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Deadheading Discipline

23 Aug

One of my favorite hobbies is gardening. Not that you can tell by looking at my yard this summer – what a mess! Some seasons offer more challenges than others, the least of which is time to dedicate to weeding and planting and pruning. The excessive heat has not helped either, so I’ll blame that.

One of the reasons I love gardening so much is that it’s so rich with analogies and lessons for living. Recently one such lesson occurred to me, not while gardening, but while practicing yoga.

I take a yin yoga class every Thursday. Yin, I’ve found, is more meditative than your typical yoga class, and my teacher infuses each session with a theme or intention for our practice, reading quotes and inspired sayings as we soften into our poses and surrender to the practice of sitting still. The theme of the day was inner beauty.

She told us the story of the lotus flower, which has to struggle through the mud and muck before its blossom reaches the surface of the water to release a pleasing fragrance. It was a beautiful analogy for any of us who feel our circumstances are less than desirable.

After class, though, I was struck by another analogy on my way to the car. I thought of my roses, which have had a very hard summer. Between the heat and the beetles and some kind of disease that caused all their foliage to drop in late spring, they’ve suffered so much I considered just pulling them out of their beds and planting something else. But in one last ditch effort, I did a heavy pruning of all the diseased parts, and within a few weeks they seem to have recovered a little. My climbers even have flowers.

When a rose flower passes its peak and starts to fade, the plant puts energy into the “fruit” so it will have seeds. This is the natural reproduction drive of pretty much any green growing thing. This time of year especially, you’ll see a lot of gardens filled with overgrown, stalky, spent blossoms. Garden folk call this letting a garden “go to seed.” Eventually those ratty, faded blossoms will be replaced by dried pods that will release seed into the air or drop to the ground to reseed itself. It’s self-preservation, and it isn’t always pretty.

A well manicured garden doesn’t “go to seed.” Why? Because the gardener cuts the blossom heads as soon as the petals fade. With no fruit, no seed pod, no offspring, the plant, without any consciousness at all, instinctually is driven to survive by producing new buds which will eventually be new flowers, new opportunities for seed. This is called “dead heading.” As long as you keep cutting off the fruit, the plant will continue to put its energy back into making more flowers through its growing season.

God often seems to remove, to prune, the parts of my life that in one season seem so unspeakably beautiful. I’d rather He allow them to be perpetually beautiful. But that’s not the way God’s nature works. God may extend the beauty of the growing season, but he does it the way any gardener would, by removing spent blossoms. Short term pain for long term gain.

To me, the fading blossoms in my life are cause for grief. God’s pruning, too, seems cause for grief. To God, all is love. This weekend’s letter from Paul to the Hebrews, he reminds us, “Whom the Lord loves He disciplines.” Like a gardener who does a heavy cold-season pruning to improve the health and eventual harvest of a plant, God removes every branch that does not bear fruit. He “pinches” back my early growth like a gardener pinches the early spring leaves of a mum, so that my growth will not be tall and undisciplined and wild and easily destroyed in a late summer storm, but coiffed and compact and full, strong enough to retain a beautiful round shape even after a hurricane. “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.”

The spiritual life – like the natural world – is so full of paradox. As Jesus reminds us in this weekend’s Gospel, “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” If God is removing my spent blossoms instead of letting them go to seed, perhaps I need to remember that dead heading is the gardener’s way of sustaining beauty in the world before the seasons change. My growth is not just for my own self-preservation, but for the Master Gardener’s pleasure, and maybe this season He wants flowers, not fruit, for His glory.

What One Sheep Hears

21 Apr

I had a conversation with my best friend the other day. I’d just read an extremely disturbing article in Time magazine about war atrocities against women in the Sudan. It is unspeakable, almost unwriteable, and I had to vent my feelings lest they poison me. (You can read it here, but I’ll warn you, I had to stop reading about midway through.)

“Sometimes I think we should just eradicate these barbaric demons. They are barely even human. I know the women and girls would probably be collateral damage, and that would be terrible, but right now what they are living with is worse than death. Some of them would probably welcome death as mercy.”

My friend, who is the epitome of non-judgment, kindness, and unconditional love, replied to me with deep compassion, “That may be, but it would also be genocide.”

He was right, of course, and I sighed, grateful that he could listen to me without actually calling me Hitler. But my argumentativeness wouldn’t let go.

“But isn’t it the moral equivalent of justifying abortion when the fetus has a genetic problem or abnormality that would cause them great suffering, or would be born into poverty to a mom with a bunch of kids and no way to feed them?

“I think you know the answer to that question,” he said.

I paused, then continued. “But even God destroyed whole cities of people because of their depravity. Heck, He sent the flood to destroy the whole damn sinful world!”

