Questions for Lent

 

questions

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.

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.

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.

 

 

A Mother’s Trust

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A few months ago, I found myself wondering how Mary must have felt at that wedding feast in Cana. A lot has happened between January and now and to be perfectly honest, I had almost forgotten what I’d written. But then, with a timing that only God can pull off, a dear friend emailed my own words back to me on Holy Thursday. My friend is newly married and now is the very happy stepmom to three teenage boys. And I have my two sons. The belief that God finds us worthy to trust us with raising these young men is staggering so what Mary faced would have been even more staggering.

I live for Triduum. I always have. But one of the sad realities of my divorce is that I rarely have my sons with me for Easter, simply the luck of the calendar. I was so very happy to know I would have them with me this year but sadly, there was drama and fighting right up to the door of church on Holy Thursday. As I sat in the pew, ready to elbow either one if they tried to continue their bickering, I found myself looking at the cross and asking Mary how she managed to get through those last few days of her son’s life. How did she find the strength to watch her boy marched to his cruel execution? How did she stand by his side to the very end? How did she not want to strangle his friends, who had become like family, but then abandoned him?

As it turned out, the answer was handed to me. Quite literally. My older son and I were asked shortly before the start of Mass to bring up the offertory gifts. Being Holy Thursday, that meant being at the end of the procession, after the sacramental oils which were brought in one by one. As I stood at the back of the church holding the ciborium, waiting for our turn to process in, all the drama, all the fighting, all the questions that had been clanging around inside me were suddenly silenced. As the quiet descended inside me, I realized that I held the answer to every question ever asked right there in my hands.

How did Mary find the strength to get through her son’s last few days?  She trusted God. From the moment of the Annunciation, from that first moment when she trusted God, God had worked the impossible in her life. As those 33 years passed, she watched Jesus become a man, saw the miracles he worked, and witnessed the way he challenged the Jewish establishment, she would have to trust God over and over and over again. But from the moment she held her newborn infant in the stable to the moment she held his broken corpse at the foot of the cross, she knew, if only with a mother’s intuition, that she held the answer to every question ever asked right there in her arms. In the darkness of Good Friday and the long silence of Holy Saturday, she trusted that God would work the impossible. She would not be disappointed.

 

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.

Atheists, Bourbon, Christianity, and Deadlines

Atheists, Bourbon, Christianity, and Deadlines

After a very crazy two weeks, I finally had a weekend that was relatively quiet.  Well quiet except for the two papers I had to write. One had to be an evaluation of a colloquium with Dr. Tina Beattie centered around the book Catholic Women Speak and the Synod on the Family being held in Rome and tying together the topic of the colloquium with the early civilization class I’m taking, which is a bit of stretch. The other is an exegesis on priestly garments in the book of Exodus. Both of these topics are precisely the kind of thing I love to sink my teeth into so I wasn’t too worried about getting them done.

bourbonDid I mention I had a quiet weekend coming up?  So of course that meant I had time to meet up with friends and have a bourbon Friday night. Of course, one bourbon turned into two. And of course, I decided to be a bit adventurous and instead of sticking with my usual neat bourbon, I had a delicious twist on an Old Fashioned that involved a fair amount of sugar. Come Saturday morning that made for a wicked hangover headache.  Okay. No big deal. Nothing a big breakfast and some time in the sunshine can’t fix. Except I made the mistake of going on Twitter. I retweeted a post from about faith and trust. Just an FYI, tweeting anything with #faith paints a laser target on your account for bored atheists. And as my longtime readers know, I never can just walk away from a good Twitter discussion.  Instead of nursing my hangover by closing my eyes and soaking up sunshine in my car at the beach, I was on Twitter defining faith.

Naturally by the time I got home on Saturday afternoon, it was nearly two o’clock and since I had two papers to write, I had stopped at the store to pick all the makings of a lasagna. Cooking and writing are inexplicably tied together in my brain. I worked out the outlines to the first paper in my head as I prepped and layered what turned out to be a fantastic lasagna. All the while I kept up with the discussion of truth, falsity, faith and judgments.

image1Why? Because I clearly need a life or a hobby or a Twitter intervention or perhaps all of the above. I also need a couple of Advil because I tend to bite my lip when I think and after a while it makes my jaw hurt which only added to my bourbon headache. But all that nonsense aside, I work stuff out as I write. Crazy as it sounds to get dragged into a discussion of faith with someone who doesn’t believe in God, knowing neither of us has any real hope of dissuading the other, it’s really not a complete waste of time. It is a lot more work to stop and consider how to answer that question in light of the questioner’s nonacceptance of religion as a whole.

