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Playing It Safe

21 Nov

I have been a writer ever since I could pick up a pen and craft a sentence. My elementary school had an annual “young author’s contest,” and every year, I participated and placed. Ironically, my very first “book” was not a story at all, but about the true meaning of Easter, with illustrations. (It was in the shape of an egg; how cute is that?) I was six years old and won first place in my grade. Funny how our souls know our life’s purpose long before we do.

When I was in 6th grade, my annual contest submission not only won my grade level at school but also went on to win honorable mention in the city-wide contest. I attended a ceremony at the Marriott hotel where famed children’s author Lois Lowry gave a speech and presented our awards. I know this not because I remember it, but because I kept the printed program, along with all my childhood stories.

What I DO remember is what happened when the results were announced to my sixth grade class. One of my classmates said, dripping with sarcasm, “Of course she won. She always wins.” And it wasn’t just anyone who said this. It was cutest, funniest, smartest, most popular boy in the class. I’d had a positively paralyzing crush on him for three years and counting, and his words crushed me. That’s what I remember.

I still wrote stories in seventh and eighth grade. But I started to bury my talent. In high school I wrote mediocre poetry. Four years of high school literature introduced me to “real” writing, and when I compared myself to that, I just quit writing stories altogether. An F on my senior term paper ended any ambition I may have had to become an English teacher (never mind that the teacher failed over half of all the Honors English term papers that spring), and I avoided literature classes in college, mostly out of laziness.

Instead, I majored in mass communications and excelled at a skill few others could master – editing. You know, using a red pen on OTHER people’s writing.

I also found an “outlet” for my outspoken nature as an opinion columnist on the school paper. I titled it “Just Say Yes,” making the most of my unusual last name. Occasionally my spiritual side would leak out around the holidays or other special occasions. I felt somewhat legitimate when an “anti-fan” created a Christine Yesolitis hate page (back when the internet was in it’s infancy) called “Just Say No.”

I had lots of artist and writer and photographer friends in college, all of whom seemed much more talented and focused on their dreams than I was. I envied them and their passion, but I decided to play it safe, taking a pragmatic approach to my education, career, and creative aspirations: learn the skills I would need to land a newspaper job so I could edit and opine myself into a position where I could really influence people.

It would have been an excellent plan, except that columnists don’t get hired fresh out of college; they work their way up as beat reporters and feature writers and calendar editors and copy desk assistants. They work as part of a team. They pick up the phone and make cold calls to sources. They play the “game” and promote the “agenda.” I’m an introvert, I was not much of a team player, and if you hadn’t noticed, I don’t care much for agendas. I had too much integrity (or stubbornness?) to write the way some editor told me to write.

By God’s grace I fell into graphic design. By God’s continued grace I found job after job in the non-profit world, where my strengths could grow and my weaknesses could be avoided. I’ve been blessed to use my artistic abilities to design books that other people have written. But I couldn’t keep ignoring my true calling. By God’s grace, a radio personality challenged his listeners to stand wherever it is God tells them to stand and do whatever it is God tells them to do, and by God’s providence I heard. Really heard. And that’s when I started writing for the bulletin. It was almost exactly five years ago; December 6, 2009.

I was 21 years old when I first heard the call to write about the Sunday scriptures, but I didn’t answer the call until I was in my mid-30s. I had some good excuses. I was busy working various full time jobs and having relationships and trying to cross off all the benchmarks on my “list” – marriage, babies, trip to Ireland, etc. I also told myself that I didn’t know anything about theology and that I wasn’t a very good writer. The truth is, I was afraid that I might really be good, and what that might mean.

I still am, by the way.

I share this abbreviated review of my creative self because I suspect we all have histories like this. Some comment or rejection causes us to question our creative self-worth, and like the third servant in Sunday’s parable, we bury our talent and justify it by being practical and realistic. We’re not that talented, we say. Surely God won’t miss our meager contribution to creation. We’d probably just muck it up anyway.

I have admittedly taken the easy route for a good stretch of my journey. Maybe I haven’t completely buried my talent, but I’ve been a bit too afraid to fully use it. I’ve felt like too much of a hypocrite to let loose. I’ve made some very human mistakes just like anyone else, but I often keep making them long after I know better, and it’s embarrassing. If only you knew! Who am I to use this unhoned gift of gab to talk about the spiritual life when I myself haven’t mastered either language or love?

This past Sunday’s Gospel, the parable of the talents, is one of the very few times when Jesus talks about condemnation. The woman at the well? No condemnation. The woman caught in adultery? No condemnation. The thief hanging on the cross next to Jesus? Not only is there no condemnation, he is promised entry to Paradise! These people broke commandments and got slaps on the spiritual wrist. But a fearful servant who played it safe and buried his master’s money because he was too insecure to take a risk? Condemnation, wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Most of us play it safe because we doubt our own worth. We think we will be condemned for failing. We think that whatever meager talent we might have could not possibly make a difference. We think our sinfulness and imperfection makes us unsuitable vessels for God to work through.