“And you can see how well that worked.” My best friend can be as snarky as he is kind. “Let me ask you something,” he said. “If God Almighty Himself couldn’t eradicate the existence of evil in the world, what makes you think human beings could do any better?”

My friend then went on to give examples of how God actually did address the problem of saving the world from itself. Of course, they were familiar to me; I shared these very same with my third graders this year in religious ed. First, God made a promise to Noah never to destroy the world by flood. Then He befriended Abraham and made a covenant with him to make his descendants His chosen people. Then God saved His chosen people from the cruelty of slavery to the murderous Egyptians. He disciplined them for 40 years in the desert, but provided for their basic needs, and finally, He settled them in a land He designated as their permanent home.

God gave them laws – LAWS! – when the rest of the world was made up of lawless barbarians who were little more than animals, and God’s laws set limits – LIMITS! – on punishment and retribution. It was revolutionary to seek only an eye for an eye. Vengeance is mine, said the Lord. And even though these chosen people continually turned their back on God and suffered the natural consequences like misbehaving children, God never turned His back on them, and the whole world could see these people were unique and their solitary God was unlike the panoply of idols and beasts they worshiped.

The barbarism of humanity continued, admitted my friend, but God tended His chosen flock. Finally, He was ready to bring them to a new level of spiritual maturity. No longer was eye for eye enough, but turning the other cheek and forgiving 70 times seven times. God gave a new law to complete what He had begun in Genesis and Exodus. He donned flesh and lived not just in spirit but in body with them.

“And they killed him,” I interrupted obstinately. “At the end of the story the chosen people were no better than all the pagan hoards they thought they were so superior to.”

“Did you read this Sunday’s readings?” my friend asked. It was a rhetorical question; he knew I had. He started quoting Paul from the passage in Acts:

“It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first,
but since you reject it
and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life,
we now turn to the Gentiles.

For so the Lord has commanded us,
I have made you a light to the Gentiles,
that you may be an instrument of salvation
to the ends of the earth.”

“God’s plan was never just for the Hebrews,” he said. “It was always intended for anyone who wanted an alternative to the evil ways of the world.”

I thought about all non-Hebrews in the Bible whom God had blessed – Ruth, the widow whose son Isaiah brought back to life, Naaman the Syrian who was healed of leprosy, the woman at the well, and many others.

“The Jews were jealous,” he continued, “they didn’t want to share, and they barely understood what a gift they’d been given in the first place. Their vision was so distorted they couldn’t even recognize their own God standing right in front of them when he quoted their own scripture! And sadly, they denied their blindness. But Jesus hand-picked a few friends and opened their eyes and their hearts. He made a new covenant with them and gave new commandments. He mirrored everything his Father had done in Genesis and Exodus, because He and the Father are one. Only this time, he told them to share it with the world. He showed them what love truly looks like when he died, and he proved to them there is more to living than just earthly existence when he rose from the dead and went before them to Heaven.”

“It’s a shame human beings have so corrupted the church Jesus started,” I said. “Christians have been no different than the Jews who had Christ crucified. They’ve done terrible things in God’s name.”

“Human nature is what it is, and even God won’t violate the rules he set up in the Garden of Eden,” said my friend. “Love is not possible without free will, and love was always more important to the Father than obedience, control, earthly perfection, or even peace. After all, He already has perfection in Heaven and within Himself, and the peace He gives surpasses earthly circumstances.”

I let it all sink in. My friend has so much wisdom, which is why I love spending time with him. An added bonus is, he’s one of the few people I know who never tires of my questioning and debating. This nut actually encourages me! I think he knows this is how I learn, and that I’m being teachable, not obstinate.

“I can tell you’re not fully satisfied,” he said, inviting me to continue our conversation long past the point where most courteous friends would have set the topic aside and moved on to the kids or the weather or the great new restaurant they tried last week.

“Well,” I started,” “All this salvation history stuff sounds great, but what difference does it make to the women and children who are raped to the point of death in the Sudan? Christianity doesn’t seem to be doing them a whole lot of good. It’s not doing Christians any favors in Iraq or Syria either, for that matter. Even Christians in the U.S. face first world problems like ridicule and disrespect from an increasingly secular society.”

“You need to hear the Sunday readings again,” He said. And then He read them to me. In the voices of two lectors and a priest, I heard His voice at Sunday evening mass.

“These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress;
they have washed their robes
and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

“For this reason they stand before God’s throne
and worship him day and night in his temple.
The one who sits on the throne will shelter them.
They will not hunger or thirst anymore,
nor will the sun or any heat strike them.
For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne
will shepherd them
and lead them to springs of life-giving water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

I imagined all the women, old and young, in Sudan who’d been raped, sodomized, left for dead only to survive carrying scars that few of us could ever understand, being washed in a heavenly river and restored. I could see them in my mind’s eye, at peace.

“My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.
My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all,
and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.
The Father and I are one.”

