Monday, December 22, 2014

My Advent Companion

I have journeyed through Advent this year with an unusual companion—a small brown spider that has taken up residence in our Advent wreath. I expect he came in on the cedar boughs my husband cut for me to arrange in a circle. He seems quite content with his new home, and each morning as I light the candles and read my Advent devotion, he goes to work on his web. I take a few minutes after my reading to reflect on the message and to watch him work.

Candles for hope, peace, joy and love have all been lit, but even before that, he made his home on the Christ candle. A couple of days ago when I revealed to my husband that I had been companioned by this small friend, it dawned on me the significance of his residence on the candle we will light on Christmas Eve, the candle that reminds us that the light of the world has come again. For what better place to live than in the presence of Christ?

Our analytical, reasonable selves might pooh-pooh the notion that a spider knows the difference between candles in an Advent wreath. One might explain his choice of dwelling place by noting that it’s the safest candle because it has not yet been lit. But because Truth is not always explainable by analysis, I choose to believe the wisdom of this spider.

The Celtic Christians knew that the creation is a revelatory text. Meister Eckhart observed “Every creature is a word of God. If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature—even a caterpillar—I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature.” St. Francis spoke of Brother Sun and Sister Moon. He knew a kinship with all creation.

The Psalmist speaks of sparrows who find a home in God’s house (Psalm 84:3). So is it really too far-fetched for me to share my Advent meditation with Brother Spider, to be preached to by his example of abiding close to the Light of the World?

My favorite Christmas carol is In the Bleak Midwinter by Christina Rossetti. The final verse, which is my very favorite, wonders at what kind of gift to give to the Lord God. As I witness my little friend remaining close to the Christ candle, I am reminded that my heart—embodied in my devotion, attentiveness and presence—is the best gift I can give to the one who created me and my Advent companion.

And come Christmas Eve, before I light the Christ candle, I will be attentive to the presence of my Advent companion, to keep him safe as we both celebrate the coming of Christ!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Impulse Items

Earlier this week I was in a big-box retailer to purchase one particular item. I picked it up quickly and headed to the cash register. Because of the season, I had to wait in a line to complete my transaction, which gave me an opportunity to observe the folks waiting in line with me.

I notice how many were studying the impulse items that were strategically placed by the cash register, and how many ended up adding one or more of these to their purchases. I wondered how many of these would end up as part of someone else’s Christmas gifts, these last minute, unthought through purchases.

Our culture is a culture of impulsiveness, not only in this season where we may feel the need to purchase more and more items to demonstrate our commitment to another. But in this season, we are often more susceptible to impulsive action. It seems to me that many of us wear a heavy coat of guilt, or at least of obligation in this season that is full of activity—eating, drinking, partying, purchasing, etc. I wonder if we see before us a whole host of impulse items, be they party invitations or actual things to purchase, and find it hard to resist adding them to our already full plates.

As we add impulse items to our life’s “cart,” we find it harder and harder to push through each day. Think about when you’ve had an actual shopping cart with a bad wheel—the fuller you fill it, the more you notice the cart’s defect. And just as a store doesn’t let you roll the cart to your car for free, filling our life’s cart with impulse items costs us dearly. It adds stress to our lives and our finances as we feel compelled to snatch up every event, every item that creates an expectation for us to respond by giving ourselves to it.

When we live impulsively, filling our lives with the expectations that others have of us, there becomes less and less room for God, less quiet in order to hear God’s still, small voice sing over us. When we are no longer anchored in Christ, we are subject to the constantly changing expectations of our culture.

We cannot draw life from impulse items. They actually disconnect us from the source of life. They disconnect us from the Vine that is Christ. And just as a live Christmas tree holds up pretty well for much of the season, we look okay for a while. But a life lived according to the expectations of others will eventually leave us dry and dead inside. That evergreen in your living room, when cut off from its roots, is no longer alive, even if it remains green for several weeks.

Who you are, who I am, is enough. While others may not understand why we no longer respond to every expectation made of us, for us to remain alive and connected to the Vine, we have to acknowledge that we cannot be more than who God created us to be and that is sufficient because God has filled each of us with our own unique ability. The greatest gift we can give to God, and thus to the world, is to live the life God created us perfectly to live. We cannot live another’s life.

As Christ is born in us anew this season, may we draw from the life Christ has given us. May we give birth to our True Self this season, the self that is intimately connected to God.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Advent Meditations

I've been writing Advent meditations for our church worship bulletin. The one for the First Sunday of Advent is found here on page 6.

The one for the Second Sunday of Advent is found here also on page 6.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Dangers of Having

“You are enslaved by the verb “to have”. . . The very mainspring of your activity is a demand, either for a continued possession of that which you have, or for something which as yet you have not: wealth, honour, success, social position, love, friendship, comfort, amusement. You feel you have a right to some of these things: to a certain recognition of your powers, a certain immunity from failure or humiliation. You resent anything which opposes you in these matters.”
                                                --Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism

In this season where gift-giving and receiving is the subject of almost every advertisement and many conversations, it may seem antithetical to consider that “having” is something to beware. If you have children, you may at least be aware that it is dangerous to fulfill their every desire to have, but there are more subtle aspects of having, which Underhill mentions, that may escape our notice.

We are a discontented culture. That discontentment not only manifests in our consumerism but also in our voracious appetite both for experiences and self-improvement.

Back when I had an accounting practice, I remember reading a book that advocated for creating customer experiences, because it wasn’t enough simply to satisfy customer expectations. Business owners needed to craft a unique experience, something to thrill and excite those who came into contact with your company. We see how this is manifested in the growth of extreme sports, in worship that places an emphasis on entertainment, and in restaurants that create thematic atmospheres of jungles, medieval banquets or island beaches, to name a few.

Underhill says we feel we have a right to comfort, amusement, honor and love. We don’t enjoy failure or humiliation, but do we have a right to be exempt from these?

What if we were to see failure and humiliation as gift? If we could welcome the disappointment of not having, and see it as good? What if our appetite for having was replaced with reliance on God and the recognition that Christ alone is enough for us?

If we can begin to see everything as gift, then our compulsion to have diminishes. We can celebrate all of life, even the hurts and failures, recognizing that in all things, God is present with us, sustaining us, holding us, bearing the pain with us. We are never alone. That’s the best comfort, the best experience of all!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Feeding the Right Wolf

In preparing to lead a discussion about prayer practices, I came across a tale that illustrates the battle within us for how we choose to live life. It speaks of two wolves that live in our minds—one wolf is negative, wearing anger, envy, jealousy, greed, arrogance, resentment, pride, inferiority, superiority and ego. The other wolf is positive, wearing joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The two wolves battle within us, and the one that wins is the one we feed.

Which wolf do you feed? It’s worth looking at the traits listed above and evaluating your general disposition. It may not be a comfortable exercise. Most of us would rather look for the wrong in others rather than seek it in ourselves. When one ventures into self-assessment, it’s not always a pleasant journey! Teresa of Avila, in her book, The Interior Castle, which describes the journey toward union with God, describes the ugliness and unpleasantness we discover in ourselves as we first set out on this journey.

Advent is a season where we are called upon to change, to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ. Are we willing to change? Or when confronted with the invitation to change, the recognition that there are less than desirable traits within, do we shrug our shoulders and say “That’s just the way I am”?