The master in Jesus story calls that sort of thinking lazy and wicked. I call it SHIT – “Simply How I Think.”

I need to change how I think.

Those of us who were taught to have a “fear” of the Lord may also subscribe to a belief in a demanding God “harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter.” This belief doesn’t have to be a source of insecurity about our worth, but a source of hope! God can harvest where He did not plant and gather where He did not scatter! It doesn’t matter if He gave me a true artist’s measure of talent, or the ability to draw only stick figures; whatever I create is added to the beauty of creation if I’m doing it to serve my creator instead of my fragile ego.

And that’s the key difference. Ego plays it safe. Ego does whatever it can to protect itself and its fantasy world. Ego Edges God Out.

A friend recently posted these inspiring words on his Facebook feed: “Small minds cannot comprehend big spirits. To be great, you must be willing to be mocked, hated and misunderstood. More importantly, you must be willing to be wrong and fail . . . Will you remain quiet about whatever it is that you have been quietly pondering in your heart one more day? Decide today. Promising yourself ‘tomorrow’ will leave you in the end with nothing but empty ‘yesterdays.’”

All of us are hypocrites one way another, if we have the courage to actually have standards and attempt to live up to them. Not a single one of us can use that as an excuse for burying our talent.

Inviting God in doubles our worth. The servant with ten talents grew it by ten. The servant with five talents grew it by five. And the servant with one talent would have grown it by one if only he’d had a little faith in the master he feared so much.

I gain nothing by playing it safe.

Jesus makes it pretty clear, however, that I have everything – everything – to lose.

Tending the Temple

9 Nov

For about a week now I’ve been feeling nudged to write about Jesus cleansing the temple. I didn’t realize it would be today’s Gospel reading.

Many of us think the story is evidence that Jesus was angry about commerce in general. Some even interpret it as a treatise against capitalism, citing this story (one of a few that is found in all four Gospels) as evidence that Jesus was a socialist.

Jesus was not a socialist, nor was he a capitalist. These are modern constructs, and my guess is Jesus could and would take issue with either one just as easily, because any “social construct” has, at its core, a small group of people exercising control over the masses, usually the most vulnerable, in order to further solidify their monopoly on power.

That’s essentially what the cleansing of the temple was about. Remember the Gospel a few weeks ago about giving the Caesar what is Caesar’s and giving to God what is God’s? Today’s story is the sequel. In fact, in the synoptic Gospels, these stories are sequential.

All people in the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus used Roman currency. But the Jewish temple could not accept coins with Caesar’s head on them. It was dirty Gentile money. Jews needed Jewish money in order to pay the temple tax and buy animals for ritual sacrifices in the temple. Hence the need for the money changers. They needed to “give to God what is God’s.”

I can only imagine the disgust Jesus must have had at seeing all the gold and livestock in His Father’s house, not because He was against commerce, or stood up for animal rights, but because of the economic and especially spiritual barriers the Jewish culture had placed between people and their God. It is no wonder the poor and the sick flocked to Jesus; they had no other access to God because they couldn’t afford it.

Think about that. These people believed they must worship God in the Temple at Jerusalem in order to receive God’s blessing, yet they couldn’t even participate in that worship because they hadn’t been materially blessed enough to enter. If you read the Gospels looking for how the Jewish elite excluded their own from being connected to their God, you might see the story of Jesus in a whole different light. It makes me question how my own Church excludes people from full participation. Christ held Himself back from no one, and nothing angered Him more than the barriers and corruption that kept people from His Father. I think if He saw the practices of His Church today, some folks would be in for a good whippin’.

“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” Jesus said. He meant it as a foreshadowing of His death and resurrection. But sometimes, a structure becomes so faulty, so corrupt, so top-heavy, so complicated, and so dangerous, the best thing to do is to tear it down and start over.

I was blessed to have been a part of my parish from the day we started. I was a senior in high school and we had 300 families. Most of us knew each other’s names. We did not have a physical church building in which to meet, so we borrowed space from the local Methodist church, the Lebanese church, and a Henrico County middle school. We held meetings in people’s homes and set up an office (with only one or two paid staff members) in the dilapidated old house that sat on the property that would become the huge parish complex we have today. Our focus was on learning and teaching that “church” wasn’t a building, but a community. We called ourselves “the village,” because it takes a village to raise a child, to comfort a widow, to serve the poor within and without.

Almost 25 years have passed. Three building campaigns. More that 2,500 families and growing. We have a huge staff managing 60+ ministries. We’ve done a lot of good for a lot of communities, especially for our beloved Haitian brothers and sisters.

But we no longer call ourselves “the village.” I miss that. My unwieldy megachurch is less of a community now than it was when we had nowhere to meet but each other’s homes. We may not exclude people in the same manner that the Sanhedrin did in Jesus’ time, but our sheer overwhelming size excludes people from feeling the personal experience of Jesus. Oh, the staff will tell you that they desperately want more volunteers for the various ministries. But the onus is on the newcomer (or old timer like myself) to find our place in the parish community.