It’s so easy to pretend that ours is the only belief in the world when we only spend time with people who think and believe the same things we do. We get lazy. So when someone throws down the question, “You say you don’t make a judgment of truth for other religions compared to yours. But certainly you had reasons not to choose. How did you decide the truthfulness of [other religions] was less than that of Christianity?” the easiest thing in the world would be to put the phone down and add some more cheese to the lasagna and forget to answer the question.

The time spent answering hard questions on why I believe what I do is always time well-spent. It may or may not make a difference to the one asking the questions, but it always expands my own understanding to formulate the answers.  What did I answer? To paraphrase: there is some piece of a greater truth to be found in every religion I have studied. Ultimate truth is beyond any human codification system. I found my truth in Christianity as it most closely matched my experiences of God.  And that is where it becomes faith rather than logic.

Meanwhile, I still have a headache and I still have two papers to write.

Out of Answers

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Hey Mom:

“Where’s heaven?”

“Did God make houses?”

“Why do we have to go to church?”

“Why do people argue about the Holy Grail? We know there was a cup. They say at Mass, ‘He took the cup…’, so what happened to it?”

“Who took over as the angel of light, you know, after Lucifer fell?”

“Why did Jesus and the apostles wait until after supper to drink the wine? You know how they say, ‘After supper, he took the cup…’ What did they drink with dinner?”

As my kids have grown, so have their questions. I’ve gotten some questions over the past year that are way, way over my head. They’re asking me the kind of questions that have sent me looking for answers from people with far greater theological knowledge than my own. Okay, so that’s not really saying much. My point being, I’ve never had a problem admitting to the boys when I don’t something. I don’t want them to think I know everything because, quite frankly, I don’t. Sometimes, the most important thing is just knowing where to look for the answers.

Last Tuesday, Andrew was sitting in his Language Arts class at the middle school, having a fairly typical day when the PA clicked on, “LOCKDOWN. LOCKDOWN. LOCKDOWN.”

He spent the next 45 minutes huddled quietly in a corner away from the door to the classroom, waiting. Waiting for what, he didn’t know. All he knew was that this was not a drill. He and two friends worked out a plan using sign language and lip reading to take out anyone who made it through the locked classroom door. All I knew was what sparse information I could find online. A fellow mom had tipped me off. She went to the school to scope out the situation while I scoured the internet. Police were at the school. Four people were arrested with weapons in an incident at the school. No one was hurt.

No one was hurt. That was all I cared. As soon as the lockdown was lifted, Andrew was able to text me. We compared what limited information we had so far. Four men with handguns and rifles were found in the woods next to the school and were arrested on the spot. It turned out they were carrying high-powered pellet rifles and pellet guns. A fair number of parents rushed to the school to pick up their kids as soon as the story broke. I offered to do the same but Andrew wanted to stay and finish out the day. I had to tell Eugene what had happened when I picked him up from the elementary school. He already knew something had happened and I’d rather he get his information from me than the news or his friends.

Enter the new round of questions.

“What were they thinking when they built that cafeteria? Two walls of floor-to-ceiling windows? Are they trying to get us all killed?”

“If someone’s breaking in the school or is already in the school, it’s already too late to call lockdown. They’re just telling the bad guy exactly where to find us. Everybody knows we’ll be hiding in the corners. What good is it going to do?”

It didn’t help that one of the men arrested outside the middle school rather blithely told the police, “If I was going to hurt kids, I would’ve done it already.”

I tried to answer my kids’ questions. The best answers I could give were that the windows were supposed to let in sunshine, light and fresh air. The locked classroom doors were to stall for time, so the cops could show up to stop the bad guy. Both were met with incredulity.

“Great. Sunshine, light and nowhere to hide.”

“Sure Mom, like the bad guy’s just gonna look at the locked door and be like, ‘Oh darn, it’s locked. I guess I’ll have to go back to my truck for the tools to take the doorknob off.'”

I don’t have better answers. I don’t even know where to look to find them this time. This isn’t the way I grew up. Classrooms were for learning, not hiding. Windows were for daydreaming, not avoiding. I’m trying so hard to teach my sons to look for the beauty and goodness in the world but society is telling them to be afraid. Be very, very afraid. Schools are beefing up security. More lockdown drills. More cops around the schools. More guns. Protect yourself. Defend yourself. HIDE!

Lord, give me something to work with here, because I got nothing. Not a damn thing. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Not totally true. Nightmares. I have nightmares. A little help here….