Wednesday, March 27, 2019

An Imperfect Lent

I struggle with perfectionism. My childhood environment likely contributed to this tendency. Because I used to teach time management and spoke of the dangers of perfectionism, I hadn’t recognized it in myself until I was first introduced to the Enneagram. When I read about Enneagram type One, I realized I could not deny this part of who I am.

A social media post circulating just prior to Lent motivated me to practice a Lenten discipline of letting go of perfectionism. What I am realizing is just how subtle and insidious the demon of perfectionism acts in my life. I catch myself more often than I would have expected beating myself up for failing to do something I feel I ought to do.

Shoulds and oughts are the love language of the perfectionism demon! Grace is the antidote to combat the negative self-talk of should and oughts. Holding my successes and failures with equal grace is the discipline I am seeking to cultivate. The patience I extend to others who fail I also need to extend to myself.

I don’t expect to arrive at Easter Sunday perfectionism-free. The tendency is deep within me. However, as Enneagram literature tells me, the gift of being a One is the desire to improve the world. Improving the world means improving myself, and improving myself means allowing myself to fail with grace and without shame.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019


I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
                                                --Rainer Maria Rilke

We do live our lives in circles. The temptation is to think that our lives are linear, but like a drop that falls into a pond and radiates outward, our lives radiate outward around us. We have a circle of influence, be it large or small.

Whether our circle is widening largely depends on the openness of our heart. I know people whose generosity and openness draws people to them. Such people are a joy to be around. They radiate love to others and though they may not even be aware of it, their circle is wide because their hearts are wide. They believe in goodness and see it present around them. As they age, their lives and hearts grow more expansive. Their humility and wisdom keeps fearfulness far from them. They have nothing to prove, protect or defend, so they can love freely, without worrying about what is “right” or “wrong.”

I also know people who live life close to the vest, not exposing themselves to risk, not revealing their vulnerabilities, not trusting the goodness of others. These people do not live in widening circles. On the contrary, their circle is small and grows smaller over time. They do not readily invite people in because they are unwilling to relinquish control and are unwilling to admit or expose their vulnerabilities. They are worried about what others think of them and concerned with presenting a particular image to the world. They may know a lot, but they do not grow wise because ego, not humility, is the driving force in their lives.

The irony is that those who seek to be people of influence are not as influential as those whose energy is focused on loving others. What we attempt to gain by force seldom works out the way we want it to. Grace and love cannot be forced. Yet when they flow freely through a person, there is no stronger attractant.

Our world needs people of humility, grace and openness. These traits are cultivated over a lifetime as we relinquish the need for control and give ourselves to love. Silence and solitude are the soil in which grace and openness grow. A daily practice of centering prayer can open one’s heart more fully over time.

Will you begin to practice a regular, daily time of silence? More than anything else, it may be what saves our world.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Making New Traditions at Christmas

Christmas is a season during which we often place great weight on tradition. We reenact, year after year, things we’ve done previously, elements of past Christmases that hold memory and meaning for us. Though we may balk at tradition at other times, we hold on to Christmas traditions with great zealousness.

Yet there are times when those traditions are no longer available to us. Children grow up, family members die, divorce happens, people move, etc. When these things happen, we grieve the loss of traditions. We may bemoan that things are not what they have been. We lose the patterns of holidays that are as comfortable and familiar as well-worn shoes.

We can become angry, blame those whose changes have wrought changes to our traditions, or simply let ourselves become depressed and despairing. When tempted to embrace an unhealthy emotion, maybe it is good to consider the first Christmas and the chaos it caused to all who were a part of it. An unmarried young woman, pregnant, a betrothed who sticks with her at the risk to his own reputation, a birth away from home and the difficult journey preceding it—there really was nothing very peaceful and calm about that first Christmas!

This year I am thinking of ways to create new traditions around this season.  The inspiration for this came from my Christmas tree. The Christmas I was separated from my spouse, I almost didn’t get a tree. Not knowing whether the separation would be temporary or permanent, the practical side of me thought not to, but I realized that having a tree could provide an emotional lift in a chaotic and stressful holiday season. To appease my practicality, I purchased a $15 prelit tabletop tree and a $1 package of small star ornaments for it. I tied a small gold ribbon at the top and placed my presents for family and friends around it.