There are times when I’d like to see Jesus tear down the walls and take us back to the days when we were a real community. I long for it. I may even leave my megachurch to find a smaller, poorer Catholic parish that makes do with less, has fewer, and more focused ministries, and doesn’t live the “bigger is better” mentality. Or maybe I’ll find another denomination that keeps faith simple, theologically and practically.

The ironic thing is, today is not just any old Ordinary Time, “green vestment” Sunday, but the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica – the first church building erected. It is a reminder that I need to keep a balanced perspective and not throw the baby out with the bath water, or the money changers. We need a physical space and communal rituals and outreach projects to unite us as community, and just as importantly we need to tend the temple within. Access to the Father is not “either or,” but “both and.” Living a God-centered life needs both a healthy individual heart and the support of a community of like-hearted individuals.

I recently heard someone say, if you ask any great artist what makes a great piece of art, they will tell you it is not what was added to the painting, or sculpture, or musical composition, or piece of literature, but what was edited and taken out. I think the same is true of faith. We humans can complicate anything we put our hands on, and faith is no different. Across all denominations we add our own perspectives on what the Christian life is “supposed” to be and overlook the core teaching of Christ – put God first and treat people the way you want to be treated. The rest is just “temple tax” and ritual that loses its usefulness if it is not fulfilling its purpose – helping us to put God first or to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

I have a category on my blog that I call “Tending the Temple.” It’s where I post about all things “self-care” related, spiritual and material. It’s a category I’ve neglected a bit in recent months, and that should tell me something. I’ve neglected it in my life, too. However, there are some wonderful habits I’ve maintained or picked up. I can’t wait to share more of those with you as the journey continues. Thank you so much for joining me and encouraging me. Sometimes this whole blogging business feels self-centered and ego-driven, but then one of you will comment on how it helps you, and I’m reminded that my feelings about this ministry (and that’s what it is) are not always facts.

Today’s epistle from Paul to the Corinthians is the scriptural inspiration and foundation for my website: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple,God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.”

So we are called to tend our temples, and care for our church communities, whatever they may look like. I think Jesus is less concerned with how we do it and more concerned that we just do it the best we can, without harming others along the way.

Excuses, Excuses

4 Nov

I don’t often write a reflection on the daily readings, but it’s been such a long time since I’ve written any reflections, today’s Gospel passage from Luke compels me. I always know it’s my higher power at work in me when I have no good excuse to say no.

Which is kind of what the Gospel is about. Luke 14:15-24.

Jesus was at a dinner party (presumably with some pretty well-to-do folks) and told a parable. A man invited his friends to dinner, but all of them had excuses for not going. So he invited people off the streets – crippled, blind and lame. Then he ordered his servants to invite people from out of town, making particular note that the ones he first invited, his busy “friends,” were no longer welcome.

Whether or not Jesus actually says the words “The Kingdom of Heaven is like …,” we know that parables are meant to reveal to us how God’s world works. And I need to constantly remind myself, “kingdom of heaven” is not synonymous with “afterlife” or “apocalypse.” Especially in Luke’s gospel, the focus is always on today, the here and now, the present. When we say “the kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” we don’t mean that the world is about to end.

(Ok, some Christians do. It’s all about “end times” and “tribulation” and “rapture.” That’s not reflective of ALL Christian theological perspectives, though. In fact, that’s a very recent American evangelical theological invention that takes huge liberties with the words of sacred scripture. If all that “rapture” talk doesn’t sit well with you, you’re in good company, with a lot of other Christians, including Catholics and other “reformation” denominations. You can read more about that here: http://www.catholic.com/tracts/the-rapture.)

Back to the matter at hand. The Kingdom of Heaven. It’s here. All around us. And the invitation stands.

Exactly what is the invitation? To dinner. I don’t know about you, but when I share a meal with someone, even a stranger or someone with whom I disagree, I feel a kinship with them. Breaking bread is a powerful church symbol because it reflects the bond that forms when we gather to eat, drink, share stories, and create community. What better antidote to the loneliness and isolation that accompanies human existence? I sincerely hope my own religious faith reforms itself to allow all present to partake of the “meal” of the Eucharist, and it looks as though there are movements in that direction thanks to Pope Francis.

I never say no to an invitation to share food with someone. I’ve been lonely for far too long in my life. Breakfast, lunch or dinner with friends or family is my favorite recreational activity, no matter what the setting. I would drop just about anything to join any of you for a meal.

Do I have that same attitude toward God’s invitation?