Feeding the positive wolf, if it is to me more than a veneer, must begin by recognizing how easily the negative wolf masquerades as savvy, shrewd and clever. When pride, jealousy and greed are painted as self-promotion, self-protection and self-sufficiency, we may fail to see the way we are feeding the negative wolf.

Philippians 4:8 is a scriptural description of feeding the positive wolf: From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely and all that is worthy of praise.

Why does any of this matter? Because the wolf doesn’t simply stay in our minds, as thoughts. Thoughts become words and words become actions and actions become our character. The wolf in us, positive or negative, comes out of us. It does not stay hidden away, and if it is a negative wolf, what we are feeding is likewise devouring us!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Gratitude and Miracles

A recent discussion of Luke 17:11-19, where Jesus heals ten lepers and one returns to thank him, has caused me to consider the connection between gratitude, attentiveness and miracles. In this healing story, the lepers are told to go and show themselves to the priest and as they are on their way, they are healed. I wonder if the healing was gradual, happening as they traveled to be declared clean by the priest.

How often do we notice gradual healing as a miracle, a gift from God? When healing happens over a period of time, do we end up acting like the nine lepers who didn’t return? Do we chalk up our healing to good medicine, good fortune or our own self-care?

Attentiveness gives us the ability to see just how miraculous is life itself, as is the world in which we live. God’s activity in all of it is right out in front for us to see, touch and taste. Each breath is a miracle. Each flower is miraculous. It’s a miracle that the rain that falls is the same rain that fell on Noah, and that flows through aquifers, to be drawn up from water wells by my friends in Guatemala and El Salvador. What we may see as mundane is actually miraculous, and this way of seeing cannot help but make us grateful.

Gratitude is the key that opens us up to love God and others, that unclenches our fists to share what we have with others, to die to self, to give ourselves away. If we are ungrateful, we live with a mentality of scarcity. Gratitude grows when we recognize the abundance of every moment. Gratitude takes our action, our service for God and others, and infuses it with love. Action without gratitude does not honor God.

Every moment of life is shot through with miracles. If you have a hard time seeing them, start by paying attention to your heartbeat, which happens without any effort on your part. Learn to appreciate these small but important miracles that flood our lives with love and light!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Awareness of Reality

Yet the sea as the fish feels it, the borage as the bee sees it, the intricate sounds of the hedgerow as heard by the rabbit, the impact of light on the eager face of the primrose, the landscape as known in its vastness to the wood-louse and ant—all these experiences, denied to him forever, have just as much claim to the attribute of Being as his own partial and subjective interpretations of things.
         Evelyn Underhill—Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People

Evelyn Underhill says that what we know is mostly our impressions of things. Our view of reality is just that: our view. We see the world through the lens of our own experience, and unless we are willing to get outside of ourselves, we mistake our experience for the only reality there is.

In lovely language, Underhill points out that the fish, the bee, the rabbit, the flower and even the bug have their own life experiences, no less real than our own. Have you ever paused to consider what the world looks like through the eyes of a caterpillar, or a wren, or a tree? I wonder if we might be more careful about the environment if we could imagine the perspective of a creature other than ourselves.

Our vision must also be stretched if we are to understand the reality of other people. Hospitable listening helps with this. This kind of listening is not trying to persuade, advance one’s own agenda, or make judgments of the other; instead, this is a deep listening, listening with the ear of the heart, both to what is said and what remains unsaid.

When my point of view has been changed, it’s not typically because someone has tried to persuade me. Usually I change my thinking because I’ve experienced another’s reality, through being with another in their experience or through deep listening to their experience. When I experience another’s reality, my own reality is broadened, and the role my experience plays in my life no longer is the all-consuming force it once was. In simple language, as my reality grows to encompass another’s reality, life is no longer simply all about my wants, wishes and preferences. It’s a freer and more generous way to live because I don’t have to argue for what benefits me at the expense of another.

Such an expanded field of vision helps me to realize just how much I don’t know. It’s a much bigger world, a much bigger life, created by a God beyond comprehension!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Moving Toward Simple

The education of the mystical sense begins in self-simplification. The feeling, willing, seeing self is to move from the various and the analytic to the simple and synthetic: a sentence which may cause hard breathing and mopping of the brows on the part of the practical [person]. – Evelyn Underhill

I would have liked to know Evelyn Underhill. Reading her book, Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People, reveals a wry sense of humor as she communicates deep wisdom. The quote above is a good example.

We are a culture averse to self-simplification. Underhill wrote in the time prior to World War I, and recognized in that era that Western culture was not interested in self-simplification. A century later, that is still true. We analyze everything to the nth degree. The President makes a 20 minute address to the nation and the analysts spend hours dissecting it.

We complicate our lives by both our activities and our possessions. Recently, I accompanied my husband to a business dinner where people around the table were comparing notes on the number of e-mail messages each received in a day’s time. At another gathering, I heard a tablemate describing a kitchen appliance that sounded like some sort of specialized blender. She had not been able to use it because the instructions were so complicated. Whenever I hear advertisements for satellite TV or radio services, I wonder why we really need 200+ options for listening to or viewing media.

What a radical notion—to choose simple in a culture of complex, to observe the synthesis, the interrelatedness of life instead of segregating ideas, music and appliances into singular categories or uses. Imagine how it might be to savor a song, reflecting on its lyrics, enjoying the harmonies or the interplay of instruments, rather than switching from station to station. What if you had a favorite skillet that you used regularly to create many dishes rather than having multiple, single-use appliances that clutter your kitchen and are used infrequently?

To choose simple as a way to connect more fully to God may mean less activity and more solitude, less reading and more silence, fewer words when praying and more listening. This is not a call for undisciplined haphazardness—reading the Bible when I remember to do so or serving others only when it doesn’t conflict with something I’d rather do—but instead is about a disciplined attentiveness to deepening relationship with God through regular silence and solitude and by engaging in activity for the sake of God’s kingdom that may not garner any attention or accolades from others.

Underhill’s observation that self-simplification is the way to open ourselves to greater connection to God certainly would lessen the inventory of many bookstores, reduce the number of Christian conferences and render inconsequential many of the seemingly burning issues that divide Christians, which is why it will not likely be a widespread movement. But I believe she is onto something in her call for self-simplification, however dull and unstimulating it may appear against our ego-oriented culture of more, bigger and busier. Jesus, after all, compares the Kingdom of God to yeast that works its way unseen through a batch of dough, and says we will find his presence in simple everyday sustenance of bread and wine. Radically simple. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Way to Heaven

Eternity is with us, inviting our contemplation perpetually, but we are too frightened, lazy, and suspicious to respond: too arrogant to still our thought, and let divine sensation have its way.  –Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People

Those who see heaven as the prize awaiting us for living right (whatever that means) miss the wonderful freedom of living in heaven right now. Evelyn Underhill reminds us that what keeps us from experiencing eternity now are our own self-limiting attitudes of fear, laziness, suspicion and arrogance.

Fear may manifest itself in our unwillingness to relinquish our agendas, possessions and our security to “let divine sensation have its way.” We come to Christ, not laying ourselves at his feet, but with a list of prayer requests, if not for us, for others. Intercessory prayer is good, but what makes it good is not the result it garners but the way it softens our hearts to be compassionate toward others. When we question whether we are “praying right” that may be a sign that our prayer is about manipulating God rather than communion with God.

Our attempts to control people, situations or even God keep us in a state of anxiety. We even want to control what others think of us, so we create a life pattern of trying to meet the expectations of others. This way of living means that we are without any rootedness, for expectations are a constantly moving target. There is no freedom in such a way of living. Whether motivated by fear or arrogance, it’s impossible to still our thought when we think we have to keep up appearances, control outcomes or meet unattainable standards.

