A Woman Like Me

butterflyToday’s gospel is one that I have hated for years. I realize how horrible it sounds to say that about sacred scripture but, God knows, it’s the honest truth.

Most people hear Jesus say, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Ask them what this gospel passage is about and they’ll tell you Jesus saved her daughter from the demon. Yay! Go Jesus! Or they’ll tell you about the faith of the mother. Yay! Go Mom! Be persistent in your faith!

They don’t hear, or they deeply discount, the lines prior to it in which Jesus compares a woman, desperate for His help, to a dog. I’ve heard a lot of explanations for that. The two leading favorites are that He was trying to show those who with Him their own prejudices and/or that He was testing the mother’s faith.

A woman like me has learned the hard way that a man who will call you a dog, humiliate you in front of his friends, and essentially make you beg for what you need is not a man who loves you, nor is he to be trusted.

A woman like me. That’s a perfectly awful term to use. Like I’m a freak of nature or an alien creature. I am a domestic abuse survivor. I was brutalized by a man who stood at the altar and swore to love, honor and protect me. And then did the exact opposite.

The textbooks will tell you that repeated trauma rewires the brain, causing victims to be hyper-aware and hyper-vigilant. In plain English, a woman like me sees and hears everyday things differently and I do it all the time because my brain is on constant alert for threats to my safety. I’m keenly aware of the distance, body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, choice of words, and any and all movements of those around me. So, yeah, when Jesus starts sounding like my ex-husband, I have a problem with it. A big, big problem with it. Trusting a guy who calls a woman a dog is the exact opposite of what my brain wants to do. Because I’ve been down that road and it gets damn ugly. But…

But long, long before I got married, I was schooled in the twin arts of sarcasm and gallows humor. One of the important lessons I learned early on is that not everyone will get the joke. As the saying goes, in that huge overlap between the things I find funny and the things that should not be joked about lie the reasons I’m going to hell. But there are those people with whom I have a good relationship, with whom that I know the banter back and forth is not insulting or harmful and with whom I can be pretty sarcastic. No harm. No foul.

My favorite client routinely answers the question ‘How are you?’ with a deadpan ‘Meh, I’m still this side of the grass, if that’s what you want to know.’ It goes without saying that we both know I really want to know if he’s doing okay and we both know he’s not seriously implying that I’m just checking to see that he’s not dead yet. There is an assumed level of safe relationship there.

What if the back and forth between Jesus and the Canaanite mother wasn’t as harsh as I hear it? What if there was an assumed level of safe relationship there also? Perhaps, instead of hearing this in abusive tones, I can learn to hear it in the sarcastic tones of safe relationship, one where both sides understand what goes without saying.

For a woman like me, that is a tough, but necessary, leap of faith. Because if I keep hearing this in abusive tones, I’m stuck trying to balance a Jesus I can’t trust with the Jesus I do and that will never, ever balance.

 

 

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.

Unguarded Gut Level Stuff

boots

I did something crazy last weekend. I buried my old boots. I made my annual trek to Cape Cod and The Prayer Boots came along for one last walk down the beach.

Those worn out old boots were a physical reminder of who I had been when I started walking with God and letting go of them was also a way of letting go of those perceptions of myself that I had carried on my journey up to this point. That was much harder than I expected but it was time to finally put to rest the worn out illusions I had about myself and about God. I couldn’t embrace what is right in front of me until I could put down what I was carrying so protectively.

To do that meant letting my guard down. For the first time, my kids came with me to Cape Cod and so they were in a space I have jealously reserved as space for me to be alone with God. Understand that it is exceptionally hard for me to let people close to me really see me being, well… me. It’s honestly easier to be myself in a room full of people I don’t know than it is with the people who see me everyday. Because while I’ve changed over the years, people’s perceptions of me have not always kept pace. Thus, to let my boys witness me bury an old part of myself in a spot that only God and I understand was a whole new level of vulnerability. But there we were on Saturday morning, as I walked a mile or so down Head of the Meadows Beach with the boots tucked under my arm, dug a grave and buried them in not-so-random spot and, all the while, my teenage sons offered their commentary.

“Mom, you’re not seriously going to do this…?”

“Aaaaand there she goes… ooookay…walking away now…cuckoo”

And yet, despite their banter, one helped me dig and the other found a piece of driftwood for a head stone. They knew this was important to me and they accepted it as such even if they didn’t totally understand it. I had made it as clear as humanly possible that my time on the Cape is sacred to me and allowing them to be a part of that was a big deal. I’m not sure that totally registered for either of them until that moment when I put the boots down and started digging.

They were very good about giving me quiet space in the evenings to read. Knowing I had five nights to read as late as I wanted, I had brought two books with me to the Cape: Lies We Believe About God by William Paul Young and Doing the Truth in Love by Michael Himes. The latter was assigned while the former was not. As it turned out, both were important.

Himes talks about the sacramental nature of everyday life. Anything which allows us to become aware of God’s omnipresent grace is a sacrament. I couldn’t throw away those boots like everyday trash, because to me (and surely no one else) they were part of many a sacramental encounter.

Young talks about so many things but the one that deeply touched me was that God is never disappointed in me simply because God never had any expectations that I would be any different than I actually am. God knows who I am and what makes me tick better than I do so of course God doesn’t expect me to be something other than me. The one with the impossible expectations is me, not God.

