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.

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Work in Progress

 

God Will Not Be Distracted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knowing When to Shut Up

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

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

Then Job answered the Lord and said:

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

My Refuge

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Trust.

Ah, the great dreaded T word. I don’t like that word. It makes me twitchy all over, inside and out. Why?

<Sigh>

Trust.

I don’t like the word trust because for me, it’s not just an abstract or a feeling. It’s very real and it has had some very real consequences in my life, not all of them good. It’s not that I don’t trust God because I do … now … most of the time… I think. Okay, honestly, are there people in my life that I trust? Yes. Do I trust God? Yes. But it takes a lot of self-reflection for me to be able to say either one of those things.

I get so hung up on that one stupid word because I have seen it misused and abused, both in word and in action. It’s easier to say I have trust issues or that it takes a damn long time to earn my trust. But that’s the thing about God: God has all the time there is … or ever will be. God has been perfectly content to wait me out. And despite all my mouth, gradually over the last ten years I’ve been moving to a place where, if I’m really honest with myself, I trust God more than I ever believed was possible.

Do you have any idea how hard that was to admit out loud? And yes – I do mean out loud because I talk to myself when I write.

Refuge.

I never really had feelings on the word refuge. It was an abstract idea for me. It made sense on some intellectual level, I suppose. It’s a strange feeling when something you’ve been reading your whole life, something you think you get, suddenly becomes very real and very tangible.

You see, lately, I find myself in a place when I have more roles to fill than I have of me to go around. I’m a parent and a caretaker, an employee and a student, and most days I have to be all of those things simultaneously. Everyone is demanding something from me every waking moment of every day. It’s like I’m juggling knives…except I never learned how to juggle.

I finally hit overload. The stress and fear I’ve experienced over the last few months finally caught up to me. What I refused to grapple with in my waking hours took over my sleep in the form of nightmares. After several weeks of nightmares, it progressed to night terrors. If you’ve never experienced that particular horror, count your blessings. The dream continued even though I was awake. I knew I was awake but I wasn’t sure where I was, what was real and what wasn’t. It wasn’t until I had walked through the entire house, checking on everyone else and finding them all sleeping peacefully, that I was finally able to calm down. I was awake the rest of the night. That’s the kind of night that makes me afraid to ever go to sleep again. I can assure you, that would not have been a good time to ask me if I trust God.

And yet… the following night when I went up to bed, I prayed. I asked for refuge for the night, a safe place to rest. You see what I mean about trust? That’s not the kind of request you make of someone you don’t trust.

Refuge.

An odd choice of wording. But that was what came out of me in that moment.

Refuge.

That word comes up a lot in the bible and, up until the other night, I don’t think I ever really understood it. I mean, I knew what the word meant, obviously. But I don’t think I ever really connected God, who I can’t see or touch, with something quite so solid.

That night, as I slept, I found myself in a yet another dream. Rather than anything scary, this time I was in a big, old building with many rooms, like an old tenement apartment building only beautiful and well-kept. All the doors were closed as I went up the stairs and wandered the hallways. Waiting for me was a room that I had all to myself where I was quiet, alone, and most of all, safe. It’s a decidedly strange thing to lay down and go to sleep in a dream but that is exactly what I did. When I woke up around midnight, I rolled over and went back to sleep and had the same dream, only with a twist. I was back in the same big, old building with it’s many rooms but now all the doors where thrown open. People wandered in and out of rooms and congregated in the hallways and open spaces. People from every walk of life had sought and found refuge here.

I woke up the next morning feeling like I’d finally gotten the rest I so desperately needed. As I sat at the beach that morning, I was a little startled to find myself able to be still. It was the first time in months that I’d been able to sit and be still. When I took the time to write down my dreams, I realized as a I wrote that God wasn’t in the building. God was the building. God was that safe place where I found rest.

God is my refuge.

I know what that means now.

Love Is…

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Love is a cup of tea of the front porch.

Love is the hug you didn’t know you needed.

Love is the prayer you didn’t have to ask for.

Love is the laughter at an inside joke.

Love is the text message and the phone call that says, “Are you okay?” and Love stays on the line until you are.

Love is showing up.

It is the steadfastness of an old friend.

Love does not leave you in your darkness. Nor does it abandon you to your imagination.

When you would choose to withdraw from all around you, Love is the breeze that caresses your face and keeps you present.

When you would choose to be alone, it is the bird perched on the windowsill who keeps you company anyway.

Love is understanding. It is compassionate. It is empowering.

Love is healing.

Above all else, God is Love.

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.