Some will say, “How can I trust that what I call divine sensation is not just me seeking to dress my thoughts and actions in divine garb?” This takes discipline—the discipline of study, silence, and daily examen (the practice of reviewing one’s day to assess how and when one was aware or unaware of God’s presence and guidance and whether or not one’s words and actions were Christlike). These may not seem terribly productive to us, and certainly we will not see instant results. That is why it takes discipline. The weeds of the world’s distractions will return again and again. We have to keep pulling them up if we choose the discipline of loving God.

Ad hoc study and silence, practiced only when one thinks about it, is not discipline and will not result in an ability to trust divine sensation. We have to enter into discipline because we love God, not because we want to see results. When we love God, the discipline itself brings us joy because it is our gift to the one who loves us. We love God for who God is, not for what God can do for us.

Discipline is what leads us to freedom, not because we fulfill items on a checklist but because we give up our desire to control outcomes. And when we are free, heaven—eternity—is here and now!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Union and Wisdom

We know a thing only by uniting with it; by assimilating it; by an interpenetration of it and ourselves. It gives itself to us, just in so far as we give ourselves to it; and it is because our outflow towards things is usually so perfunctory and so languid, that our comprehension of things is so perfunctory and languid too.    –Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People

This wordy quote actually makes a lot of sense. Underhill defines mysticism as the art of union with Reality. Before you dismiss this as some vague and esoteric practice akin to “navel-gazing” she goes on to assert that union is a natural part of life, because union is what happens when we devote ourselves to something or someone. When we surrender ourselves to a thing or a person, we unite with it.

Union is much more than being an observer, as playing tennis is much different than watching a tennis match. I am not likely to be changed by being an observer, but to participate in an activity is to open myself to becoming different. Participation is surrender, whether or not we consciously recognize it as such.

I wonder if the ease with which we dismiss tragedy around the world through our own “perfunctory and languid” comprehension is what keeps our knowledge limited to the level of “sound bites” and social media messages. Although Underhill lived well before our modern forms of information transmission, I believe her words apply to our time: Wisdom is the fruit of communion; ignorance the inevitable portion of those who “keep themselves to themselves,” and stand apart, judging, analyzing the things which they have never truly known.” How often are we exposed to “talking heads” who judge and analyze people and circumstances without truly knowing the objects of their analysis? How often do we do likewise?

Communion, uniting ourselves with one another, is necessary if one is to develop wisdom. We have to do more than be an observer, standing apart from people or situations. We have to get our “hands dirty” by giving ourselves to one another. For those of us who claim to follow Jesus, our observation and analysis are insufficient to make us followers. Like Jesus, we have to give our lives to others if we want to be united to Christ. This can be as simple as being fully present to another, fully involved in their joy or sorrow. A simple act, but one that requires us to lay aside our schedules, our to-do lists and our desire to “fix” another and simply be present, listening and loving the person in front of us. It’s what Jesus did every day.

May I spend less time analyzing and more time pouring myself out in communion with others, that I may be united with Christ.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Pride and Poverty of Spirit

When our children were young and played outside, we waged an ongoing battle with fire ants. If we put the crystals out that were supposed to kill them, they moved their mound to a different part of the yard. Those elusive anthills seem an apt metaphor for the way pride operates within me. When I think I’ve tackled pride in one area of my life, it pops up in a different area.

I wonder if that is why Jesus’ first words in the Sermon on the Mount are these: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 5:3) Poverty of spirit is not something joyfully embraced in our culture of self-sufficiency and busyness. One of the first questions we often ask each other is “Are you staying busy?” To answer that question with a no is to be viewed as ineffective or even useless. My own reluctance to respond with a no, even when I am not “staying busy” reveals my inability to quash pride.

To be poor in spirit is to rely on God for everything, even for validation of my worth as a person. I may say that I rely on God, that I trust God with my life, but just ask me if I am staying busy and suddenly I want to be validated, not by God, but by people. One of the spiritual practices of Saint Therese of Lisieux was to welcome unjust criticism. If I seek to be validated by others, my life will always be in a state of rootlessness as I attempt to meet the expectations of others. To be able to welcome unjust criticism, I have to be rooted in Christ and draw all my life from him. While I recognize this as true, I confess that I am not there yet. Those anthills continue to show up with the persistence of a whack-a-mole game!

Several years ago I read Finding Our Way Again, a book by Brian McLaren. The book is a good introduction to the ancient practices of faith, practices that root us more deeply in the heart and mind of Christ. The watershed moment of the book for me was an example McLaren gave of a way to fast from pride: by not defending oneself when criticized. To recognize that justification or defense of my behavior was a prideful response was a turning point for me, and the beginning of a continuing struggle to address this in my life.

 It takes incredible discipline for me to not try to make my motives understood clearly by others when I am criticized because I am misunderstood. I expect this will be a battle I wage for the rest of my life. But without poverty of spirit, I know I cannot hope to live into the rest of Jesus’ teachings. Until I can get Ann out of the way, there is no room for Christ to come and dwell within me.

This quote from Meister Eckhart encourages me toward poverty of spirit and away from prideful seeking of approval: I much prefer a person who loves God enough to take a handout of bread to him who gives the handout in the first place. Why? Because the giver buys his honor; but the beggar sells his.

I pray that I can grow content to be the beggar, the misunderstood and dishonored poor in spirit. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Language That Translates and Transcends

Language can be a barrier to relationship. I’m not only talking about the difficulty when I cannot speak Spanish to someone who knows no English. Sometimes language is a barrier even when two people are speaking English to each other.

Openness, welcome and love transcend barriers that language creates. Relationships where these are present thrive even when one person speaks only English and another only Spanish.

On our first day in Monte Cristo, the three of us who would be teaching hygiene lessons took a walk through the community—our translator Blanca, Martha and me. Two women from the village accompanied us. Hilda and Maria became our dear friends that week, accompanying us daily to the school each morning to help us with the hygiene teaching there. As we walked together down the road to introduce ourselves to the people in the community and invite them for afternoon hygiene lessons, we were simply five women walking and talking and laughing together. The love that bound us together was not inhibited by a language barrier.

Becoming vulnerable by sharing love with another is costly, because love causes us to bear the pain of another. When I hear people downplay or deny the oppression and injustice experienced by others I wonder if their denial or callousness is an effort to avoid bearing the pain of others. We felt the burden of pain in Monte Cristo on Wednesday when the first well failed. But we also celebrated with this community we loved on Friday when we had a working well. Love causes us to share pain as well as celebration.

When we invest ourselves in loving relationships, we begin to learn that we are not all that different from each other. Watching Maria and Hilda interact with the children and faculty at the school, I thought about the ways I’ve seen parents involved with their children’s schools here at home. Listening to women in Monte Cristo talk about ways to improve their community, I remembered times when my own neighborhood came together to address community issues.

Cultivating such relationships during the week we spent in Monte Cristo likewise expands my capacity to love people I will never meet—especially mothers in the many places of the world who suffer hardship, danger and frustration. We are not so different from each other, wherever we live and whatever we look like. We love and work, we dream and laugh, we cry and hope. Whether we admit it or not, we are all interrelated and interdependent.