By the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, this sheep hears His voice. This is the relationship I have with my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is why I can sing at mass every week, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” and believe it. Christ comes again to me, personally, whenever I want to be with Him, and sometimes even when I don’t. He is the reason I’m rarely lonely when I’m alone, and the reason I’m frequently lonely when I let other people, places and things crowd Him out. He is the reason I write these words and the reason I wake up in the morning.

He is my best friend, and I feed our friendship whenever I eat his body and drink his blood in the Eucharist. I repair it whenever I go to Reconciliation. This friendship began before my memories, in the waters of baptism, which is why I had my children baptized, in the hope they would one day know Him like I do. I took him with me into adulthood at Confirmation. I experienced a deeper understanding of His sacrifice when I entered into the sacrament of marriage, a marriage that taught me unconditional love can look an awful lot like failure from the outside, and being born again can happen if I surrender my fantasies of how I think things “should” be, and let my ego and pride accept whatever cross will bring new life.

It is the most intimate relationship I’ve ever had or ever will have, and sharing it with others scares me. What if you make fun of me, or think I’m crazy? What if you judge my very human mistakes and call me a hypocrite? I’d hate for someone to reject friendship with God because of my failings to live up to the person He calls me to be.

I wonder if the disciples had these fears when they went out to spread the good news. Paul and Barnabas, it says, just shook the dust from their sandals and moved one when they faced rejection. Their focus was not on the ones who rejected them, but on the Gentiles who welcomed them. I need to remember that whenever I’m worried about what other people think of me.

I asked my friend how I should end this reflection, and he reminded be of a woman whose story I heard a few years ago. She had been gang raped in her twenties. She is now a recovering alcoholic, and her journey in recovery had taken her into prison to share the message of hope with some of the male inmates there who went to 12 step meetings. She told her story to them, and a few of the men came up to her afterward in tears. They had gang raped someone, and had found deep remorse for their behavior, and expressed their deep contrition to her. They begged for forgiveness. And she gave it, not only to these strangers, but to the men who had hurt her so deeply. When I heard her story I was moved to tears.

“You live in a world where not only can that happen, it actually did,” says my best friend. “Don’t ever forget that.”

 

 

Spiritual Adulting

12 Apr

If you are an American born in the 70s or early 80’s, chances are you’re familiar with this advertising jingle, most prevalently heard during the weeks leading up to Christmas when we were about 12:

“I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a Toys R Us kid . . .”

That may be the defining anthem of my generation, judging from how social media has embraced the word “adulting.” Initially I thought it was cute, clever and relatable; today, this overused catch-all grates on my nerves, maybe because it touches a nerve. For those unfamiliar with this recently coined term, “adulting” in practice is a temporary submission to adulthood, without any intention of permanently or even consistently sustaining maturity. It’s the appearance of acting like an adult without fully accepting the reality.

We gen-xers don’t want to grow up now any more than we did when we were 12; in fact, I’ve read social science articles claiming my generation’s version of a midlife crisis is when we finally accept adulthood and all its trappings (unlike our parents, who embraced adulthood during the materialistic me-generation 70s and 80s only to relapse into ridiculous twenty-something behavior around the time we were singing that Toys R Us jingle). I think this gen-x midlife crisis is preceded by a series of fits and starts, dipping our toes into the water of what we think is adulthood. We go to the J-O-B, we’re adulting. We pay the bills, we’re adulting. We make a meal in an actual kitchen, we’re adulting, and we Instagram the proof. We mow the grass, and everyone in the neighborhood knows we’re adulting, in real life no less!

When I was 12, part of me desperately wanted to grow up. I wanted to grow boobs. I wanted to grow out of my acne and into my big teeth and makeup and the juniors department at J.C. Penney. I wanted to have my own space where no one could tell me what to do, and my willfulness motivated me to keep my bedroom and bathroom clean enough to my mother stayed out (maybe) and make good enough grades for me to go away to college where I’d finally be free to eat Kool-Aid out of the canister and buy clothing out of the J. Crew and Victoria’s Secret catalogue with my first credit card.

A deeper part of me was subconsciously terrified of growing up, quietly whispering to my heart all these years that if I grew up and got bigger, no one would love me, even as I ventured into the ultimate triathlon of adulting – marriage, home ownership, and parenting. It was around the time my youngest daughter was vehemently fighting potty training that a light bulb went off in my own head; both of us feared passing certain milestones toward maturity, because as long as you’re the “baby,” someone will love and take care of you. Talking her through this helped ease her transition out of diapers, while introspection and journaling yielded much insight into the “whys” and “hows” of my fears. Much of it is too private to share publicly at this point in my life. But I can say this – my tactics for staying young and physically diminutive were doing me no favors; I have thankfully begun to outgrown them, and now I’m embarking upon the gen-x midlife crisis – truly accepting adulthood.

