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.

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.

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.

 

 

Lent of Little Things

Lent of Little Things

noteThe last two weeks, Lent has taken an interesting turn. What started out with anger, tears, and revisiting old trust issues has led to a series of little moments that feel like something I can’t quite name. Reassurance? Affirmation?  Those both have connotations that don’t quite fit but I guess they’ll have to do.

It started when a friend had the opportunity to hear William Paul Young speak. I’ve read The Shack at least 20 times and it has become a part of me. But because of that, I could never quite bring myself to pick up either of Young’s other two books which followed it. If his other books didn’t bring me to the depths to which The Shack brought me, I would be heartbroken. It was risk I had decided not to take. All that over a book. I know, it sounds a wee bit dramatic but The Shack found its way into my hands at precisely the right time and every time I read it, something new reaches me. Now I was hearing about Young’s latest work, Eve. In spite of my reluctance, I was intrigued enough to buy it. By the fifth page, I was hooked and I didn’t so much read as I inhaled it in a matter of three days.

I am alone.

I am nobody.

I don’t belong here.

Why didn’t God protect me?

It is incredibly disquieting to read a fictional character’s story and find yourself reading your own darkest doubts and questions. The main character’s whipsawing thoughts and emotions so closely echoed my own that I often felt as though I was looking into a mirror of my soul.

After reading Eve, I had two little things cross my path. Neither of them would mean a darn thing to anybody else. First, I walked into work after having finished the book and the first thing I saw was an Oprah magazine on the table. In big black letters on the cover were the words, “You are not alone.” Of all the things in the room, that was the one thing that caught my eye when I walked in the door. It felt like a hand on my shoulder.

The second moment came in my bioethics class when I was assigned reading a declaration from the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Two lines in it suddenly brought up a question I’d long since stopped asking. Unasked questions have a nasty way of hanging around like shadows no light can reach. Now it showed up again but in a different light. I’ll be spending time to look at it again with fresh eyes. It felt like I hadn’t been forgotten, even when I had given up.

Lent this year has been about little things. Lists. Seeing things in new ways that can’t be unseen. A good conversation. An unexpected book. A few lines of text. After all up the upheaval of this past year, I wasn’t up to anything big or dramatic. And it’s taken me all the way to Palm Sunday to figure out that God knew that better than I did. So He showed up in the little things. All I had to do was pay attention.

Imperfect Lent

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Confession. Yeah, it’s been awhile since I’ve been. I know. I know. It’s Lent. And a Year of Mercy. I know that too. But… Hey, I have my reasons why I haven’t been in a couple years. They aren’t particularly good reasons, but they’re mine.

But I decided that maybe this year for Lent, I might actually try living the penance I’ve been given more than once and by several different confessors: to lighten up on myself, even just a little bit. That’s really not so easy for me to do but there have been days when I’ve managed to pull it off. I actually let myself skip a couple of minor homework assignments in spite of the ding it might put in my grade. Yeah – me – the perfectionist. Crazy right? There was so much going on and trying to juggle it all was making life too crazy. So I actually let an assignment go. More importantly, I let an assignment go and didn’t beat up on myself for it. That’s the hard part. To simply let it go. And I can’t say I’ve completely let it go and never looked back. I still know the grades in all three of my classes averaged out to two decimal places. But I also know that when one of those classes is a bit lower than it could have been, that I’m not going to freak out over it or drive myself batty trying to fix it. It’s just going to be what it is and I will be okay with that.

Part of the juggling act the last two weeks included my younger son, Eugene, needing to get glasses. He only needs them for distance but that will mean wearing them to school. He loves being able to see stuff across the room and he hates wearing glasses. During that ride home from the eye doctor, wearing his new glasses for the first time, his non-stop running commentary was something I won’t soon forget. A snippet of that conversation went something like this:

Eugene: But if I take these off, now I can’t see.

Me: You couldn’t see anyway. That’s why you got glasses.

Eugene: Ack!! I’m cursed!! I can’t not wear them!!

Painful grammar aside, I know what he means. Sometimes, the way we see things changes and to go back to seeing them the old way wouldn’t make a lick of sense. Kind of like me finally seeing that my whole world isn’t going to go to hell in a hand-basket because I allowed myself to be a normal, imperfect human being. That can’t be unseen. And I know that because I tried. Yes. Really. And I’m adding that to the list of things I will no beat up on myself for doing and let that be what it is.

