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The Gospel of Christy

2 Jan

“And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.”

These words are found in today’s Gospel for the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, and it is these words that connect me to the Blessed Virgin. Like Mary, I’ve spent the last year doing quite a bit of reflecting in my heart, though not so much in my writing for public consumption.

New Year’s is the anniversary of when I started this blog. Perhaps one day I will share the real motivations that lead to my first blog post, but for now, it is something I keep and reflect on in my heart, a distant memory.

Sharing my reflections became more difficult this year. Like many writers, I’ve gone through a phase where I’m questioning the value of my words. Most of the time my inner critic silences me by calling my work pretentious, self-indulgent, and self-centered. Why would anyone care what’s going on in my inner world?

Yet, when I consider the Gospels and their lack of detail about the early life of Jesus and his family, I wish I knew more about Mary’s inner world. I wish I knew what she felt when they had to move hastily to Egypt, and how she felt when they learned of what Herod did to all the baby boys back in Bethlehem. I wish there were a record clearing up once and for all whether she really did remain a virgin, as Catholics believe, or if she and Joseph went on to have a “normal” family after they returned to Nazareth, as most protestants believe. I wish I knew more about how she managed her household, and what being “full of grace” looks like when you have a child and a husband and are barely making ends meet. A “Gospel of Mary” would have been nice.

Instead, I’m prompted to write another installment in the “Gospel of Christy.”

And it came to pass, in the year of Our Lord 2016, that our heroine took on two new challenges in that first month. She fasted from sugar, caffeine, gluten, dairy, red meat, alcohol, and processed foods, and consumed a sour concoction before every meal, to cleanse her body. She did this for two weeks faithfully, and at the end of her fast, the Lord sent a massive snowstorm upon the whole city, a sign unto her that it was now okay to indulge in hot chocolate with her children. And she rejoiced in her heart, because she had successfully completed her two week fast with God’s help, and had lost the bloated feeling in her gut. She learned that loving herself in this way felt very good.

At that same time, an angel of the Lord named Sarah came to her on a social media platform and invited her to join a 6-week writing workshop on Tuesday mornings. And as she was blessed with a flexible work schedule, our heroine did join the workshop and rediscovered the joy of writing, not for a blog, but for herself.

The angel shared a powerful writing tool that she herself had learned from a powerful messenger of God: the “life in ten minutes method.” She was instructed by these angelic witnesses to set a timer for ten minutes and write using the prompt, “Right now I am…” and then read it out loud after the timer went off. And in this way, Christy learned how to keep a journal and continued the habit long after the workshop ended.

At the same time, Christy experienced a form of writer’s block, finding it difficult to complete essays or share her thoughts publicly, even as her private writing became more honest and intimate. But she did not beat herself up; she fully accepted that now was a time for inner work, and that God would give her the power to write for public consumption when the time was right.

As the spring approached she planned a trip with her beloved to visit his homeland. They made the journey together by air and by cramped economy car in southern Louisiana, taking in all manner of unfamiliar foods, such as crawfish and catfish and roasted oysters, and even a bit of alligator. His family was welcoming and gregarious, and as they left that place to return to their own homes, she longed to return one day. She was grateful for her first vacation in more than a decade.

And as spring proceeded, Christy protracted a seasonal illness that rendered her singing voice nearly mute. As she’d been singing at the Sunday evening service for several months, this came as quite a hardship for her. It was humbling having to sing knowing her voice was capable of much more. Months passed and still she could barely hear herself. But as suddenly as the illness came on, it lifted and she was able to breathe and sing once again. The joy of leading the congregation in song was something she would always cherish, even as she recalled the years of insecurity and believing she was not good enough.

And it came to pass that her firstborn son became a teenager, and she rejoiced in her heart that he still found joy in playing with Legos and nerf guns, even as she stepped on plastic blocks in her bare feet and found foam darts in her purse.

On the very anniversary of his birth, a new family member was added; for her son’s father had remarried and begat a male child, whom they named Finn, round of head and strong of lung. And Christy marveled at this baby and his mother, who endured great trials, and was filled with peace and gratitude that she herself was beyond the stage of night waking and cracked nipples and wiping behinds.

In the heat of the summer she took her children to the beach and to a water park, enjoying their first, though modest, family vacation. She traveled with her beloved to the hill country, taking in the cool mountain air and hospitality of his brother and other family members at the Homested  Resort.