For me, the ultimate in adulting is waking my kids up for school. The little one who fought potty training is also a late sleeper and only semi-conscious when I have to pull off her pajamas at 6:30. I long for the day when she can dress herself in the morning like her big sister (the morning person in the family who was born adulting and potty-trained herself at 2). This morning, as I was putting on her shirt while she whined, “But I don’t WANT to go to school,” I thought of this weekend’s Gospel. Jesus said to Peter, “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Spiritual adulting, it seems, is less about being an autonomous, self-sufficient grown-up, and more about being, as Jesus told us earlier in His ministry, like sleepy little children. This exhausted mama is half-way there any given moment.

Like my daughter, I hated those early school mornings when I was a kid, and I couldn’t wait to go to college and no longer have to wake up at 7 am (I took only one 8 am class my entire college career, my first semester). I used to believe becoming an adult meant I would be able to make my own decisions and do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted instead of submitting to the choices someone else was making for me, but I also knew true maturity meant doing the right thing even when I didn’t want to do it, and considering other people’s feelings and not just my own, and I wanted no part of that. I wanted all the fun of being the captain of my own ship of fate with none of the responsibility to “feed His sheep” and “tend His lambs.” I certainly didn’t want the hardship that comes with growing older.

Apparently, that’s not really an option. As one of my co-workers who is pushing 80 just said to me bluntly, “Christy, getting old is hell.”

As much as we may try to postpone age, observation has taught me hardship can and will come to any of us, almost capriciously, before it is even expected. A friend recently lost the love of his life to breast cancer, and she wasn’t even 40 years old. I know many others who’ve lost their spouses and loved ones far too young, succumbing to cancer or suicide or addiction. One of my dear friends is battling an extremely aggressive cancer, and the experimental medicines that are killing the disease are waging war on his formerly healthy body. It’s heartbreaking.

They are being lead where they did not choose to go.

When Jesus said this to Peter, He said it in reference to Peter’s ultimate suffering and martyrdom to come. My hope is no one reading this will ever become a martyr for their beliefs, but I’m certain every one of us will experience a private suffering at some point in our lives. Accepting life on life’s terms requires a surrender not unlike martyrdom. We talk a lot in my faith about “dying to self.” Peter, in Sunday’s reading from Acts describes what this means succinctly: “We must obey God rather than men.” That is spiritual adulting, and it doesn’t always look like being a grown-up. In Peter’s case, spiritual adulting meant preaching the Good News that Jesus had risen the dead, shunning his former career, experiencing public shame and ridicule, and literally risking his life. I’m sure the Apostles’ families were thrilled at their career change.

Jesus gave us the ultimate example in spiritual adulting when He accepted death on the cross. Any rational, self-assured grown man when faced with false accusation and impending execution would at the very least try to fight the charges. Jesus didn’t. He even had the power to avoid it all, but He obeyed His Father, not common sense.

How many of us have heard Christ’s words, “Sell all your possessions and follow me,” while sitting in the church pew, and let it go in one ear and out the other? I’ve rationalized that Jesus wasn’t saying those words to me. Jesus would want me to be a good mother to my children. He’d want me to provide the best I can for them. He’d want me to be making a living wage. He’d want me to be generous with my excess, I’ve told myself, but He wouldn’t want me to deprived. He’s given me talents and He’d want me to use them to support myself so that I’m not a burden on society. He’d want me to be a responsible, socially conscious citizen demonstrating the benefits of living a good, Christian life, right? He’d want me to be a good, solid adulting adult. Right? Right?

Rationalizations are not the language of spiritual adulting, but the disciples couldn’t recognize Jesus was obeying God when He went to the cross; they understood only in retrospect. Even Jesus questioned it in the garden, though God gave Him the grace to obey. Many of us (including yours truly) avoid cultivating a spiritual life for fear of what God will ask us to give up or change. Our deacon preached this weekend about how we avoid reading the Bible for this reason, and sadly, my parish had to postpone its annual women’s retreat for lack of participation, probably for much the same. As much as gen-xers avoid adulting, all generations avoid spiritual adulting. We don’t want to be changed; I’m quite comfortable where I am, thank you very much.

But I don’t get to stay where I am any more than the little one got to stay in diapers, or I got to stay in that blissfully irresponsible pre-adulting decade of my 20s. The older generations never miss a chance to tell me life will only get harder from here on out, but most of them say it with a twinkle in their eye, as if they know some secret I don’t. But I do know.

I know God won’t forestall anyone’s suffering and death anymore than Peter following Jesus protected him from eventual execution. Loss comes to us all eventually. The secret is that as I become weaker, God’s presence in me can become stronger. The more I release, the more God can bless me. The less I hold onto my own will, the more God can use me to accomplish His will. And His will is beautiful and everlasting.