Love transcends barriers, whatever those barriers may be. Love transforms us as we give ourselves to one another. Love is the best language we can speak.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Reflection on Philippians 4:1-9

Here's the reflection I wrote for the Mulberry newsletter to accompany our sermon series on Philippians.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Free To Be Joyful

What makes a sunrise or sunset memorable is the presence of clouds. Clouds capture the purples, pinks, oranges and gold of a sunrise or sunset. Because of clouds, we can be stopped in our tracks by the breathtaking beauty of dawn or dusk.

In life, however, we prefer an unclouded sky. The clouds of difficulty, disappointment and loss aren’t something we welcome with gratitude when they show up in our lives. And yet, those clouds are what make the good times especially sweet for us.

I believe that is what happened on Friday of our week in Guatemala. We were in the village an extra day, drilling a second well after the first well failed. While water poured out of the new well with vigor, praise poured out with equal vigor from Estella, the homeowner who had donated the land for the well and who had endured all of us using her latrine, filling her yard with mud, gravel and equipment, and the constant noise and activity of the drilling project. After experiencing the disappointment and possibly wondering what she had gotten herself into, Estella was a picture of pure, unbounded joy, soaked in fresh water from head to toe! Seeing her joy was the best moment of the trip for me.

The freedom to express praise and joy must make God happy. Children are quick to express their joy but I confess I haven’t always been as free in celebrating God’s generosity toward me. Something about the week in Guatemala seemed to flip a switch within me, for even before Estella’s joyful celebration on Friday, I found myself more willing to discard “appearances” to simply be fun and have fun. That freedom seemed to bubble up from my heart, leading me to think that maybe I was catching a glimpse of what it means to have the uninhibited faith and joy of a child.

Estella’s unbridled joy was the exclamation point on the nudges toward freedom I experienced during the week. By Friday, I wasn’t simply wading into the water of joy and freedom; I was soaked in it along with Estella!

Psalm 36:7-9 expresses a life freed for joy: Your faithful love is priceless, God! Humanity finds refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the bounty of your house; you let them drink from your river of pure joy.

Estella drank from the river of pure joy the Friday we finished the well. God’s faithful love should be sufficient cause for me to live a life of pure joy.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Reflection on Philippians 3:4-14

Here's the reflection I wrote for the Mulberry Methodist newsletter that accompanies our sermon series on Philippians.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Baptism Remembered

 I have remembered my baptism when gentle mist dampens me as I walk in the morning. Instead of church music, I hear the sounds of bugs singing in chorus. I’ve remembered by baptism at the Academy for Spiritual Formation by dipping my fingers in a bowl of water before entering the worship space. The “music” greeting me is the smell of fresh baked bread as I prepare to share the Lord's Supper within a community sharing life together. There are even days when I remember my baptism while taking a shower and a routine daily activity becomes an offering of praise to God.

In Guatemala I remembered my baptism by having a bowl of water from the new well poured on my head. The praise that greeted me was the laughter of children as they played in the fresh clean water. A muddy sugarcane field was transformed into a glorious sanctuary, rivaling the most magnificent cathedral! Worship didn’t look like it does at Mulberry on a typical Sunday morning, but as we laughed, splashed each other with water, and drank from the pipe that poured fresh water into the sugarcane, the muddy field became sacred space. We were standing on holy ground, our laughter an offering of praise to God, who was literally making blessings flow. I thought of a verse from Psalm 107: God can turn the desert into watery pools, thirsty ground into watery springs.”

Elizabeth Canham, author of Heart Whispers, notes that much of our education encourages us to move from contemplative wonder into the world of rational thought, which causes us to lose touch with the child within us “who wants to observe, play, and live fully into the marvelous world of God’s making.” When we are able to recognize the child within us, we can also recognize the “robust playfulness of God (who made Leviathan ‘for the sport of it’ (Psalm 104:27).”

On Friday, in that sugarcane field, God was at play, celebrating with the children of Monte Cristo and our mission team. In remembering my baptism that day, I was able to remember and celebrate the child within me, unburdened by rational thought, propriety or any need to “act my age.” I don’t really care if heaven contains streets of gold and mansions. I hope heaven is a lot more like a muddy sugarcane field in Guatemala, where God, children and adults splash and play and laugh “for the sport of it.”

Monday, September 29, 2014

Reflection on Philippians 2:1-13

Here is the reflection I wrote for the Mulberry Methodist newsletter to accompany our sermon series on Philippians.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Hope That Doesn't Disappoint

Momentum can be deceiving. When life appears to be clicking along smoothly, one can get lulled into thinking that expectations will continue to be met.

But life really isn’t predictable, even when all indicators point in a certain direction. Palm Sunday turns into Good Friday. Good Friday becomes Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday is jolted into Easter Sunday. Highs become lows, and lows can unexpectedly become highs. The best way to handle life’s wild or even not-so-wild swings is simply to find God’s presence in every moment, low or high, and be grateful.

Our water well project in Guatemala seemed to be going according to plan on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday morning it appeared that we would dedicate the well the following day. Our translator, Blanca, and I went to the school on Wednesday morning to teach what we thought would be the final hygiene lessons. We told the principal that the dedication was planned for 10:00 a.m. the following day and she said the whole school would attend in their school uniforms. It promised to be a great day of celebration for the community of Monte Cristo!

But when we arrived back at the drill site following the dismissal of school at mid-day, we were greeted, not by anticipation and excitement, but by worried expressions and long faces. There was no water. The well that had seemed oh-so-close to completion was not producing water. It was a difficult afternoon and the ride back to Antigua in the van was the quietest hour and a half of the entire trip. We did not know what the outcome of our week would be. While we knew the community would get a well, we did not know when that would happen. I grieved for the families, for the children who would show up in their uniforms on Thursday, for Estella, at whose home the well was sited, and for the folks on our team who had put so much effort into drilling the well.

That night, I woke up during the night and was thinking about the turn of events. A phrase from scripture popped into my head: hope does not disappoint. I held onto that phrase, a gift and a promise from God.

In a marathon day on Thursday, a new well was begun. Word had travelled through the community and when we arrived at the school, the children were not in their uniforms (which was a relief to me). We taught more lessons, primarily about how to have a healthy community. I could not help but think that one way a community is healthy is by bearing one another’s burdens. In our shared disappointment about the first well, the village sustained each other and us.

On Friday morning, when fresh, clean water poured out of the new well, it was glorious! I think we were even more excited because of the disappointment we had felt two days prior. Hope did not disappoint us!

And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.(Romans 5:3-5)

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Reflections on Philippians

I am writing a series of reflections on Philippians over the next four weeks, to accompany both the Sunday lectionary texts and Mulberry's sermon series. Here is the link to the first of these.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Small Service

Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin. . .
                                                                                                                Zechariah 4:10a

Drilling a water well for a village with no source of clean water is a pretty big deal. The residents of Monte Cristo, Guatemala, where our mission team from Mulberry Street UMC recently traveled, had been using their already meager resources to purchase safe drinking water. They knew their wells were not good. Bringing fresh, clean water was no small deal to them.

But the well was not the only work of the mission team. My role on the team was to assist our translator in teaching health and hygiene lessons to the women and children of Monte Cristo, so that once the well was complete, they would use good practices to be sure the clean water stays clean until they drink it. With such work, we do not see the outcome of our labor. What we do is make a small beginning, trusting that the lessons fall into good soil, take root and grow and that the children of Monte Cristo will thrive as they mature.