This is my third Christmas with my little tree. While in Portland Oregon with friends, I found small wooden bird ornaments that fit both my tree and my personality (I love birds). Another friend brought me some small shiny balls to add to my tree. Decorating it this year was something I looked forward to, because it represented people and memories that I cherish.

My tree is inspiring me to consider how I might make more new traditions for the Christmas season. I want to embrace that things may be as chaotic as they were the first Christmas, and yet also imagine ways to create traditions that will be touchstones in the sometimes messy circumstances that are indicative of “real life.”

Whether your holiday season is chaotic or calm, I pray you can be patient, loving and centered in God’s peace, not just at this time of year but always. Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 5, 2018


Mary said,
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
     In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
 He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
    Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
         because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
     He shows mercy to everyone,
        from one generation to the next,
        who honors him as God.
 He has shown strength with his arm.
    He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
     He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly.
 He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty-handed.
 He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
        remembering his mercy,
     just as he promised to our ancestors,
        to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”
                                                                Luke 1:46-55

Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat, does more than hint at the upheaval that her son’s coming brings. Her prophetic word is clear. The coming of God in human form will reverse the usual order of things. The hungry will be fed. The lowly will be lifted. The powerful are stripped of their influence. The rich are sent away empty.

If you only read this text once a year during Advent, you might simply enjoy its poetic quality and miss the power of the words themselves. Mary’s song is regularly recited as part of Vespers, the evening prayer service of the daily office. This daily reading of this text allows the words to sink into us, and, in our affluent culture, may cause us to wonder if we truly welcome this change of affairs.

Mary has much to teach us beyond her prophecy. Mary shows us that our power and influence are less important than our availability. Loretta Ross-Gotta says: God asks us to give away everything of ourselves. The gift of greatest efficacy and power that we can offer God and creation is not our skills, gifts, abilities, and possessions. The wise men had their gold, frankincense, and myrrh, Paul and Peter had their preaching. Mary offered only space, love, belief. What is it that delivers Christ into the world—preaching, art, writing, scholarship, social justice? Those are all gifts well worth sharing. But preachers lose their charisma, scholarship grows pedantic, social justice alone cannot save us. In the end, when all other human gifts have met their inevitable limitation, it is . . . the bold virgin with a heart in love with God who makes a sanctuary of her life, who delivers Christ who then delivers us.

Mary’s prophecy is an invitation to us who are rich and powerful in comparison to the rest of the world. Mary encourages us to no longer rely on our influence or wealth, but to empty ourselves, give ourselves away, die to ourselves, and instead offer space and love to Christ who becomes our food, our wealth, our strength.

We cannot deliver ourselves. Our possessions, our influence, even the good works we do—none of these can deliver us. When we truly believe that God, who made us and loves us, will deliver us, we can sing with Mary, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.”

Wednesday, November 14, 2018


Holiness does not lie on the other side of temptation; it is to be found in the midst of temptation. It does not sit waiting for us on a level above our weakness; it is given us in weakness, or else we would elude the power of God that is operative only in our weakness. . . It is only in our weakness that we are vulnerable to his love and power. Accordingly, to continue in the situation of temptation and weakness is the only way for us to connect with grace, the only way we can become miracles of God’s mercy. 
                          –Andre Louf

In my observation, it seems there are two categories of people in church. There are those who believe themselves to be holy because they feel themselves to be morally flawless, and there are those who believe they will never be holy because they struggle with temptation.

Those who equate morality with holiness are generally hard folks to be around. They see Christianity as a list of rules to be followed. If you follow the rules, you are good; if you come up short, then you are unacceptable. When one lives this way, they find it hard to have compassion for others who don’t measure up to the standards they deem important. And it’s not at all Christlike, for Jesus didn’t limit access to himself based on who followed rules. On the contrary, he spent more time with those whom we might judge to be morally deficient.

Morality, however, is not the measure of one’s holiness. Holiness is not about being correct, saying the right words, doing the right things, or following the right rules. Holiness is about knowing who we are—that we are subject to temptation and that God is with us in the struggle, whether or not we succumb to temptation. God’s grace comes to us when we are able to accept that we are weak and in need of God’s grace. If we are so certain of our moral purity, then we really don’t acknowledge a need for God’s grace.