We all will be lead where we do not choose to go. The secret is, I can choose to go alone, or to go with God by my side. There is nothing more adult than that.

 

Just Keep Walking

14 Apr

Olivia is afraid of bees. I suspect most of us were when we were six; I know I was. Last week my parents took her and the other two to the Norfolk Botanical Garden, and apparently there was a lot of screaming.

This Sunday, I decided to take the three of them to our botanical garden here in town, and sure enough, the fuzzy bumbles were out in force. I long ago made peace with bees when I discovered the delight that comes from trying to photograph them. Olivia still has a way to go. But as we were walking through the buzzing sentries escorting us through the garden, she clung to me and said, “Nana says they will leave me alone if I just keep walking.” Throughout our visit, “just keep walking” became a mantra.

The Internet is chock full of pastors who preach that fear is the opposite of faith. I don’t see it that way, and here’s why. I think of myself as a person of faith. I believe in God, I believe in Jesus, and I believe with all my heart in Romans 8:28. I’ve seen it with my own eyes in other people’s lives, and I’ve seen it in mine. Yet there are still times when I’m brimming with fear. It generally manifests in the question, “What if I’m wrong?”

What if I keep walking, and the bees don’t leave me alone?

And then, I catch myself questioning my faith, questioning my very belief in God, and pretty soon I’m not only feeling fear but am paralyzed by it.

Fear is not a lack of faith. It’s a feeling; just a feeling. One of my favorite moral axioms is “Faith is fear that has said its prayers.” That quote is a reminder to me that my feelings of fear are no reason to berate myself for lacking faith, but a call to act in faith in spite of my feelings.

So if fear is not the opposite of faith, what is? Doubt? This weekend’s gospel was the iconic story of “doubting Thomas,” who refused to believe in the risen Christ until he saw Him with his own eyes and touched His wounds. For 2,000 years, the poor man has been pegged as the poster child for what it means to lack faith.

Thomas doubted not because he lacked faith but because he was human. He was my kind of human, really. You can tell me until you’re blue in the face that something will or won’t work, but I’ll stubbornly disregard you until I try it myself. I put a lot more stock in my own experiences than I do in neat, tidy platitudes about how I should live or the consequences if I don’t. Unlike Thomas, I am willing to at least consider the experiences of others. Your lecturing will turn me right off, but if you tell me what happened to you when you found yourself in shoes like mine, you stand a good chance of changing my mind, or at least opening it to a new possibility. But given the chance, I’ll still run my own experiments, thank you very much. I need my own evidence.

Can any of us blame Thomas for doubting? They saw Jesus die. That’s some pretty hefty evidence, and rising from the dead is an outrageous claim.

Writer and speaker Anne Lamott says, “The opposite of faith is not doubt; it is certainty.”

The moment I think I know something, I’m in trouble. When I think I know something, I cease to be teachable. I become arrogant, and pride cometh before the fall. Knowledge is the currency of my ego, my “Edging God Out.” This is true whether I’m talking about evolution or heaven or the Resurrection, or having enough milk in the fridge to make a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Knowledge has its place, but not when it takes the place of imagination, especially God’s imagination.

I may believe things that I cannot know from personal observation, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t ever doubt my beliefs. Did Jesus really rise? I don’t know. I can’t know. What I do know is that His friends were pretty convinced that He did, so much so that they went to their deaths and started a movement that completely changed the world. It defied the might of the Roman Empire, Europe’s dark ages, the intellectualism of the Renaissance, the brutality of the crusades, the inconsistencies of the reformation, several Christian holocausts, and the hedonism, moral relativism and fundamentalism of the modern era. I have seen with my own eyes how people can be transformed when they become just a little bit willing to acknowledge some kind of higher power. So I continue to “just keep walking” in spite of whatever doubts and fears I might have. That stuff is just space between my ears, anyway. My actions are what matter.

Faith is not the the same thing as belief. Olivia believes that bees are scary and worthy of fear. She believes that bees can sting and she is convinced they will sting her. But she trusts Nana. And she just keeps walking because she can see with her eyes that Nana who doesn’t appear to be afraid. Olivia can choose to trust her belief, or choose to trust her Nana who loves her. She has decided to trust her Nana.

Faith is first a decision, followed up with action. It isn’t an opinion or a belief or a feeling. That’s what makes it so powerful. Belief and unbelief can be wrong, and our opinions can be fickle as our experiences and attitudes change. Facts and statistics can be used to justify our fears just as easily as our fantasies. But as this weekend’s epistle of John tells us, “the victory that conquers the world is our faith.”

How can I that be, especially in times when the world seems to be conquering faith?

When my fear says, “What if you’re wrong?” faith answers, “Then I’m wrong and with any luck I’ll have learned something.”

When fear says, “What if you lose your house or your car or your life savings?” Faith answers, “Something good will come of it and things will work out.”