Well, not so much. For example, I’ve been nursing a HUGE resentment that I need to take my girls to religious ed class on Thursday afternoon. I am going to be brutally honest here: it is the single most inconvenient part of my week. Class is at 4:15. My son gets off the bus at 4, and we race down the highway for a half hour to get to church late. Class goes until 5:30, and during that hour, my son does his homework while I try to make the most of the quiet time (which is poisoned by my resentment). We get home at 6, with three cranky and very hungry children. And because I’ve been gone all afternoon, it’s at least another half hour before we eat. By that time we are all hating one another because we’re hungry, angry, tired, and also a bit pissed because we didn’t get to play with our friends after school. It’s a lethal combination.

I have plenty of excuses for not going. We are a busy family. Thursday is one of the few days we could eat dinner at home together. My church is on the other side of town. There’s a lot of traffic. My kids have homework. I have housework. Rar rar rar.

I do it because I made a promise when they were baptized. I do it because my ability to teach religious faith to my own children is limited and I have no discipline for formal instruction. I do it because they need something as a foundation on which to grow spiritually besides my sometimes lack-luster example. The men and women who volunteer as catechists at church are amazing. I was a teacher myself last year (when they offered much more convenient Sunday classes – hint hint!) and I love the materials they use. It is a good program, even if it doesn’t fit in my schedule the way I’d like.

Today’s reading challenges me to have a different approach to God’s invitation to spiritually feed me and my kids. Last night, I prayed about it. I asked God to help me with this resentment. And this morning, I read Luke. I love how God works!

The theme of the reading is simple – all are welcome. All. The most twisted and broken among us, the foreigners. We all need the love of God, but how many of us actually want it? If we are church-going people, it is our responsibility to live in such a way that the broken and the foreign to our ways KNOW without reservation they are unconditionally invited to share in God’s love, and they need only show up and be present to receive it. And if we ourselves, as church-going people, make excuse after excuse for why we can’t show up and be present, we are only hurting ourselves.

So this Thursday when I show up, it will be with a new attitude, and maybe some snacks for the journey. I’ll leave the excuses and resentment at home.

Salvation From Serpents

18 Sep

One of the things I love about the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is that I don’t have to believe that any of it is factual to see the truth in it. Do I really believe that the Red Sea actually parted just like it did for Charlton Heston? Does it even matter whether or not I do?

Fortunately my faith in God has never depended on blind belief in any particular translation of an ancient text. It’s based on experience; mine, of course, and also the experiences of others. So when I listened to this weekend’s Old Testament selection about Moses and the seraph serpents, it wasn’t with a literal ear, but with an ear longing to relate my own experiences to the story, and I was rewarded with an interesting interpretation.

The story takes place well into the Israelites’ wandering in the desert after fleeing Egypt. They’d starved and thirsted. They’d been fed with manna and quail. And they were weary from wandering in circles and living the Hebrew version of the Groundhog Day movie. They grumbled against God.

How many times have I done the same thing? I beg God to save me from whatever mess I’ve gotten myself into, and no sooner does He provide a way out and I’m complaining about my new circumstances! My discontentment will follow me wherever I go, if I allow it.

So in the story, God punishes this discontentment with serpents to bite the people, killing some of them. This does not sound like the God in which I believe! My God is loving and compassionate and would never deliberately harm me! This is why people reject Christianity, I think to myself.

And that’s when I ponder, maybe God didn’t send the snakes. Maybe the Israelites attracted them, and God simply chose not to stand in the way of a crisis.

And maybe they weren’t literal reptiles. They are called “seraph” serpents. The word means “burning.” Most people interpret this to mean “poisonous snakes.” But a seraph was also a sort of angel in the book of Isaiah. What if they were spiritual “serpents” who were attracted to the Israelites who were “feeding” them with resentment after heaping resentment? (I do believe in spiritual beings, both light and dark. Again, based primarily on personal experience.)

How many of my own resentments grow when I feed them until they turn on me, poison me, and bring me to death’s door, spiritually speaking? How often does my anger at God bite me? I’m a figurative snake handler.

God provided Moses with specific instructions for a remedy. Make a serpent, mount it on a pole so everyone can see it, and instruct the people to look at it, so that they will be saved. Christian theology interprets this as foreshadowing of the Crucifixion of Christ, as the words of Jesus in this weekend’s Gospel clearly state. But as a stand-alone story, it is also an analogy for how I can be saved from the spiritual serpents that plague me when I am grumbling against God.

I need to take a good, hard look at my resentments.

For me, this takes the form of a written list. In one column is the name of the person I resent. In the second column is why. It’s a freeform exercise, like brainstorming. I don’t judge myself, and I don’t censor myself either. I write it all down. I don’t consider whether resentment is justified or just a selfish indulgence. I just get it out on paper. Like mounting it on a pole. Then I look at it, hard.

Making this list is kind of like drawing out the poison from a snake bite. Sometimes I have to make a little cut in the skin of my pride and suck the poison out. It can be painful. I have to be careful not to let it get into my spiritual bloodstream while I’m doing it. I have to sit still.

I also have to consciously make the decision to let go and forgive. Like Jesus on that cross, I have to say, usually out loud, as much to myself as anyone, “They didn’t know what they were doing. They were sick. They were poisoned. They were hurt, and hurt people hurt people.” I don’t believe it yet. At this stage it’s just an intellectual exercise, but it’s a start.