Julian of Norwich is one of my favorite Christian mystics. She offers us a gracious image of God, as both strong Father and nurturing Mother. She even says that when we fall (succumb to temptation) it gives God occasion to care for us, to show us mercy and forgiveness. It’s not that we try to fall, for we don’t really have to try. It’s going to happen because falling is simply part of our nature (and those who don’t think they are falling are fooling only themselves).

When we can receive the gracious love and forgiveness of God for our own falling, we actually are more closely connected to God than when we feel ourselves morally correct. And those who know themselves as ones who fall receive the strength and compassion of God for themselves, and are likewise able to share God’s compassion with others who fall. A church full of compassionate souls who fall is a beautiful expression of the body of Christ.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Hostility vs Joy

While Jesus predicts that people will die of fear “as they await what menaces the world” (Luke 21:26), he says to his followers: “Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen, and to stand with confidence before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:36). After I gazed for a long time at [Andrei] Rublev’s Trinity [icon] these words spoke to me with new power, “Praying at all times” has come to mean “dwelling in the house of God all the days of our lives.” “Surviving all that is going to happen” now tells me that I no longer need to be victim of the fear, hatred, and violence that rule the world. “Standing with confidence before the Son of Man” no longer just refers to the end of time, but opens for me the possibility of living confidently, that is, with trust (the literal meaning of con-fide) in the midst of hostility and violence.     –Henri Nouwen

There is so much hostility and violence on display in the world. War, violent crime, oppression against groups of people—these may be the first things that come to mind when we think of hostility and violence. Social media though, increasingly reveals to me that hostility and violence are not just “out there” in other countries, in certain neighborhoods, and perpetrated by dictators, gang members or others that might fit our definition of “likely suspects.”

The perpetrators of violence I am most familiar with are people of comfortable means, church goers, business leaders—the folks we work with, worship with, play tennis with, travel with. Hostility, violence and hatred show up in what is posted or shared on Facebook and Twitter. What such postings reveal to me is that many who would claim to be Christian are not interested in living with confidence in the midst of hostility but would rather participate in promoting hatred, hostility and violence.

I’ve been thinking about St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day is October 4. He saw God’s light in creation. He found joy in what others bemoaned as paltry. He reached out in love to those who practiced a different religion than his. He let go of the values and culture of his family and joyfully embraced a life outside the mainstream, eschewing status and wealth and instead embracing poverty and simplicity.

He could do this because he had nothing to protect or defend. He was dwelling in the house of God while living in a world of hostility and violence. He trusted God to be God for him. He lived the gospel of Jesus, and his rootedness in God’s love meant he poured love out wherever he went.

In the midst of a society that is more interested in bringing a kingdom of hostility and violence than in bringing the kingdom of God I want to emulate his joy, his vision, his way of dwelling in the house of God. We need the spirit and theology of St. Francis.

Thursday, September 20, 2018


You were seen with the eyes of perfect love long before you entered into the dark valley of life. The spiritual life begins at the moment that you can go beyond all the wounds and claim there was a love that was perfect and unlimited long before that perfect love became reflected in the imperfect and limited, conditional love of people.                                             –Henri Nouwen

We often have one of two reactions to wounds, both physical and emotional:  we either try to hide them or we become defined by them. To have a healthy relationship to our wounds enables us to be transformed by them. Our wounds are part of us, but we are more than our wounds.

Our wounds can make us stronger. Years ago, my younger son had surgery to correct a recurring spontaneous pneumothorax. The surgeon made scar tissue on the exterior of the lung so it would basically act like glue to hold the lung in place so it would no longer collapse. The wound of scar tissue corrected his issue.

Our wounds do not make us less than. As Henri Nouwen says, we are loved perfectly by God without any reserve, without any consideration of what we’ve done or what we fail to do, or what anyone has done to us. Just as Jesus rose with and was loved with his wounds, so are we.

Jesus did not try to hide his wounds. In fact, he used his wounds to identify himself to his disciples after his resurrection. They connect him to us; they are a sign that being human means suffering, and that in what is apparent weakness, God overcomes and brings new life.

We cannot see the beauty that comes from our wounds when we are in the midst of pain and hurt. Yet when we can live our wounds through, rather than ignoring them or becoming defined by them, God is able to bring beauty from even the darkest places of pain. And often that beauty is beyond anything we could have ever hoped or imagined.