When fear says, “What if you are killed?” faith answers that nothing goes to waste in God’s world, and that even the worst tragedies and atrocities can be the foundation for the greatest changes for goodness and light. (For what it’s worth, I don’t have this level of personal faith. But because of the saints and martyrs, including modern day ones, I have hope that this kind of faith is possible, even for me.)

We have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. Olivia has faith that if she keeps moving in spite of her fear, the bees will leave her alone. I have a personal experience that proves otherwise; when I was about her age, I was stung by a yellowjacket. I didn’t provoke it, and I didn’t even know it was near me, but I was in my front yard and it got me right in the fleshy part of my behind that was exposed when I bent over. Fear of flying insects with stingers is not irrational. But I have faith anyway. I have faith that not every insect will sting me unprovoked. And I have faith that if by chance I do get stung, it may hurt but I will be ok. Faith teaches me that I can just keep walking.

Oh how I wish I could apply this faith to other parts of my life and not just garden walks with bees! But the thing about faith is that it takes practice, and it grows. None of us starts out with complete trust in Nana or bees or God or the divine providence of the universe. We let it grow in one area of our lives and it takes root elsewhere, and not just within us. Courage is contagious. Courage turned a small rag tag group of backwater fishermen into a force large enough and powerful enough to transform even a Roman Empire intent on extinguishing them. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor was it toppled in one. Faith takes time and practice. In the mean time, just keep walking. What else are you going to do?

The Memory of Choosing Not To Fight

3 Apr

Do me (and yourself) a favor. Turn off all your lights, quiet your mind and body, and listen to this song with your heart. It’s called Answer, by Sarah McLaughlin.

If you’re feeling especially in need of a good cry, watch the video.

Done?

I heard this song a few days ago when I was searching for another song from the same album, and I felt in my heart this song could be a meditation on Good Friday – the passion of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and one of my best friends.

I listened to it when I woke up this morning. What does Good Friday even mean? Each year as I get a little older, my answer gets a little simpler. A few years ago I’d have written a compelling reflection on substitutiary atonement. Today, the crucifix means one thing: none of us – Christian, Jewish, gay, not even the Son of God himself – is immune from persecution for being ourselves, whatever that looks like.

I believe that’s what my best friend meant when He told me to pick up my cross and follow Him. He wasn’t commanding me to be a perfect martyr; He looked at my shortcomings, my imperfections, my quirks, my skin and hair, and all the qualities I wish God would remove or heal, and He told me I need to embrace them. Embrace my sickness and sadness, when everything in me wants to walk away and be some dazzling white version of myself I can’t even imagine, who never sins, who never swears, who never entertains resentments or impure fantasies or jealousy or contempt. He looked at my beautiful, tender heart and He asked me to be willing to let it be broken when people betray or mock or simply don’t understand me.

And as I follow my best friend to the foot of His cross every Good Friday (and plenty of other days throughout the year too), I hear His own prayer and pray for the grace to be able to repeat His words: “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”

He was the Son of God, yet He chose not to fight those who nailed Him to the cross. It truly is, in the words of Saint Paul, “something to be grasped.”

When I was about six years old, I asked my father on Good Friday what it meant that it was the day Jesus died. I couldn’t grasp the idea of something happening 2,000 years ago. I was worried, at six years old, that He was being crucified that very day.

He is. A cursory scroll through social media reveals that a man I love very much is being mocked and ridiculed right now. So are the people who love Him, and by extension, so am I. It breaks my heart. I want to obey my God when He commands me to love my neighbor as I love myself. Every religious faith on earth shares that common precept. I want to fight the injustice, but that is not what Jesus would do. He chose not to defend Himself. He became weak.

And yet, since when is the defensive a position of strength? In choosing not to fight, we choose a strength far greater than the strength of the powerful bullies. We are exalted, even as we suffer very real pain.

If it takes my whole life, I won’t break and I won’t bend. There may be days when I feel completely buried under the weight of my imperfections and brokenness. Moments of despair and hopelessness. Days when it seems the darkness has won not just the battle, but the whole damn war. The night is indeed unkind.

Cast me into Easter morning.

The Big Ten

10 Mar

For Lent this year I have been fasting from Facebook. The first week was rough. Real rough. To compare myself to an addict in rehab sucking nervously on a tootsie pop would have been accurate the first few days. I felt deeply in my gut like something was MISSING. Every morning when I woke up and didn’t wake up to George’s coffee memes. Every time I accomplished a task at work, and then couldn’t reward myself with a peek at Mary’s baby animal pictures. Every time I wondered how so-and-so was doing and didn’t check their profile page. Every time I wanted to post something encouraging, or feel the warmth of my virtual community lifting me up.

When I was curious about how the notorious “DT” was going to forecast the snow storm du jour and relied instead on my Weather Channel app or the local TV station website, I couldn’t trust how much bread and milk to buy. (First world problems?)