Some of what we teach goes beyond use of clean water. One point we emphasized was what they could do to enhance the livability of their community. Things we take for granted, like trash pickup, are unavailable in the rural communities of many countries. Our translator had reminded us that we were to be examples of good practices for the community, and one way that could happen was by picking up trash from the ground and putting it into trash bags.

One day, as we were doing crafts with the women of Monte Cristo, I was picking up paper scraps, sticker backs and other assorted “craft debris” that had fallen to the ground. As I stooped over and picked up the small clutter, I recalled Brother Lawrence, who said he “would not take up a straw from the ground against [God’s] order, or from any other motive than purely that of love to Him.” As I picked up trash, I offered the work to God, my small sacrifice of love and thanksgiving. The dirt yard of Ana’s house became God’s dwelling for me in that moment. I was a joy to be able to serve Christ in a seemingly insignificant way!

So now that I am home, the challenge for me is to continue to serve in small ways, not because anyone notices, but because when I pick up even a straw from the ground, it can be an act of love for God.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Mission as Pilgrimage

I recently returned from Guatemala, where I traveled with a team primarily from my church, Mulberry Street UMC, to drill a water well and teach health and hygiene through Living Water International. While we traveled with a specific purpose and work to do, the trip wasn’t just about accomplishing a task. Instead, it was about coming alongside a community, working together, and sharing relationships. It was more than a mission trip for me; it was also a pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place. A pilgrim differs from a tourist because while a tourist goes to see a place, a pilgrim travels to be in a place. A good analogy is in the ways we can read scripture. We may read it for information, as words on a page that tell us who, what, when, where and how. Scripture or other sacred reading approached in this fashion “arms” us with knowledge, which may or may not be used to help us grow in faith. Scripture read using the ancient practice of Lectio Divina is read for formation. We don’t act on the text. Instead the Holy Spirit uses the text to change us, break down our preconceived notions and to make us different as a result of encountering the text.

If a mission trip were all about productivity, it would not be a pilgrimage. Such a trip would provide ammunition to those who argue that it would be more efficient simply to send the resources to the place of need and not to invest ourselves in the process.

For a mission trip to be pilgrimage, we make a journey to a sacred place. In my experience, the sacred place is both within and outside me. Being part of the team, being in the village of Monte Cristo in Masagua, Guatemala, I realized by week’s end that I had made an inward journey, experiencing love and community as part of both groups. I sensed my belovedness acutely in this past week. I belonged, part of the body of Christ both on the team and in the community.

But it was not only the inward journey I experienced as pilgrimage in Guatemala. As we ate lunch prepared by the village, as we visited homes and shared work, disappointment, smiles, laughter, fun and prayer, I knew I was in a sacred place, a place where a week of shared life united us of different cultures and languages. Is not this a glimpse into the Kingdom of Heaven?

Pilgrimage is about transformation. Returning from Guatemala, I am experiencing an unfolding transformation, a new way of seeing and being. While I went to be part of an external mission, I now know that an internal mission occurred simultaneously with the outward work of the week.

In that sense, pilgrimage should be constantly occurring in the lives of us who follow Christ. The journey is ongoing, always wooing and pulling us toward the One Who loves us. May we follow the tug toward Christ wherever we are.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Invisible Growth

The Academy for Spiritual Formation taught me many things, but fundamental to all of it was the definition of spiritual formation itself: the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others. It was emphasized to us that “for the sake of others” could not happen without “the process of being conformed to the image of Christ.” There is an interior process that must be attended to in order for the outward work to be effective.

The focus on interior work was not one that had been obvious to me in my experience as a lifelong church member. I wonder sometimes if our religious communities do an adequate job of emphasizing the importance of interior work. I’m afraid our criteria for measuring one’s faithfulness is overly focused on external acts of service.

I’m not implying that outward acts are not important. We live in a world where people are hungry, homeless and hurting. But outward acts done without inward growth can lead to frustration and burnout. Thomas Merton puts it this way: The mere fact of becoming a well working cog in an efficient religious machine will never make anyone into a saint if he does not seek God interiorly in the sanctuary of his own soul.

I know that in the past I did quite a bit of “church work” that I hesitate to call “service” because I did not perform it with a servant’s spirit. Maybe I thought I did starting out, but over time I wore down and the “work” became drudgery. I believe it is because I focused more on being a “cog” in the “religious machine” rather than on growing in intimacy with God.

Indicators of being a cog might include criticalness of the ones you serve. For example, several months ago I was part of a discussion about the Sermon on the Plain, found in Luke 6. The specific verse that seemed to trigger the harshest discussion was Luke 6:30: Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. A couple of folks were outspoken about who was “worthy” of their generosity and who was not worthy. We would all do well to pay attention to the attitudes that surround our service. It may be that we need to step back from our outward service to focus on inward growth so that our service is done with love and generosity.

In a culture that believes “what you can measure you can manage” a focus on inward growth seems to hold little value. Merton observes: One has very little evidence of progress or perfection in this interior sphere—while in the exterior, progress can be more easily measured and results can be seen. They can also be shown to others for their approval and admiration. The most important, the most real, and lasting work of the Christian is accomplished in the depths of his own soul. It cannot be seen by anyone, even by himself. It is known only to God.”

It is this uncertainty of our “progress” that leads us away from the pride of outward accomplishment to humble trust that our desire for intimacy with God is actually leading us closer to the heart of God. It is an invisible, unheralded journey, yet it is the journey that really matters.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Moments of Joy

I recently traveled to Chicago with my husband for a conference he had there. Jim had meetings from breakfast until suppertime. We had events in the evenings, so I pretty much had the whole day to myself.

I went with little agenda, but a commitment to pace myself.  I had been to Chicago on vacation with our family back when our sons were in middle and high school, so I had some familiarity with the city and thus, did not have a list of places to see or things to do. I challenged myself to travel with a greater awareness of place, to be fully present to the people I encountered and the places I saw.

Each day, I made a list of moments of joy I experienced that day. Here are some of those:

o   The quiet of St. James Cathedral prior to worship
o   The sleepy smiles I received from a just-awake toddler in a cafĂ© at lunchtime
o   Smiles returned as I walked along busy Michigan Avenue
o   Witnessing a young couple holding hands as he walked and she guided her motorized wheelchair along the sidewalk
o   A dog at the kayak rental shop along the Riverwalk, who wanted everyone to throw his ball for him to fetch
o   The young man at the restaurant who made my lunch with joy
o   The unexpected sound of raindrops on Lake Michigan in a moment when the din of morning traffic broke
o   A pigeon at a pub, its eye on a crumb just inside the open door, sizing up whether to come inside and snag the morsel

Such moments are all around us, every day. Maybe you want to challenge yourself to be more aware of where you are as you go through your day. You don’t need to leave town to do this. You don’t even have to leave your house! All it requires is that you pay attention and be fully present in the present moment.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Subversiveness of Sacrifice

We live in a society that elevates the individual. We have a tendency in America to see ourselves as the center of the universe. Statements such as “I don’t like what the government is doing with my tax dollars,” or “I don’t like what my church is doing so I’m not giving my money to it” show our self-focus. We don’t seem to realize that we are part of a larger community.

Mother Teresa said “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” It’s pretty hard to have peace when one’s chief aim in life is self-preservation. Dying to self and to self-interest is fundamental to being a follower of Jesus. We have to have a broader view of life than just what benefits us if we are to be light and salt for the world.