Then I have to look at myself. In what ways have I engaged in the same behaviors I’m resenting? If I’m being honest in my search, I will find an absolute gem of a gift – compassion. I will find my own dark side, and I will sit with it. I will ask, where did that dark side come from? What payoff do I get by indulging it? Is my dark side just one of my talents or survival skills taken to an extreme?

And I go back to my resentment list and recall that anger is nothing more than a mask for fear. I fear these people on my list, and in fearing them I give them power that isn’t really theirs. Why? I name the fears. I remember that fears and worries are like prayers for a negative outcome. That fear is the opposite of love, that it will destroy me as certainly as any physical harm. I take the power back. I look in the mirror at my own darkness and find compassion for myself, and for them, and I cut the strings that bind me to the pain they may have caused me. I forgive. For real.

I look at my darkness and ask, what gift is there in this negative trait? There’s always a gift. Maybe I’m overly critical; that’s just the extreme form of being discerning. Maybe I’m competitive; if I tone that down I’ll discover a healthy drive to achieve excellence. As I look at every negative thing about myself and search for the positive within it, I find gratitude. Gratitude for all these wonderful gifts I never realized I had, and gratitude for that pain that drove me to look in the first place.

I ask God for help to see the patterns, and I ask Him to remove whatever of these characteristics keep me from being of service to others, and to help me stop hurting people. And I ask Him to show me how to repair the relationships that have been harmed by my poisonous resentment. Maybe I was only 10 percent of the problem, but I want to clean up my 10 percent.

Then a miracle happens. When I accept my faults, and when I start to take responsibility for them, no one can use them against me! I walk secure in the knowledge that I’m human and that God loves me.

This weekend’s gospel included the most well-known, often-quoted verse in the whole of scripture. Even atheists know it. John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”

It’s too bad that’s the verse everyone knows, because John 3:17 is even better. I wish Christians of all denominations would display this at sporting events and on their license plates and church billboards, because most have them seem to have forgotten it.

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

The seraph serpents, the resentments that eat away at us – they are not a condemnation. They are the gift that compels us to look within and then turn to the source of salvation.

This Too Shall Pass

12 Aug

I struggle with depression. It’s been an on-again, off-again companion since I was about ten. Sometimes it is triggered by a situation or a disappointment, other times it appears to be hormonal or the result of physical or emotional exhaustion. Anger and hunger make it worse. It has never completely overwhelmed me; after all, I’m still alive to write this reflection. But it has yet to permanently go away; as many times as I’ve gotten a temporary reprieve, it is only ever temporary.

I was 20 the first time I sought help; I made an appointment with a counselor in college, I had to wait two weeks even though I was on fire inside, and by the time I was to see her, I felt better. I didn’t seek help again until a few years later, when something dramatically painful happened that I couldn’t ignore. Therapy helped a little. Pharmaceuticals were not worth the side effects. Marriage and pregnancy and motherhood brought steeper peaks and valleys. But eventually I found a spiritual solution that works for me if I do the work. It doesn’t stop the depression entirely, but keeps it from overtaking my life, and for that I am grateful. Today when it rears its ugly head, I have some strategies for coping, and it usually passes quickly.

I’m not sharing this from a place of self-pity or sympathy-seeking. I was in the thick of it when I started writing this piece a few days ago. I’ve been in a pretty dark place for about a year, sometimes deep within the cave of sadness and despondency, but most of the time at the mouth of the cave, desperately listening for God. I know other people (maybe you?) are too.

I’m writing this because it needs to be written. This weekend’s readings were all about depression. Elijah in the cave, Paul mourning his Hebrew heritage, Peter sinking when he tried to walk on water – each of these stories has a special message for the person who struggles with depression like I do.

Scripture scholars have written some wonderful commentaries about Elijah’s well-documented depression, and some less-than-wonderful “bible-based” depression advice, too. The basic gist goes something like this – Elijah suffered from depression because he lost his focus on God, and right after he’d had a great spiritual victory, no less! He got out of the depression by doing God’s will. So it stands to reason, if you put God first, you won’t get depressed. And if you ARE depressed, it’s because you aren’t putting God first, you miserable sinner. So go beat yourself up some more – that should cure you!

This weekend’s selection from Elijah’s depression story takes place just after he begged God to take his life, because he couldn’t see the point of going on. Yes, he had just experienced a spiritual victory, but demonstrating God’s power and showing up the king’s worthless gods had done nothing to convert Ahab or his horrid wife Jezebel. Sometimes our best is not good enough, and that will trigger anyone to get depressed, even a prophet. Why bother?