On a gut level, I already knew these things to be true but to see them printed in black and white was an affirmation that I needed. There seems to be a lot of these little affirmations the last few weeks. Learning to trust my gut has become a theme of Lent this year for me. I’m rolling with things I don’t totally understand on an intellectual level because on a gut level I’m trusting that God knows what God’s doing and that God knows how to deal with me being me so I can stop apologizing for being the weird and sappy nerd that I am.

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The Prayer Boots

img_7787With a March snowstorm in the forecast and my annual trip to the Cape fast approaching, I had was heartbroken when my favorite boots gave out. The heel of the sole broke completely free from the rest of the boot and the kids talked me out of attempting to use super glue to fix it. I have a reputation for ending up hopelessly glued to stuff. So instead, I drove two sales ladies at the shoe store completely bonkers trying to find me a pair as close to what I had as possible. I came home with my new boots and, seeing the laces in the old ones were still good, I pulled the old laces out and set them aside. I took the old ones outside, but when it came time to put them in the garbage can, I started to cry. Yes, cry. Over a worn out pair of boots. Not a sniffle and a stray tear. Oh no. we’re talking a sit-down-on-the-steps, holding-on-to-the-boots, tears-rolling-down-the-face kind of a cry.

This is stupid. I told myself. Who in their right mind cries over a broken down pair of boots?! But the reaction was so visceral, I had to ask myself why they mattered so much to me. Honestly, I’m forty-some years old. It’s not like I’ve never thrown out a pair of boots before.

But these boots were different. These had a history. Over eleven years, I walked hundreds of miles of empty beaches with God as my companion. As beautiful as that may sound, I wasn’t always the most pleasant of company on those walks. And there were plenty of times when I resented God’s very presence in what had become the only safe space I had left. My life was in such a miserable state, all I wanted was to be left alone. It was not uncommon for me to walk four miles and spend the entire four miles yelling at God to either help me or get out of my way. Funny thing is, over time, something gradually shifted and those walks with God on the beach became less confrontational. Little by little, I stopped yelling. I stopped demanding. I stopped begging. I accepted God’s company and I found that even on those days when I thought I really, really wanted to be alone, what I actually wanted was to be alone with God because God was the only who understood what was brewing inside of me.

Over the last eleven years, I didn’t learn to trust God by sitting in church on Sunday. I didn’t learn to surrender all the stuff that was killing me inside by reading a prayer book full of prayers I was supposed to have memorized and couldn’t. There were days when I was just so hopelessly tangled up inside, the only way to untangle the mess was to take a walk down the beach and let God do the untangling. And the only way that works is to let go and let God do God’s thing and accept that maybe, just maybe, the Creator has a clue about how this particular creation ticks.

All those miles, all that sand and salt water, all the tears and pain and hell I’d walked through was soaked into a clunky, ugly, worn out pair of old leather boots. God transformed all that into a life I never dared to hope for, a life touched by unfathomable grace. Sometimes a pair of boots is more than just a pair of boots. Sometimes a pair of boots become sacred objects. So maybe that worn out pair of boots isn’t going in the garbage can after all. Maybe they’ll be given a very quiet burial somewhere only God and I know about.

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Salt and Light

I’ve been know to ask (beg, plead, whine, demand, politely request) God to be a bit clearer at times. An email would work. Three foot flashing neon sign would be nice. Text message would be awesome. Ha ha – right? I mean, God doesn’t work like that. Except that all three of those things have happened to me over the years that I’ve been writing this blog. God speaks through the people and the world around me in ways that never fail to catch me off my guard – and that is impressive because I’ve had a tendency to be fairly guarded.

The thing is, little by little, God has been undermining my defenses in a thousand little ways and while I’ve noticed, I haven’t resisted. Does that count as surrender? I don’t know but it’s about as close as I get to it. I’ve learned that God actually does answer me – not on my timetable and not in ways I expect – but answers nonetheless. So I’ve learned to watch and listen and while I’ve cracked the joke to friends that God has picked up a megaphone lately, I suspect the truth lies less in God’s megaphone usage and more in my being open and paying attention.

So paying attention to a bunch of little things stretching all the way back to last Easter led me to these words on the twelfth day of Christmas:

‘Ye are the salt.’ Jesus does not say: ‘You must be the salt.’ It is not for the disciples to decide whether they will be the salt of the earth, for they are so whether they like it or not, they have been made salt by the call they have received.

The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

And in case that wasn’t quite clear enough…

‘Ye are the light.’ Once again it is not: ‘You are to be the light,’ they are already the light because Christ has called them, they are a light which is seen of men, they cannot be otherwise.

The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Ever read something that so rocks your world, you have to put the book down and talk a walk?  Yeah. This was one of those. I’ve spent so much of life trying to grow into or step into or become some ideal that I’d made up in my head. I had some vision cobbled together from a hundred different sources but not one of them was Jesus. And having realized my error and going to the only source that mattered, I was now reading as direct an answer as I could have dared to ask for. By virtue of following Him, I am salt and light, whether I like it or not, and cannot be otherwise, even when I can’t (or won’t) see it in myself. That means all that work of “becoming” really isn’t up to me. Which also means I’m not really in control of it. That is both a relief and scary as hell. Relief because I have been known to make my life way more complicated than it needs to be. Scary because… well…control.

Mary Schmich once wrote: Do one thing every day that scares you. So I made up my mind to do same thing every day until it no longer scares me. I will trust the One I’m following.

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.