Sacrifice is integral to discipleship. Consider this quote from Thomas Merton: The sacrifice of our own will is necessary and pleasing to God whenever there is question of renouncing our individual, private good for a higher and more common good that will work both for our own salvation and the salvation of others. What matters then is not precisely what the sacrifice costs us, but what it will contribute to the good of others and of the Church. The norm of sacrifice is not the amount of pain it inflicts, but its power to break down walls of division, to heal wounds, to restore order and unity in the Body of Christ.

I wonder how Christianity would be perceived by observers if we who claim to be Christian were more focused on the common good, on breaking down walls of division, healing wounds and being bringers of real salvation—not just asking “are you saved?” but actually saving others by feeding, companioning, and loving them? Maybe if we were genuinely interested in the welfare of all with whom we share this planet, others would know who we follow without us having to tell them.

Such sacrifice, as Merton notes, does not have to be painful. Sacrifice is simply putting the interest of another ahead of my own self-interest. It is most often done in small, unobtrusive ways. It can begin by thinking communally rather than individually. If our decisions and choices are driven not by “me” and “mine” but by “your” and “our” that alone will change how we live as residents of this world.

Imagine how the world might be different if we widened our view and opened our hearts, minds and resources for the sake of others.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Reflection on Psalm 23

Here's my reflection on Psalm 23 written for the Mulberry Methodist newsletter as part of our summer sermon series on Psalms.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Reflection on Psalm 121

Here's the link to the reflection I wrote for the Mulberry Methodist newsletter on Psalm 121.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Falling Down and Getting Up

At SoulFeast a couple of years ago, I remember hearing Trevor Hudson, a South African pastor say, “We fall down; we get up.” He was making the point that our lives are a journey, and that even when we think we have progressed, we still fall down. Our whole lives will be a process of falling down.

The key is the getting up part of this phrase. Falling down is part of our human condition, but getting up is what transforms us from the realm of miserable failure to that of hopeful saints. In getting up, we affirm God’s mercy toward us, and we live in grace, confident of our forgiveness.

I am being reminded of this because I had a recent, and still tender, fall. Not a physical fall, but an experience of selfishness where I hurt another. It is tempting to wallow in my wretchedness, and yet, if I choose that course, I turn away from God into my own self-centered guilt.

As much as I regret my behavior, I more regret the hurt I caused. My asking the person for forgiveness does not guarantee that they forgive me, and they are under no obligation to do so. Like Peter, when he denied Jesus three times, I’ve wept bitterly. But also like Peter, I get up and keep moving ahead.

We don’t like to see the ugly parts of ourselves. We would always rather think that we are “good” people, comparing ourselves to ax murderers and other folks who do heinous deeds. The reality is, though, that there is much junk within, and every now and then, it comes out and we fall. It’s why we need forgiveness. It’s why we need a Savior. It’s why grace is so transformative. Our ability to admit and not excuse our falling helps us to recognize that we are not so different than the ax murderer, and grace is available for us both.

Peter and Judas both betrayed Jesus, but while Judas could not get up from his falling, Peter did. Christ’s grace and forgiveness got him up and going. May it do so for me, and for us all when we fall down.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Reflection on Psalm 130

Here's the link to the reflection I wrote for the Mulberry newsletter on Psalm 130.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Distortion of Being on Top

I’m reading a book called Celtic Christian Spirituality: Essential Writings – Annotated and Explained. Rev. Mary Earle has written the annotations. The book covers a variety of themes prevalent in Celtic Christian spirituality, and includes both poetry and prose.

Recently I read this quote from Pelagius: “No one is more ready to pity the exile or the stranger than someone who knows the effects of exile. No one offers lodging to a homeless guest so much as someone who has themselves been dependent on the generosity of others. No one is more likely to feed the hungry or to give a drink to the thirsty than someone who has themselves suffered hunger and thirst. No one is so ready to cover the naked with their own clothes than someone who knows the pain of nakedness and cold. No one is more likely to come to the aid of people who face troubles, misery, and hardship than those who have themselves experienced the misfortune of troubles, misery, and hardship.” Earle’s annotation on this passage includes this observation: “The danger of wealth is not the wealth itself, but the isolating effect it may have on the one who holds the riches. It is easy to forget what it is like to be hungry, homeless, thirsty, or naked when we never have to worry about the next meal, our child’s health, or having adequate housing.”

Most everyone I know well fits into the category of ones holding the riches, myself included. I am convicted by the remarks of Pelagius and Rev. Earle. When I read them, my first thought was of the young people at our southern border and the families that are struggling to escape the violence of gang activity, if not for themselves, at least for their children. How can I make a sweeping statement of judgment when my own children grew up in safety and security?

My viewpoint is that of one holding possessions and power. It’s a distorted view of reality, and it endangers me because the temptation is strong toward self-preservation rather than self-sacrifice. God must surely be crying—for the families who believe the risk of staying home is greater than the risk of leaving, and for those who believe the risk of compassion is greater than the risk of comfort.

I pray that I will move from the safety that endangers me to the sacrifice that leads to wholeness. Jesus said “I am the Way.” May I be part of the Way for others by following the Way down.

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God,
   he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
   by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
   he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.

                                                                                (Philippians 2:5-8)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Reflection on Psalm 42

Here is a link to the reflection I wrote for the Mulberry Street United Methodist Church newsletter on Psalm 42, the fifth Sunday of our summer sermon series on Psalms.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Reflection on Psalm 46

Here is my latest reflection, considering stillness, written for Mulberry Street UMC's newsletter as part of our summer sermon series on Psalms.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Reflection on Psalm 51

Here is the link to the reflection I wrote on Psalm 51 for our church newsletter as part of our summer sermon series on Psalms.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Seeing God in All Things

Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things.
                                                                                                --Meister Eckhart

This past Sunday afternoon I had made blueberry jam and two loaves of multigrain sandwich bread. As I reflected on Meister Eckhart’s quote above, I thought about how I saw God in these two activities.

Baking bread is always sacramental for me. As I dissolve the yeast and add flour to it I think about Jesus’ statement about how the Kingdom of God is like yeast that permeates a whole batch of dough. Seeing the dough rise I reflect on the risen Christ. And whenever I smell the bread baking, I am taken back to my experience in the two-year Academy for Spiritual Formation, where the aroma of freshly baked bread filled our worship space when we gathered to celebrate Eucharist each afternoon.

My jam making also gave me opportunity to experience God. The fruit itself is gift, a reminder of how God bountifully provides all we need. As I crushed the berries, I thought about how we most often come to deep devotion to God by being broken. We have to know our own insufficiency to embrace God’s sufficiency. As I saw the blueberry pulp where once there were individual berries, I thought about the contrast between self-focus and giving oneself to the community for the sake of God’s kingdom. Just as jam is not possible without broken berries all mixed together, so the Church is not the body of Christ if we do not give our whole selves to each other.

Is it possible to see God in all things? In unpleasant as well as pleasant instances? When things don’t go the way we would choose as well as when we are in our happiest moments? I believe that our ability to do so depends on the expansiveness of our view. Can we rejoice in the success of another, even if we have experienced failure? Can we see that it is better that we do not demand our rights so that another’s rights can be honored?

I am challenging myself to look more closely at the mundane and the marvelous, and the joyful and sorrowful, at the painful and pleasant—and to see God. Maybe this is something you try for yourself.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Reflection on Psalm 13

Here's the second of my reflections on Mulberry UMC's summer sermon series on Psalms. This is a reflection on Psalm 13.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Morality As An Obstacle to Holiness

I’m reading Life and Holiness by Thomas Merton, so over the next few weeks you will likely find my blog posts exploring some of the ideas from that book.

