Uphill, Both Ways

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A year ago, I hadn’t even heard of this little village. And now, I’m staring into the indifferent eyes of a cow, so exhausted (and perhaps a little delirious) that I’m wondering if I shouldn’t just sit down and stay here forever. I could learn how to make delicious cheese from my new friend’s milk, although by the look she’s giving me, we clearly need to know each other better before that will happen. I could live a simple life that wouldn’t require me to walk one more step up and down these never-ending hills. Perhaps I could open up an inn to welcome the thousands of people, like me, who trek past these cow pastures in the beautiful green hills of Galicia in Spain, looking for God.

I am a pilgrim on El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, an ancient path that has been trod by everyone from 12th century monks to social media millenials. For at least a thousand years, people have walked here, doing penance, seeking healing, hoping that every step will lead them to an encounter with the divine.

I am an unlikely pilgrim on this 80-mile trek. I am not a “Let’s go hiking!” kind of gal. I exercise juuuust enough to keep heart disease and general decrepitude at bay. My idea of a day in nature involves a cool drink, a good book and a nap in the shade. But after months of training, here I am, picking my way carefully up and down rocky slopes, dodging cow patties, skidding through slimy mudslides and peeing in the woods. Why?

I am here precisely because it is difficult, uncomfortable and simply something I would never do. I am here in the spirit of Romans 12:1:

“…present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

I serve God with my gifts and talents, but rarely in a sacrificial way. I give out of my abundance — of skill, of resources, of time — but always within my very comfortable comfort zone. I had always understood that verse from Romans to mean my whole life should be presented as a sacrifice. But I had come to wonder: what would it look like if I presented my actual body, the body that hates unnecessary exertion, inconvenience and discomfort, as a sacrifice to the God I claimed to love?

I had a romantic notion of what My Camino would would be like. (People talk about El Camino in highly personal terms, as if each one is different). I would write and pray and take beautiful photographs. I would meet other pilgrims and have surprising and deeply satisfying encounters with God. At the end of each day and at the end of the week, I would feel a noble exhaustion, a satisfied sense of sacrifice. “See,” I would say to God, “Look what I have done for you.”

This is not exactly what happened. As I found myself struggling with pain and exhaustion, I learned a few things along The Way:
1.  It really is possible to go uphill both ways.

When I set out, I thought I was prepared, both physically and spiritually, for the challenge. I thought I had within me all that was necessary to offer this sacrifice. But the uphills aggravated an old injury, which made the downhills painful and slow. I knew this was going to be difficult, but suddenly, I feared it would be impossible.

2. Sacrifice is impossible without grace.
I thought this was something I was offering to God out of my own strength and will. But my strength failed and my will only wanted to sit down by that cow pasture and become part of the scenery. It turns out I couldn’t offer this gift to God without first receiving His gift of grace to me. I was so eager to say to God, “Look what I have done for you,” that I had forgotten that He was the one who making every step possible.

3. The smallest moment of joy will sustain you.

One day, my husband and I were walking when we heard singing in the distance. As it grew nearer, we recognized the familiar words from a hymn: “Here I am Lord, is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night …” As the singers approached, we joined in, making a hauntingly beautiful sound in a cool forest glade.

There were other moments like that, when I thought I was done for, when song, or prayer, or just seeing a familiar face at the next village’s watering hole lifted me out of myself. I was refreshed, refueled, renewed.

4. Sacrifice is the means for revelation

In his classic Celebration of Discipline Richard Foster puts this way:

“By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done.”

I thought this pilgrimage was all about what I wanted to offer to God. But it turns out, He had something in mind, too. Like a sauna that sweats out the impurities in your body, sacrifice can extract spiritual toxins from your soul. In my next post, I’ll explore just what God was up to on My Camino.

 

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Anniversary

 

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Today is the anniversary of the first time I cried. I was probably hungry, or in need of a clean diaper. Perhaps it was the bright lights, the shock of being smacked by the doctor, or the odd sense that my body was no longer tethered, protected, safe. It surely wasn’t the last time. There have been many tears over the years, some, like that first day, because I felt a need that I couldn’t satisfy myself. There have been hot tears of anger, helpless tears of frustration and tears of stone cold fear. I have cried over the sublime and the ridiculous. I have wept with grief and with gratitude. I have cried mysterious tears with no obvious cause —”holy tears” the mystics call them.  But that day was the first.