As the summer waned, Christy felt overwhelmed by all the activity of her family, as though she were losing herself in the commitments to children and work. But with the help of her journaling she made some changes, setting aside two days of her work week for yoga, meditation, and getting caught up on household responsibilities.

As her children returned to school, she joined with three strangers to take a challenging journey by foot on the Appalachian Trail in Maryland. For three days they hiked 42 miles in the crisp, autumn air, ending in Harper’s Ferry. On that day, Christy committed herself to her childhood dream of completing the entire trail, even if she could only do it one section at a time.

As the year came to a close, Christy was inspired to publish her first book – a weekly planner about how she managed her busy life. She worked on it night and day at a feverish pace, and by Christmas she had completed the first draft, and held the copy in her hands, proud of the accomplishment. As she gazed at the cover, she wondered what new opportunities this book would open for her. She looked to the future with hope, even as she felt the ache that accompanies watching one’s children grow out of their childhood clothes and toys.

And after the ball dropped on New Year’s Eve, ushering in 2017, she tucked in each child, kissed them goodnight, and gave thanks to God for the blessings of another year, and offered herself to Him for another year of service and learning how to love and let go.

This is the gospel of the single momma. Give God the glory.

A Christmas Reflection

31 Dec

I wrote this Christmas Day.

It is quiet in my house this Christmas afternoon. The kids just left with their dad for celebrations at his house, and a blessed stillness settles over my home, a very welcome change of pace after a week of to-do lists that were far too long. My to-do list today is simple: take a shower; drive to my parents’ for turkey dinner and grown up gifts; spend the evening in my fella’s company.

In front of me is the nativity crèche. I set it up just a few days ago, the last of my holiday decorating. As I contemplate the baby Jesus in the manger, it strikes me that the quiet in my home is not one of emptiness but of fullness. It strikes me that the brokenness of my family has given my children an even bigger family with more love (and presents!) than they had six years ago. It strikes me that in my single state, I am less alone than ever. The God in the manger is a God of great paradox, and He has blessed me with the grace to see and appreciate this mystery in my own life.

I went to Mass twice last night – once with the kids and later at Midnight to sing with a small candlelight gathering of night owls. I heard the scriptures proclaimed twice. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and it shines from a small crèche in my family room. He came to fill every emptiness in my holey heart. He came to be the glue holding every crack together. In fulfilling ancient prophecies, He offers me fulfillment as well.

Yesterday afternoon I was in darkness. I had a panic attack in the morning. I get them on occasion; they seem to be triggered primarily by hormones in combination with stress or feelings of insecurity. Yesterday’s was brought on by a to-do list and the dark side of my perfectionism at choir practice. I went to my walk-in closet and cried out to the Savior whose birthday I was celebrating, “I can’t do this alone!” And he reminded me that his name is Emmanuel, God With Us. I felt his presence for the rest of the day as my anxiety slowly subsided. Jesus is real and I know because I felt his love.

In the second reading last night, Paul said, “The grace of God has appeared, saving ALL and TRAINING US to reject godless ways and worldly desires.” That word training really jumped out at me. This whole business of being a Christian is not just a one time decision followed by a lifetime of perfect love and peace. It requires practice and training. As an amateur musician, I am astounded by my church’s music ministry leaders, especially at the Christmas services. Our main cantor is a well oiled machine, not only because she has natural talent, but because she trains and practices. I know from personal experience it is much easier to face the inevitable nervousness of singing behind the mic at church when I’ve practiced a lot. The familiarity of discipline takes over and carries me in spite of my feelings. That happened for me last night.

That same process is how being a believer works. God could have atoned for our sins the moment he was born. He could have perished when Herod had all the male babies killed; his death was all that was required to settle the score. But God willed that His son live long enough to teach us a few things, to “train” us to be eager to do what is good. Atonement was only one part of Christ’s mission. He came to show us the actions we would need to take so that we could have life and have it in abundance, not just in eternity, but in the present moment.

That is the Christmas gift that keeps on giving. Like most training, it is not always fun. It pushes me outside my comfort zone. Sometimes it pushes me beyond my abilities. My voice cracks on the high notes. I need to remember that if we could do something perfect the first time without training, we wouldn’t need practice, whether it’s singing or loving.

Christ would rather I love poorly than not at all.

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.

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