Merton says that moral goodness is an infantile conception of holiness. He observes that we don’t appreciate the meaning and greatness of our vocation to Christian holiness because we don’t know how to value the divine redemption and infinite mercy of God, so we content ourselves with exterior signs of respectability.

An article I read recently in Weavings magazine referenced three phases of discipleship described by Father Ron Rolheiser. The most basic phase, Essential Discipleship, is defined as the struggle to get our lives together. Moral goodness would seem to fit into this lowest level of discipleship. If being good in the sight of God and others is my goal, I remain in the shallow end of the pool of discipleship.

The second and third phases of discipleship are Generative Discipleship, defined as the struggle to give our lives away and Radical Discipleship, the struggle to give our deaths away. Jesus gives us the ultimate picture of what giving one’s life and one’s death away looks like. Jesus’ path of downward mobility, giving up one’s rights and privilege for the sake of others, is the way of holiness. This is not an easy way, especially when we are the ones who have rights and privilege. Merton notes that the way of Christian holiness means embracing hardship and sacrifice for the love of Christ and in order to improve the condition of people on earth. He says, “We may not merely enjoy the good things of life ourselves, occasionally ‘purifying our intention’ to make sure that we are doing it all ‘for God.’. . . Our love of God and of man cannot be merely symbolic, it has to be completely real.”

Such a love means we cannot close our eyes to the injustice that surrounds us in our own communities and across the globe. We cannot excuse our indifference or inaction by saying someone “deserves” their lot in life, or that exploitation is okay because it’s the cultural norm or that the problem is too big for me to make a difference.

The amazing thing about the path of holiness is that in giving ourselves away we discover freedom that is not possible when we content ourselves with being morally good and respectable. When all we have is available to others, life becomes joyful.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Reflections on Psalms

During the summer, I am writing a series of reflections for our church's weekly newsletter on to accompany a summer sermon series on Psalms. Here's the link to my reflection on Psalm 8. I hope you will join this journey through some familiar and not so familiar Psalms!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Becoming What We Do

Cynicism, criticism and negativity—it seems to me that these are the predominant attitudes I’ve encountered in groups of adults recently. Even when these are not directed toward me, the aura of these can feel like a heavy coat on a hot day. The sad part of these attitudes is that they are contagious—one cynic in a group suddenly becomes a handful. One critical voice can suddenly be a dam breaking forth, causing every other voice in the group to take up the banner of criticalness.

When did it get to be so popular to be a naysayer? Do folks think it is a sign of maturity to point out every possible flaw in people, plans or organizations? This morning I was reading in the book of Numbers, about how the Israelites complained that the only food they had to eat was the manna that God gave them daily. All they had to do was go outside and gather it up off the ground. It was pure gift to them, a miraculous food supply! And yet, they whined and complained to Moses because it wasn’t what they wanted to eat.

It seems to me that gratitude, encouragement and hope are absent when cynicism, criticism and negativity are present. It’s hard to be grateful for the opportunities and people around us when we are making fun of them or criticizing them.

As we increasingly focus on the negative, it gets harder and harder to see the positive. Douglas V. Steere, Quaker author and professor, says we become what we do. So we can’t make a habit of cynicism without becoming cynics. We can’t regularly criticize without become critical people. Consistent negativity makes us into bitter people.

As a frazzled young mother, trying hard to meet the insurmountable expectations I felt I had to meet, I remember three older women in my church who embodied for me what I wanted to be as I aged. They were positive, encouraging and magnanimous. They smiled a lot. They never had the attitude that they had “done their time” but continued to show up, cheering our children on, and interacting with younger folks at church. To me, they were ageless. And did I mention they smiled a lot?

Now that I am the one with the gray hair and grown children, I realize that I have a choice to make. I can choose to be grateful, cheerful and hopeful or I can criticize, nitpick and complain. I can encourage others or I can tear down what others are trying to build. Knowing that my individual choices in every circumstance become who I am, I pray that I will choose what is hopeful and life-giving.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Going On A Lion Hunt

As I child, I remember doing a chant about a lion hunt. It began with this line: Going on a lion hunt . . . we’re not afraid.

Psalm 57 talks about lions, in fact, it talks about being surrounded by them:
My life is in the middle of a pack of lions.
                   I lie down among those who devour humans.  (Psalm 57:4a)

Last week, I blogged about the importance of knowing your boundaries and living within them. I mentioned that it isn’t easy to live within our boundaries because doing so goes against cultural expectations and others don’t always support our efforts.

It takes constant awareness to recognize the pack of lions that surround us as we seek to live within boundaries that keep us healthy and whole. The lions around us may have different names such as guilt, procrastination, criticalness, sloth and cynicism. They may roar at us through criticism or they may purr at us through guilt, but always they urge us toward unhealthy ways of living.

It took many years before I even recognized that I was being devoured by lions. Mired in stress and stretched by many good demands on my time, I thought this was just the way life was supposed to be. And when I tried to set the boundaries that I hungered for, I felt selfish and guilty. I began to recognize the lions when I learned to slow down and move at my natural pace.

It’s a process that continues to unfold. But one of the ways in which I am able to recognize lions is by paying attention to what causes me discomfort. Here’s an example: I do not do well when I have to rush. A few weeks ago, I had an early morning appointment. Instead of allowing myself the time I know I need to do what is important for me to begin my day well, I tried to get myself ready on my husband’s schedule. I was a wreck before I left the house. As I drove to the appointment, I recognized the lion of accommodating had devoured me that morning.  By reflecting on the experience and realizing its effect on my health, I resolved to respect my boundaries the next time I had an earlier than normal morning schedule.

A lion hunt is necessary if we are to live the lives God has planted in us to live. What is unhealthy for my spirit may not affect another. A lion for me may be a kitten for someone else and even if it is a lion for another, they have to recognize it for themselves. It takes discernment, attentiveness and the discipline to slow down and become aware of what causes me pain and also what brings me peace.

There will always be lions but as we connect more intimately with God, we find it easier to recognize and repel the lions that want to devour us. The peace of such intimacy lures us to honor our boundaries and keep the lions at bay.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Freedom of Boundaries

O God, you are my portion and my cup;
   it is you who uphold my lot.
My boundaries enclose a pleasant land;
   indeed, I have a goodly heritage.          
                                                Psalm 16:5-6

Culturally, we push back at the thought of boundaries. We don’t want to be limited, don’t want anyone telling us we cannot go somewhere or do something. We believe that freedom gives us the ability to live life on our terms.

But I’ve come to realize that living without boundaries is not healthy. Lack of boundaries was draining life from me. Limitless living, while it sounds exhilarating, is really exhausting. I am recognizing that I must be conscious of what is actually mine to do, and, perhaps more importantly, what is NOT mine to do. As I stay within my boundaries, I develop a greater recognition of what nourishes my soul. Drinking from the cool waters of my Divine Center, my True Self, I am so refreshed that I am grateful for the boundaries that allow me the freedom to say no to what is beyond my limits.

It’s a wonderful cycle of staying within my boundaries, which allows me to go deeper in the knowing of my soul, which helps me know my boundaries more clearly, which takes me even deeper into knowing myself (and thus knowing God). Instead of living in the so-called freedom of no limits, where I’m scattered and splattered over too many activities, I live in the true freedom to be who God created me to be—and no more.