So I increased my Candy Crush and was kinda cranky with the kids for about a week. Or three. (Remember, we’ve had a LOT of snow days. Without Facebook. Cut me some slack.) I also reacquainted myself with Pinterest. Glorious Pinterest.

The other day one of my friends referred to it as “food porn.”

“Oh, you look at it for the recipes?” I asked her, silently judging myself for not doing something more productive with my online habits, like cooking for my cranky Facebook-free family. “I guess for me it’s ‘house porn.'” I said. We both laughed. Sort of.

I love searching the Home Decor category. It reminds me of my childhood when my favorite cousin and I would pour over the Sears and Pennys catalogs and make lists of every curtain, rug, towel, and placemat we wanted to purchase for the homes we were designing on graph paper. We’d even write down the prices so we’d know what kind of budget we’d need, all the while listening to Neil Diamond, another of the shared guilty pleasures we couldn’t tell to anyone outside the family, lest the deepest depths of our nerdiness be discovered.

Apparently this practice is now mainstream (minus the Neil Diamond). A lot of you reading this have repinned my pins. Consider yourselves outed, nerds.

I thought I had gotten over the hump. I’m still feeling the Facebook sacrifice but it is no longer an obsession; it’s an accomplishment of which I can be proud. I’m productive, less edgy, focusing more on personal relationships than virtual ones, and relearning how to connect with all of you in a way that doesn’t involve social media.

Patting myself on the back, I started to read this past weekend’s scripture selections with the intent of actually writing a blog post. I couldn’t make it through the first reading. It stopped me up short. It’s the Ten Commandments. When I got to the ninth one, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, I kinda broke the second one.

Yeah, I took the Lord’s name in vain.

Isn’t that what Pinterest is? Coveting? Maybe not for you. Maybe for you it’s “food porn,” which makes it ok. But for me, it’s about seeing all the stuff I wish I could do or have in my house, and creating pin boards dedicated to my categorized coveting. More that 1,500 and counting.

(Not Ryan Gosling. Someone else can covet him and his “hey, girl.” When I start pinning that silly goose, you’ll know I’ve hit bottom. Pour me the Candy Crush Soda, please.)

~~~

We tend to think of the Ten Commandments as a list of dos and don’ts from God, or a moral code by which to live. When I read the chapters following Sunday’s first reading selection from Exodus, I learned there were a lot more than just ten “commandments;” there are whole chapters in Exodus dedicated to all the rules set forth by God to govern the conduct of His chosen people.

For example, that whole “eye for eye” thing was instituted to prevent revenge, or taking anything more than was taken from you. It’s fascinating to read all the laws, as long as I keep it in historical and spiritual context; these laws were meant to set the Jewish people apart from their pagan neighbors so they would be a testament to the one true God. The Old Testament Jewish law was never intended, for example, to be used by modern day fundamentalists to justify racism or slavery. As a Christian it is important for me to remember the fullness of the law was expressed in the life of Christ, who said that loving God and loving neighbor were the summation of the whole law and the prophets.

Christ was also the fullest expression of God’s covenant with His people. The Ten Commandments could just as easily have been titled “the ten signs of covenant,” but I believe we humans are much more comfortable with a God of rules than a God of promises. Our egos find it much easier to rebel against and reject God if we think He’s always telling us what to do. After all that’s what Ego does – Edges God Out.

In the chapter preceding the Ten Commandments, God (through Moses) gave the people instructions for preparing themselves to hear God speak to them and make His covenant with them. On the third day, God would descend Mt. Sinai and they would hear His voice. This weekend’s selection is the spoken word of God to His people. They literally heard His voice. Later in Exodus, when the Hebrews were overwhelmed with their inability to follow the rules or presumably remember them, they asked Moses for written Commandments, and God wrote them on stone tablets not once, but twice. Those tablets were placed in the Ark of the Covenant along with the staff of Aaron and a pot of manna, and around this ark the Temple of Jerusalem was ultimately built (and then “cleansed” by Jesus in this weekend’s gospel).

But the first giving of the law was done orally, on the “third day.” It was a promise from God to His people, if they would accept that He alone was God, creator of the universe, and if they would live in the ways He instructed instead of the ways of the world, they would be a sign to the rest of that universe by their actions, and they would be blessed.

Replace the word “shalt ” with “will.” The passage takes on a very different tone:

You will not have other gods besides me or carve idols for yourselves or bow down before them.

You will not take the name of the LORD, your God, in vain.

You will rest on the seventh day, just as your Creator did.

You will honor your mother and father.

You will not kill.

You will not commit adultery.

You will not steal.

You will not lie about your neighbor.

You will not covet your neighbor’s house.

You will not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything else that belongs to him.

Change the “will nots” to “will no longer” and it gets even better.

When we follow the fullness of God’s law (put God first and love your neighbor as yourself), God will transform us from a group of coveting, gossiping, lying, stealing, lustful, life-destroying, disrespectful, prideful, cursing, idolatrous heathens into a people who are known as God’s people by our love.

As a sinner who has broken some of the commandments, sometimes repeatedly, the promise that I could be delivered from my compulsions and especially the consequences that usually follow is a wonderful message of hope. This is the covenant. We will not need the distraction of Pinterest or Facebook because we will be looking for the face of Jesus in everyone we see. We will no longer covet anything, because when we put God first, we will trust He has given us everything we need, and we will be content with that.