If you’ve never entertained suicidal thoughts, this will probably make no sense to you. You probably just shake it off and move on. Someone with depression can’t do that. It’s not a matter of will power. I ask you to kindly suspend your judgement and desire to fix it with advice while I tell you what it’s like for me. It’s a place of utter hopelessness, of being overwhelmed by my imperfections, inadequacies, insecurities, and failures. Ironically, it is especially poignant after an exceptionally good day, because I know it’s only temporary. It’s being unable to see past my shortcomings enough to believe that I am or ever will be deserving of love, affection, companionship, or understanding, no matter what I accomplish or what fleeting joy I might have felt yesterday. It’s a desperate desire for complete and total reprieve from the compulsion or expectation to do my best, because mostly I’m just tired of trying.

But it is not surrender. No, it is the ultimate act of self-centered rebellion. It is the place where fight meets flight. For me, this awful place will be my destination, sooner or later, if I don’t accept myself or reality, or if I entertain the voices of self-pity and resentment. Some people respond to these voices with drugs or alcohol. I respond in other less obvious ways that can be just as deadly, but slower. Yes, I do believe in demons because I have experienced them, first hand.

God didn’t take Elijah’s life, nor did God lecture his servant. He sent the prophet to a cave. That’s where we who experience depression often go when we need to hear the “still small voice.” But first, while we are in our caves, we have to experience what God is NOT – the storms, the wind, the earthquake, the fire. God is not destruction, of course. God is the quiet, still knowing that all manner of things will be well. But not everyone can weather the illusion of destruction that God is not. Light eternal shine upon them, for they rest from their labors.

This stuff is not something I like sharing. It’s something I’m deeply ashamed of. Which is why I share it. If I share it, I diminish its power. I’m afraid that if you know about my bouts of depression, I will scare you away, or that you won’t want to have anything to do with such a person. Like I have a contagious disease or something. Or worse, you’ll try to comfort me so that you can feel more comfortable. (FYI, when someone is depressed, they don’t need someone giving them advice or telling them how wonderful they are or how great life is or how much they need to get help. They need to be held. If not physically, then in prayer. If you have to say something, say I love you. Say I’m here. That’s it.) I have this completely ridiculous belief that I have to be sweet and happy and pleasant all the time or you won’t love me. Which is crap. I know some pretty miserable people, and their shitty moods don’t stop me from loving them; if anything, I love them more, because I know what it’s like to feel that way.

I have a really great life in the best country in the world. I’m healthy, and my kids are healthy, and I have friends who care about me and the absolute best parents anyone could ask for (unless you’re disgusted by potty humor). I have a job, a house, two cars, no debt, and food in the pantry. Life is good. But those feelings creep in, and it’s all I can do to keep them from dominating the space in my head.

I do whatever it takes to get them to stop. I’ve learned that strenuous physical activity and being outside in the sun does what prescriptions can’t. (For me, that is. There is nothing wrong with seeking pharmaceutical help!) I’ve learned to take these feelings one day at a time, because there’s a better than even chance they will be gone tomorrow as capriciously as they arrived today. I listen for the still small voice in everything. Everything. If I can just hear God, I will know I’m not alone.

Depression feeds off isolation. The cave is a necessary part of the process, but Elijah didn’t stay there. Ultimately he went back into the world and even found a helper in ministry. We can’t battle depression in isolation. Community is essential to keep it at bay.

Community is what Paul spoke of in this weekend’s epistle to the Romans. Paul often spoke of a thorn in his side; some “wound” that kept his pride at bay. I don’t know if that is what he was hinting at when he confessed, “I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart.” Paul went on to describe the cause of his sorrow – being cut off from his beloved Hebrew community. Paul sacrificed his whole life, including his relationship with a proud culture and heritage, for a relationship with Christ, and he was apparently not always happy about the trade.

This, too, I can relate to. Depression has spurred me to seek help, and I’ve found it in a place that works for me. I’ve found help in a spiritual (but not religious) path toward acceptance. I can feel God changing me, but sometimes these changes have required me to let go of behaviors and friendships I miss very much. I’ve even had to let go of aspects of my religious faith, certain teachings that may be well-intended but actually compound my guilt and shame to the point of debilitation. God didn’t die on a cross to create a bunch of new rules to strangle the people He saved.

When we grow closer to God, we often have to let go of relationships and attitudes which served us well but are no longer compatible with the new life God gives. If that kind of letting go took such tremendous faith for a spiritual giant like Paul, why would it be any easier for me?

Grief is not exactly the same thing as depression. Grief is a natural healing process. Depression is what happens when we don’t grieve. In my case, I often avoid the pain of going through the grief process and wake up to find I’m in a full blown semi-suicidal depression. Like Paul, I have to feel the loss, write about it, talk about it, and make the decision to accept the loss, whether it’s a death, a divorce, a friendship, an unmet expectation, or a stage of life that has come to an end.

Sometimes the grief over what “might have been” or what “should or could have been” is even worse than a loss of what really was – it is much more difficult to let go of a fantasy because you can’t let go of what you never truly had in the first place. The Hebrews were “supposed” to be the chosen people, those who were predestined to receive to first fruits of God’s blessing. It broke Paul’s heart that it didn’t work out that way. It’s ok to feel heartbreak. In fact, not feeling it will push that pain deeper, where it will fester and poison us slowly. Paul teaches me to feel my feelings, or suffer long term pain that leads nowhere but a slow death.