Over lunch recently, several folks who had been to Haiti were talking about the boundary between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. They noted that even without a fence separating the two countries, the border was obvious because of the contrast in the actual land. The land of the Dominican Republic is lush and fertile, while Haiti’s land is barren of vegetation because prior farming practices stripped the land of its nutrients until the land itself was exhausted. This happens to us when we attempt to live beyond our limits.

Sadly, there are not many who will support us as we live within our boundaries. It is countercultural to our society’s message to “be all you can be.” But knowing our boundaries actually does allow us to be all that we can be—all that God has created us to be. If you desire to live a life that nourishes your spirit, find a friend or a spiritual director who will help you discover your boundaries and hold you accountable to them. Live in the pleasant land encircled by boundaries that draw you into greater intimacy with God.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Twisting Terms

Have you ever considered the ridiculousness of the term “self-made”? The notion of a “self-made” man or woman is a good example of how the “wisdom” of the world is really foolishness. I wonder how we can even say the term “self-made” without laughing at its absurdity. After all, not one of us created ourselves. Not one of us manufactures our own oxygen, or creates our own water, or provides all we need for ourselves without involvement from outside ourselves.

We all began as babies. We all were knit together in our mothers’ wombs, even if we have no relationship with our birth mothers subsequent the cutting of the umbilical cord. We are creatures created by the Uncreated One. Even if we deny God, we are still not self-made. And as long as we cling to the silly notion that we are “captains of our own ship” or “self-made” we cannot enter into the joy and peace of God’s love, for the key to such living is the recognition that we are utterly and completely unable to redeem ourselves.

Our recognition that we are completely dependent on God’s grace and mercy is a sign of humility. And, unlike the term “self-made”, the word “humble” is a truly powerful word that is misused by our culture. Many times, we hear the two terms used together, describing how a “self-made” individual rose from “humble” beginnings. Humility is the ability to see yourself realistically—making an accurate assessment of your weaknesses and your strengths, your inner darkness as well as your inner light. We’ve turned the word “humble” into a descriptor of something lesser, poor or plain. We take a word that is a key characteristic of a disciple, a fruit of the Spirit, a trait exemplified by Jesus, and turned it into a barrier to success that must be overcome. We’ve twisted what is wisdom and turned it into foolishness. We’ve taken an essential quality of faithful discipleship, embodied in Jesus’ strength and confident reliance on God, and turned it into a liability. And because we avoid being humble, we remain blind to our own reliance on God and live in weakness. No wonder Paul said this to the Corinthians: Don’t fool yourself. If some of you think they are worldly-wise, then they should become foolish so that they can become wise. This world’s wisdom is foolishness to God. As it’s written, He catches the wise in their cleverness. (1 Corinthians 3:18-19)

Monday, May 12, 2014

Divided Devotion

“Our friends there were too worldly and too clever at mixing the pleasures of the world with the service of God.”   (Story of a Soul, The Autobiography of Saint Therese of Lisieux)

Recently I read the autobiography of Saint Therese of Lisieux, who lived from 1873 to 1897.  What was most remarkable to me about Therese was her singular devotion to Christ from a very early age. Her observation about family friends was made when she was a child.

As I read her statement, I wonder if she might say the same of me? Am I too clever at mixing the pleasures of the world with the service of God? Is such “cleverness” what I desire?

Peter instructs his readers about such cleverness in 1 Peter 4:1-3:
Therefore, since Christ suffered as a human, you should also arm yourselves with his way of thinking. This is because whoever suffers is finished with sin. As a result, they don’t live the rest of their human lives in ways determined by human desires but in ways determined by God’s will. You have wasted enough time doing what unbelievers desire—living in their unrestrained immorality and lust, their drunkenness and excessive feasting and wild parties, and their forbidden worship of idols.

Human desires of unrestraint in food, entertainment, material wants, and physical pleasure—these sound a lot like the standard operating mode of our culture. Peter says that pursuing such things is a waste of time. Yet many of us who call ourselves Christians are right there, living in the unrestrained consumer mindset of our society. Maybe we are too clever for our own good, trying to live with such divided devotion. After all, Jesus observed: No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matthew 6:24)

Do I really believe Jesus? Does my life show that I am singularly devoted or am I trying to live with divided devotion, serving two masters, which Jesus says cannot be done? I don’t want to waste time trying to do the impossible! 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Wicked Advice

The truly happy person doesn’t follow wicked advice . . .
                                                                Psalm 1:1a

Wicked is a strong word, and because of it, I wonder when we read it in scripture, if we discount its applicability to us. After all, if advice seems wicked to me, I doubt I’d follow it!

So what is wicked advice? If we are to be on guard against it, it must be more subtle than what might initially come to mind as wicked. I believe that wicked advice is any advice that contradicts the stirring of the Holy Spirit within us, any advice that discourages us from being who God created us to be.

Wicked advice could be advice that guilts us into acting when we know what we really need is to be still. Wicked advice might be the advice that tells us to be reasonable when what we really want to do is be generous with our resources. Wicked advice may tell us to play it safe, to think about the risks, when our spirit yearns to be part of a mission team to a third-world country, or a blighted neighborhood. Wicked advice could be discouraging one from pursuing a call to a particular vocation because it might not provide a lucrative salary.

Wicked advice can even come from our own self-talk, when we act because we are concerned about what others will think of us if we say no to some request (even to serve some good cause). Not every call to serve is our call to serve. Not every request is one aligned with our truest self and our area of giftedness.

The path to true happiness, which is the path to union with God, means that we must tend our soul with love and care, giving it what it needs to grow and minimizing those things that suck the life out of it. Discerning the difference between these requires us to be attentive to the stirrings within, which is not a practice encouraged in our society. True happiness is found in neither superfluous activity nor superfluous leisure, but in living a life that continually draws us nearer to the One Who created us and Who sustains us.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Marks of Recognition

When Jesus appears to his disciples after the resurrection, he shows them his hands and his side so they will know it is really is him whom they are seeing. It is his wounds that make him recognizable to his closest friends. I wonder if they would have believed if Jesus had had a perfect body, with no marks of his crucifixion visible.

If Jesus’ wounds, a part of his resurrected body, are that important to his being recognized, then why do we so often live in denial of our own wounds? We are shaped to a large degree by the acts that have hurt us either physically or emotionally, yet we live in a culture that encourages us to cover up anything that causes us to appear less than perfect.

When we deny our wounds, when we hide them from others and ourselves, we become hard, bitter and intolerant of others. Language of such denial and intolerance includes some of these phrases: stiff upper lip, cowboy up, put on your big girl panties, get over it.

There is a difference between acknowledging our wounds and being defined by them. If you are familiar with the tales of Winnie the Pooh, you know that Eeyore the donkey was defined by his wounds. He saw all of life through a negative lens and his dismal outlook defined who he was. His wounds caused him to be stuck in a place of hopelessness and despair. Wounds sometimes do that to people.

But wounds can transform us. Wounds precede resurrection. When we acknowledge our woundedness instead of denying it, we open ourselves up to the opportunity for transformation and rebirth. Such rebirth cannot happen as long as we fail to accept that we bear the marks of pain on our souls or bodies.

Silence and self-reflection open us up to acknowledge that we do in fact have wounds, and to allow those wounds to be tools to our transformation. Imagine how the world could be transformed if we tenderly acknowledged not only our wounds but those of others, and loved each other into new lives where our wounds allowed others to recognize us for who we really are—broken and beloved children of a broken and beloved Christ.