So what about Confession?  Lent isn’t over yet. I’ll get there. I just need to let go of my not-particularly-good reasons. For Christmas, I bought myself an Anglican rosary. The story behind that will be another post for another time. But for Lent, the prayer that I have prayed most often on those beads is from Julian of Norwich. All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

 

 

Terms and Conditions

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I’ve spent the last few weeks avoiding coming to terms with my trust issues. The simple exercise of writing a list of those I trust turned into ten days of me either avoiding my journal entirely or staring at a blank page and then walking away.

With the start of Lent, I have found myself thrown back into the same emotional grist mill where I spent all of Advent. I kind of expect the teary moments this time around and that’s okay. I can handle those. That sounds like such a simple thing. To be able to cry and be okay with the tears. But the reality is it has taken a long time for me to get to this point. To stop believing the lies that crying over things that hurt is a sign of instability or weakness.

What has been so much harder to come to terms with has been my anger. This time of year always sits like lead. The end of January to the end of March is always haunted by memories of my father’s last weeks. The one place, the church,  I often turned to for solace has become so tainted that it is no longer a sanctuary and the church I have moved to is still too unfamiliar to be completely comfortable. I’m angry that I have been driven out of my refuge. I deeply resent being betrayed and abandoned by people I trusted, most especially my pastor and confessor. Every time those tears come because I’m feeling adrift, the anger comes raging up behind the tears.

So here I am. Second Sunday of Lent. A blank page in my journal staring back at me. Trust. Who do I trust? There is a list. It has more people on it than it used to. But is a very gradational list. I trust only up to a point. And that point depends on the situation and the person and our relationship.

Am I on my own list? No. Or maybe a better answer would be: Not yet.

Is God on my list?  Cautiously, yes.

How is that God, who loves me unconditionally, is so hard for me to trust? Because too often what I’ve known as love has always been conditional.

Conditional love can be defined, broken down, and understood. Cause and effect. Action and reaction. Expectation and reality. That makes it strategic. That sets up the conditions that are the rules of the game. They’re a pattern, a puzzle to be figured out; terms to be agreed to. I can learn how to play that game. What risks to take. What strategy to use. And when the stakes are too high, to walk away.

Unconditional love is a total unknown. There is no game and therefore no strategy. There are no terms and conditions to agree to. Unconditional love just is. Which means there is no control. And that is terrifying. Things beyond my control have a nasty way of coming back to hurt me.

I know enough of God to know God doesn’t work like that. More than ever before, it seems like Lent for me means working through who God is not. The tears, the anger, the resentment, the betrayal and abandonment, the broken trust: none of those came from God. But if I can hand them over, God will take them.

If… for two little letters that’s a really big word.

 

 

The List

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Several years ago I went on a retreat for divorced, separated, and widowed people. One of the questions that came up during that retreat has been rattling around in my head again lately.

Who do you trust?

Given 45 minutes to make up a list of who I trusted, I was done in under a minute. I spent the next 44 minutes staring at the mostly blank page. Notably absent from the page were God and myself. Of the three people who made the list back then, one has decidedly and rather emphatically been crossed off and one I don’t really see anymore.

Why this exercise suddenly came back to me after all this time, I really don’t know. But the fact that it came back to me right at the start of Lent is most likely not a coincidence. Who makes the list now? I couldn’t tell you. I haven’t written it yet. And I’m sure you can figure out that I haven’t written it because I don’t want to see it staring back at me.

There’s been so much going on here lately and it’s so much easier to lose myself in the papers and reading of three classes than it is to take an hour and write a simple list. It’s easier to go online and bicker religion and politics than it is to write a simple list. It was even easier to get up a 5am to write a five page paper on the discernment process than it has been to write this one simple, stupid list.

Because it’s neither simple nor stupid.

And so on this frozen first Sunday of Lent, when I’d like nothing more than to keep myself busy and distracted, I find myself way ahead on my reading for all three of my classes. I have no papers due this week. My kids have commandeered the television to watch NASCAR. My friends have taken to social media to either document their celebration of Valentine’s Day or to revel in their jadedness. Which leaves me more or less alone with a blank page, a pen, and a voice that won’t leave me alone.

And I suspect what appears on this list – or doesn’t – will be what shapes my Lent this year.