Today is the anniversary of the first breath I drew, the first of millions. Most of them I breathed without noticing, like an app running quietly in the background while I focused on more important things, like why I wasn’t popular or what I should have for dinner.  Even so, there are some breaths that I do remember: The breath that was knocked out of me when my parents died. Breaths that came quickly when I danced to my favorite song (Uptown Funk, anyone?) Slow, steady breaths as I fell asleep in my husband’s arms. The breaths that emerge from my body as song. But that day was the first.

Today is the anniversary of the first time I felt someone touch me. That first touch was likely a firm smack on the bottom (see The First Time I Cried), but after that, there would have been kind hands cleaning me, wrapping me, placing me gently in my mother’s arms. That day was the first time I felt my mother’s hands holding me, touching my cheek, stroking my hair (I had a lot of it!). There have been many touches since then. How small and safe my hand felt enfolded by my father’s, and the sting of that same hand when he hit me — just once, when his rage at my teenage rebellion boiled over, but a reminder of how we can hurt those we love the most. Holding my big sister’s hand as she walked me to school, hugs of consolation, triumphant high-fives, pats on the back (both literal and figurative), having my forehead anointed with oil — so many touches followed that first one, long ago.

Today is the anniversary of the day my life — this life — began. There will be a last day, too, something I think about more than I used to. Sometimes I find myself wondering how and when that day will be — more with curiosity than fear. I am acutely aware that I have more days behind me than ahead and I want them to count. I want to love well, do good work, and feel joy, even in sorrow.  I want to honor the God who imagined me and created me, who has known me from the beginning — and I mean the real beginning, before the first breath, the first cry, the first touch.  

The Psalmist put it this way:

For you formed my inward parts;
    you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
    my soul knows it very well.

My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
    the days that were formed for me,
    when as yet there was none of them.

                                              (Psalm 139: 13-16)

 

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please and thank you

 

 

“I totally forgot to pray for J. last night!  I prayed for dogs and not for J.!!”

Such was the chagrined email I received from the leader of our weekly Bible study. The night before, after our study time, we opened up the floor for prayer requests. We prayed for a niece’s surgery. We prayed for the well-being and safekeeping of children. We asked for comfort for a friend facing the illness of his beloved dog.

Here’s what we did not do: we did not thank God for the miraculous healing He brought to our friend J., who had recently had extensive, complicated surgery. We remembered to pray for God’s intercession in our lives, the lives of our children, even the lives of our pets. But we forgot to praise and thank the God who was healing our friend, prompting our leader’s self-flagellating morning-after email.

Now I should tell you that this sin of omission was unusual; this is a group of faithful pray-ers (both individually and communally), and I chalked it up to a rare instance of spiritual amnesia. Still, it got me thinking:

Why is it so easy to focus on today’s pain and troubles and forget to be thankful for prayers God has already answered?

Why I am quick to catalogue my requests for God’s intercession, but slow to give thanks for what He has done, or for the fact that I can ask Him for anything at all?

Why am I so much better at “Please” than “Thank you?”

For one thing, Please is easy. Please is all about me: my needs, my pain, my worries, my fears. Let’s face it: what’s easier or more interesting than focusing on me? Please is the clarion call from a Laura-centric universe.  Thank you — well, thank you is a whole ‘nother thing.

If Please is about me, then Thank You is about God.

Thank You puts me in my (rightful) place in God’s universe — at His feet, under His power, in His debt. For someone who likes to live under the delusion that I am in control, that’s tough stuff.

Thank You also raises the ugly specter that haunts every pray-er: unanswered prayer. Thank you acknowledges that the healing wasn’t a coincidence. It acknowledges that it wasn’t random. God acted and the diagnosis changed. God acted and the relationship was repaired. God acted and I had courage and strength where there had been fear and weakness. Yay!

But once you say “Yay!” “Why?” isn’t far behind.

Why did God act this time and not others? Why was this prayer answered and not others? These are uncomfortable questions, because honestly, we don’t know why. Not really. Sometimes in retrospect, we think we can see a good reason why our prayer wasn’t answered in the way we asked, and maybe we’re right. But more often, we really don’t know why God sees fit to heal some and not others. Some people look at that last sentence as prima facie evidence that God is either cruel and arbitrary, or doesn’t exist at all. And some believers look at that sentence and find it hard to be grateful to a God who doesn’t act predictably and in accordance with our desires.