One of my feelings that almost always accompanies loss is fear. Isn’t it ironic that fear – of loss, of death, of losing myself to the apparent overwhelming demands of life – actually causes the very thing of which I’m so afraid? Enter Simon Peter, who had just enough faith to jump out of the boat in the middle of the storm, but not enough to walk to Jesus. Sometimes I wonder if we who strive to live lives of faith and service aren’t especially susceptible to the sinking that happens when we take a leap of faith. Many of us are conditioned to believe if we have enough faith, we will be protected from pain – like some kind of emotional prosperity theology. We throw ourselves into storms, in the name of faith. But believing in God doesn’t make us invincible. Having faith doesn’t inoculate us from losing our faith, either.

“Why did you doubt?” This is what Jesus asked Peter, not as a parent scolding a child, but as a healer who wants to get to the root of the problem. Why do I doubt? It’s not a rhetorical question, and my answer may be different than yours.

I doubt because I know I’m not capable on my own. I’m just not. Faith in myself will fail me every time. I can’t. God can. I gonna let him. It’s a mantra I can say any time I jump out of the boat.

When Jesus asked Peter why he doubted, it wasn’t about walking on water. Peter’s doubt happened before he ever got out of the boat. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” Peter said. Lord, if it is you. Jesus indulged Peter’s doubt and commanded him to come out on the water. But if Peter had had faith, he would never have said, “Lord, if it is you.”

I don’t ever have to jump out of the boat. I don’t have to “fight” the depression demons; it’s a losing battle anyway. I can wait on my God and let my God do the fighting. I can rest. I can eat. I can call someone or text someone and ask for prayers. I can go to the people who hold me in silence at the mouth of the cave and let me cry cleansing tears.

The walking on water gospel story is not about keeping our eyes in Christ in the midst of the storm and expecting ourselves to do the impossible. It’s about accepting our own humanity and our limitations. It’s about knowing He’s there with us in the storm, hunkering down, trusting He will come to us, and having the faith to wait.

This too shall pass.

Mustard Seed Faith

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The summer before I turned two, my grandmother inadvertently gifted me with my most valuable piece of jewelry. We were visiting her house in Pennsylvania, and my wee toddler self needed entertaining, so she pulled out a decorative box filled with costume jewelry and I was in heaven. Colorful flower pins, long strands of beads, chunky bracelets, and clip-on earrings preoccupied me for at least ten minutes, I’m sure, along with Grammy’s signature phrase as I rummaged through the box pulling everything out.

“Now wait.”

She was always saying that. When I was impatient to go uptown to Uncle Russell’s 5 & 10. When I wanted to go down in the basement to get her box of crayons. When I wanted to explore the attic.

She’s been gone almost 6 years, but I can still hear her voice when I’m feeling impatient. I’ve even heard it coming out of my own mouth when my kids are running around.

“Now wait.”

Ultimately she gave that big jewelry box and its contents to my mom, who still has it. My girls have played with the same costume jewelry. Among its contents was an unusual pendant to which I was always drawn. I always thought it looked like a lightbulb. Inside a tiny glass ball about half the size of a marble there is a hole, and inside the hole, a seed.

A mustard seed.

I’m sure the monetary value of this odd pendant is minimal, but I consider this talisman my most valuable because of what it represents to me – faith and possibility.

Most of us know the biblical parable of the mustard seed. The tiniest of seeds produces the mightiest of bushes that can shelter all the birds of the air. Christ said that faith the size of a mustard seed was all that was needed to move mountains.

Grammy was the paragon of faith in my family. She was widowed as a young mom of three teen and preteen children, and making ends meet in their small town was a daily act of faith. But she never doubted that The Lord would provide, and He always did, up until the time she died at almost 92 years old. A woman of few financial resources, it was nothing short of miraculous that she got to live out the best of her final years in a lovely assisted living apartment community, after achieving her dream of traveling to Russia at age 70. Her post script to every mealtime prayer we shared was, “Thank you Lord for many blessings.”

For the past year or so, I’ve been wearing her pendant regularly, especially on the days when I struggle to let go of a person or situation that is causing me to worry. I just hold the pendant in my fingers, close my eyes, and remember that God has the person I love in His more-than-capable hands. Having a tangible object on which to focus is helpful.

The pendant broke last week. The ball fell off and the mustard seed came out. It was a miracle that I found the glass globe part; I’m pretty sure the seed is not going to turn up. But it’s not the seed that magically soothes my mind when I get all worked up. It’s my conscious act of letting go and trusting that all the people I love are exactly where they need to be, right here right now. If I’m uncomfortable about where they are, that’s my problem, not theirs. I can take my discomfort, and my accompanying desire to “fix them” and share it with a girlfriend or write it in a journal or say a prayer. I can accept and love unconditionally. I can remember that no act of faith on my part has ever resulted in anything but my ultimate good.

