papers due in my ethics and bioethics classes. It’s not like I haven’t seen life and death up close and personal. I was raised being taught that death is merely a part of life, both are mystery and both are sacred. That makes losing someone I love an act of faith: a deeply held belief that God is good and a trust that God knows what God is doing even when it makes no sense to me. But as I listened to my much younger classmates talk about the death penalty, abortion, euthanasia and physician assisted suicide, I heard over and over that death is a right. And as a right, death is something that can be legislated, ruled, controlled, chosen, and even inflicted. There was no room left for faith.

“Jack Kevorkian is the Rosa Parks or Dr. King of our generation,” declared one nursing senior with reverence in her voice while several other chimed in their agreement. I heard business majors argue that terminal patients should be encouraged to commit suicide to free up beds for patients who might recover and patients diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s should also consider suicide while they were still somewhat rational rather than become a burden to their families. Death has become cheap and sadly, in the process, so has life.

But what about life? And what about a right to life? Ah, yes that Right to Life movement sounds great on paper but, in the hands of a generation that has been more instilled with knowing their rights than with a deep faith, life has become just like any other right, meaning it can be legislated, ruled, controlled, chosen, and even revoked. “Violent criminals,” one young man vehemently argued, “have given up their right to life because of their choices. So now they should die and we as a society should say how and when they die.”

There was little reverence for the mystery or sanctity of life or of death. It worries me that these are the people who will be making policy decisions in years to come. But I had papers to write and these were topics to be considered and weighed and analyzed but best left impersonal. Funny how life and death refuse to remain impersonal for very long.

In the last ten days, it was the blog of teenage girl that reminded me of the incredible darkness I have had to overcome. It was a funeral for a priest that brought home to me that it was the kindness, gentleness, and openness of someone who touched into my life for the briefest of times that gave me the hope to overcome that darkness. And it was the death of a rockstar that shook me more than I would have thought possible which forced me to see that it was his pursuit of his passion that had given me the soundtrack for much of my teenage years; music that came before the darkness fell and still evokes memories of carefree days of untainted happiness and music that came later that touched into emotions that I had no language to express.

My life right this very moment would be different if not for any one of them. That’s the thing about life, just being alive is an act of faith: a deeply held belief that God is good and a trust that God knows what God is doing even when it makes no sense to me. And that gives me cause to wonder how my actions, my words, my writings, my pursuit of my passions, how all of those aspects of me being me could influence people I may never know. That is not a right. That is mystery and that is grace.

 

For Bella, Fr. Emidio Gregori, and Prince. Requiescat in pace.

 

An Old Dog And A Staircase

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I have an aging dog. My Dusty is ten now. She’s a feisty one, always has been. She doesn’t trust most men. She doesn’t like to be picked up. She’s definitely not a lapdog. It took me a long time to get her to trust me and I’ve had her since she was 8 weeks old. She’s a neurotic, skittish, fiercely territorial alpha dog.

They say a dog reflects the personality of their owner. I’ve got nothing to add there. Let’s just say I get where this crazy dog is coming from most of the time. Her age is starting to really show. Her pepper coat has gotten much lighter. Her big brown eyes have grown cloudy. She moves a lot slower on rainy days. I get that too. My hair is streaking gray now. My eyes don’t always cooperate. I love rainy days but my body most certainly does not.

In the past year, she’s fallen down our back porch steps a few times. She’s also come up the stairs at exactly the wrong time and run face first into the edge of door as I’m opening it. Now she’s far more cautious. Lately, she lets me go down the stairs and she waits until I stand next to the steps, ready to catch her if she slips, before she’ll even attempt to go down. When it’s time to come in, she waits at the bottom of the stairs, refusing to budge until I open the door all the way. Then she looks at the stairs and looks at the door at least three times before coming up.

Yeah I get where she’s coming from there too. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” But if you miss the step it’s also a great way to bounce down said staircase and land on your face. Been there. Done that. It hurts. By the same token, charging up a staircase blindly is a great way to run smack into a door that’s only half-opened or worse, one that is still closed. Done that too. Also hurts. So yes, that tends to make me a little skittish on staircases. Like my aging dog, I need to know that Someone is standing next to the blasted staircase in case I slip. That takes trust.

Yup. I’m sitting on the staircase for awhile.

Crossing The Road

It was sort of a sick joke really. ‘Well, at least it can’t get any worse,’ I’d say. But then it just kept getting worse. The kid got sicker. The marriage got uglier. The husband got meaner. So I switched it up after awhile, ‘Hey, even Job caught a break…eventually…’

It wasn’t funny. Hell never is. And that’s where I was. Then one day I ran across a book and in that book was a quote. One little line from the Psalms that caught my eye and sent me digging for the battered bible that the sisters at Our Lady of Mount Carmel had given me back in 1982 when I made my First Communion. I bought a journal and started writing again for the first time in years. That one little line from Psalm 34 touched off a chain reaction that flipped my life upside down.

‘The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and those who are crushed in spirit, He saves.’
Yup. That was me alright. Crushed and brokenhearted.

I took my life back. Some days it’s been one minute at a time. I’ve been rebuilding ever since and I’ve had to fight for every blessed step I’ve taken. I’ve had plenty of days when I’ve been wiped out, beat down, used up and empty but I’m still standing.

I’ve met a handful of people in my life with a fierce fire in their eyes. A combination of faith, trust, and deep desire sort of all kindled into one huge bonfire. When I was a kid, I asked for that same fire. I kept asking until things got hard and I gave up on God. But over the last few years, I started asking again. Deep down, I still want it. I don’t really know what I’m asking for, so that prayer has been ‘I want what they got… God, you know what that is.’

So here I am seven years later feeling sometimes like I’ve gone nowhere. And on the outside, maybe that’s how it looks. I have my critics who are happy to point that out. But on the inside, I’m in a whole new space and every time I run across that line from Psalm 34, I look over my shoulder to see just how far I’ve come. Now there’s a new road on the outside too. Not an easy one to follow.

‘God is leading me to a crossroads,’ I told my friend.

‘My dear friend,’ she replied, ‘It is not a crossroad. You have to cross the road. Take the chance. You will…eventually. You just need some time to get used to the idea. Six months maybe?’

I know where this new road goes… or at least I think I kinda sorta know. I do know my whole life is going to get flipped upside down – AGAIN. But for the first time, everything that has happened in my life up to this point has a place, even my biggest screw-ups. Nothing is left over. Nothing is useless. Nothing is wasted. I feel like I’ve finally come home. Without thinking, the words flew out of my mouth, ‘I’ve waited my whole life for this!’

One of those people with that fire that I want heard me and said to me, ‘Ah…when I hear that, I know we need to talk…’

No sooner had those words left my lips than that voice popped into my head, ‘Oh shit! You don’t think ACTUALLY think God would let you get there, do you?! Doesn’t He know you better than that?’

Damn that Gremlin! He managed to plant that thought: What if I’m wrong…? And if I am wrong, am I strong enough to handle being crushed again?

And yet… perhaps even more frightening…

What if I’m right?