~~~

The Hebrew people were never content with that for very long, and God in His great compassion knew it. He planned for it in the covenant. Rather than demand perfection from His people, God set forth a process by which they could cleanse themselves from their sin so no one would be prevented from worshipping the Holy of Holies – He set forth rules for animal sacrifice, substitutiary atonement. In Moses’ day, the Ark of the Covenant was housed in a tent, but by the time of Jesus, the Temple in Jerusalem was where the symbol of God’s covenant, and presumably where God Himself, dwelt. The covenant was written so that sinners could still approach their God. (The covenant also wrote a pretty specific rule about lending money to fellow Hebrews and not charging interest.)

When Jesus “cleansed” the temple in this weekend’s Gospel, it was in part because the religious elites were creating obstacles to the atonement process. The reason there were livestock in the temple courtyard was because they were to be the blood sacrifices people would buy to kill and  atone for their sins. But the Jewish temple couldn’t accept the Roman currency that everyone used; Jewish people had to exchange their Roman coins for Jewish ones which they could then use to purchase the ox or lamb or doves or whatever other offering they could afford.

Obviously the ox was more expensive than the doves, so the wealthy were able to “atone” for more sins than, say, a poor widow who could afford to give only two coins in offering. And not only had the atonement process become unjust, but the money changers were very likely exchanging Jewish coins at an unfair rate. No wonder Jesus called them a brood of vipers and a den of thieves.

“Give us a sign,” the temple elites demanded after Jesus raged against the layers of injustice condoned and encouraged by the Levites and priests. They would have known the Exodus story intimately, yet they completely missed Jesus’ reference when he told them to destroy the temple (of his body) and he would raise it up on the third day. He used the exact same words his Father had used at Mt. Sinai.

Or, maybe they understood exactly what Jesus was saying, which is why they had him killed.

Jesus offered himself as the final blood sacrifice, once and for all, so that sins could be forgiven. God Himself would be the substitutiary atonement, and there would be no need for any more livestock or temple money exchanges. No one would ever be prevented from worshipping God because they were too poor to be anything but ritually impure. I believe Jesus’ angry expulsion of the money changers foreshadowed how his death and resurrection would expel all the forces that attempt to keep us from worshipping God.

There are money changers our heads. They try to convince us our mistakes are too big to atone for. They tell us there’s no use changing course since we’re already sinners and not likely to have much success changing that Why bother? Why keep setting ourselves up for another moral failure tomorrow by getting “right” with God today?

I accidentally ate bacon bits on my salad on Friday; I may as well order steak for dinner since I’ve already eaten meat once. That’s the logic of my money changers. I’m already a sinner, so I may as well sin big, they say. They have no concern about the guilt I will heap upon myself. Maybe not about eating meat, but definitely about the times I break one of the “big ten.”

God wants to throw the money changers out of our heads. He wants to silence the rigid elites in our hearts, too. Our hearts are His temple, and Christ died to cleanse them. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” he says, and the mercy starts with ourselves. There is no longer anything in the way of my turning to God whenever I need Him; nothing except my Edging God Out.

~~~

Coveting must be a pretty serious sin. It’s the subject of not one, but two commandments. That fact is worth contemplation.

What do I covet, and why? Ultimately the answer for me is comfort. I want to be comfortable and secure, and I mistakenly believe a beautifully decorated, perfectly organized home will do that. I believe the same thing of certain clothing, or even friendships and relationships. Coveting – the desire for “more” or “better,” and especially comparing myself to others and measuring myself against near-impossible perfection is not a very spiritually healthy way of life. Like the Israelites eating manna in the desert, I have everything I need, if not everything I want. The secret to happiness is contentment.

In a great twist of irony, I saw a great little article pinned on Pinterest – 10 Ways To Be Happier In Your Own Home.

Many of the tricks, like making my bed daily, keeping a gratitude journal, and displaying sentimental items, are things I do regularly to keep myself from coveting. The final item on the list is connecting with something greater than yourself. I certainly didn’t expect that from a “home decor” blog. It’s a return to the first Commandment – remember who is God, or at the very least, who is not God. It’s a good reminder whenever I struggle with one of the “big ten.”

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.

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