A friend of mine recently described faith this way – being in free fall and deciding not to panic until you hit the ground, only you never hit bottom. That’s not to say that faith is a remedy for all pain, sadness, or natural consequences – it isn’t. Faith is all about having an attitude of trust instead of an attitude of fear, anger, defensiveness, justification, and selfishness. Faith may not prevent pain, but it eases self-inflicted suffering.

In today’s Gospel Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Tiny. Inconsequential. Yet within it is the potential to shelter “all the birds of the sky.” Not just the blue birds. Not just the robins. Not just the cardinals or doves or hawks. Faith isn’t limited, and neither is the kingdom.

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Good Ground

14 Jul

Today’s parable from Matthew’s Gospel has never sat well with me. It’s the parable of the sower. The sower (presumably God) casts out seed (the Word of God) which falls in a variety of hostile places and fails to grow to maturity or bear fruit. Except when it falls on the “good” soil. Then it flourishes. Even today’s psalm selection hammers home the point – the seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.

How nice for the “good ground.”

This parable smacks of the kind of predestination-minded theology that makes my stomach turn. What about free will? What about “blessed are the poor?” What about hope?

I’ve always related to the “good soil.” I liked going to church from the time I was a little child. I thrived in my Catholic school. I loved pondering the scriptures, and I took the Word to heart, literally. When life gets hard, I turn to God, not away (usually). So why should I even care about the path, the rocky soil, the thorny ground?

For one, I’ve always had a special place in that “good” soil of mine for atheists and agnostics – the seekers, the questioners, the doubters, the deniers. When you love someone who wants to have faith but is too worried about their life circumstances to truly let go and let God, that parable brings little comfort. When you love someone who is a fair-weather follower who falls off the faith wagon after a beautiful conversion, that parable stings to the core. When you love someone who flat out rejects the one thing that brings you peace, that parable breaks your heart. And when that person is a child, a parent, a sibling, or a spouse, it’s almost more than one can bear.

If you’re someone with “good soil” reading this, you know the feeling. No amount of self-righteousness can ease that pain.

I don’t know about you, but I believe in a God of hope. I don’t believe in lost causes, nor do I believe in writing someone off. I believe the words of the prophet Isaiah: “My word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.”

I also find comfort in today’s epistle from Paul to the Romans. “Creation was made subject to futility . . . in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

Yes, comfort. Some people might see that phrase “subject to futility” and throw up their fatalistic hands. Sometimes it seems as if nothing we do can change the overpowering tide of pain and suffering (often self-inflicted) that plagues the world. I can think if several news stories just in the last three days illustrating some of the worst that humanity can throw at itself. Human justice is an uphill, losing, futile battle.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is quoted as saying, “Power is the ability to effect change.” In a world subject to futility, there is but one who has all power to change the soil, the soul. May we find Him now.

God throws the seed, and it does not return to him void. Even when it falls on the path to be eaten by birds. Even when it sprouts in shallow soil and withers. Even when it is choked out by weeds.

I know that in my heart, there is good soil. But there is also a well-paved path of self-will that doesn’t receive the Word. There is a fair-weather garden that isn’t suited for deep roots. And there are thorns of worry and doubt, in the darkest shadows, where the Word is all but lost. And if there can be such places in me, then there can be rich soil, if only a tiny patch, in the stoniest, weediest, shallowest heart of another. If only one seed sprouts and bears one small fruit there, that is enough to make angels rejoice.

The focal point of any parable has to be God. What kind of farmer sows seed anywhere but a well-tilled field? The kind of farmer that loves it all – the roads, the rocks, and the weeds. He showers every one of us with His Word, and His word is nothing more or less than hope itself. He litters every imperfect part of our hearts with it, because He knows hope isn’t wasted. And He challenges us to love like that when our harvest is ripe, whether we yield a bounty of a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold, or just one humble apple. Our soil is “good” only by God’s grace, and our harvest is in spite of our own futility.

God alone has the power to change the landscape of our hearts. I know that seed will only yield a harvest in “good soil;” why then do I insist on repaving the same well-travelled roads? Why not turn over the shallow, fallow fields? Why not allow the Master Gardener to remove the weeds and thorns? God doesn’t just want our “good” soil. He wants the whole damned package. He has the ability to effect change there. This is what the psalmist understood when he wrote this poetry of praise:

You have visited the land and watered it;
greatly have you enriched it.
God’s watercourses are filled;
you have prepared the grain.
Thus have you prepared the land: drenching its furrows,
breaking up its clods,
Softening it with showers,
blessing its yield.
You have crowned the year with your bounty,
and your paths overflow with a rich harvest;
The untilled meadows overflow with it,
and rejoicing clothes the hills.
The fields are garmented with flocks
and the valleys blanketed with grain.
They shout and sing for joy.
The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.

And it’s all good ground.

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