But Scripture tells us to give thanks at all times, in the “Yay!”, when it’s easy, and even in the “Why?”, when it’s not. Perhaps in those moments when we confront unanswered prayer, we can still give thanks for the privilege of prayer itself. When you think about it, it’s amazing that we can even approach the Creator of the Universe with our concerns, our pains, our joys and yes, our thanks. It is only because of His grace that, broken and imperfect as we are, we can come into the presence of such perfect love and power.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
                                                  1Thessalonians 5: 16-18

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(Un)Welcome

Or, Why I Stopped Being Such a Good Hostess

 

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One Sunday I stood in the back of an empty sanctuary. I was the “substitute preacher” that day, and was taking a few moments to center myself before worship began. I closed my eyes and began to shake my head emphatically from side to side. My husband asked, with some alarm, “Are you all right?”

“I’m shaking off the sign,” I said, as if I was a pitcher who didn’t want to throw the fastball. Not only didn’t this clarify anything for him, it made him even more concerned for my sanity, so I told him about The Thoughts.

Sometimes, right before I preached, I would start thinking, “What makes me think I can do this? I’m not holy enough, not learned enough, haven’t been a Christian long enough. It wasn’t that long ago I was the person who mocked believers, who scoffed at the very notion of God. It’s pretty cheeky of me to think I have any business being in the pulpit. Who do I think I am, anyway?”

With shaken confidence I would preach anyway — after all, what choice did I have? But once I began, I remembered that it wasn’t my worthiness that consecrated the words; the Word consecrated me. Once I began, I would feel the joy that I always did, the feeling that this is exactly where I should be. Still, the next time, The Thoughts showed up on cue.  

After a while, I got tired of them. I got tired of being thrown into a tizzy right before I was going to lead worship. I got tired of doubting that God wanted me in that pulpit.

I got tired of the sniping, snarky, soul-sucking voice of Satan.

Because that’s what it was. The Thoughts had me asking, “God, am I unworthy? Does my past unbelief permanently disqualify me from proclaiming the gospel? Am I kidding myself when I think that You have called me to this?”

When Jesus says that His sheep recognize His voice, He is right. When I thought about it, I could see that The Thoughts were not the voice of my shepherd.  Jesus doesn’t sow doubt and fear and shame.  Jesus would never say “You’re not good enough.  You can never be better than your worst sin.”    

No, The Thoughts gave voice to one who only wanted to silence me, to make me believe that a transformed life was not possible. 

I recognized in them the voice of Satan because, let’s face it, who else would want to keep the Gospel from being proclaimed?

Why, then, was it so easy, so natural, to entertain these thoughts? And entertain them I did. They rang the doorbell, and I showed them in.  I entertained them because they disguised themselves well, either masquerading as humility, or sneaking in on the coattails of my dear old friends self-doubt and despair. 

I showed them to the most comfortable chair, and fed them so they could grow fat and happy. I made up the guest room with its breakfast tray and fresh flowers and invited them to stay as long as they liked, even if that meant there was no room at the inn for my shepherd and his unmistakeable voice.

I pride myself on being a good hostess. My greatest joy is house full of people, all talking at the same time, entering and exiting separate streams of conversations seamlessly, like some kind of conversational double-dutch. And food, lots of food. So the thought that I would ever refuse hospitality for any reason makes me shudder. And yet, I have learned that some guests should not be welcomed.

There are guests that are not coming to me for the warmth of my table or to share the blessings of my home.  Instead, they seek to “steal and kill and destroy” and I have let them. I have listened to them tell me I’m not enough or that I’m too much. I have been attentive to the whispers that insult and demean me, that steal my hope. 

St. Paul knew what to do with such things.  This is what he tells the believers in Corinth: 

“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

                                      ( 2 Cor. 10:5, emphasis added)

Now, when The Thoughts present themselves, I can say, “Oh, so it’s you again! Have you met my shepherd?  He’s in charge of who gets in and who doesn’t.” I’ve never thought of Jesus as a nightclub bouncer before, but that’s the image that keeps coming to mind:  my Savior working the velvet rope that guards my heart and my soul.  It makes me feel safe.  It makes me smile. 

 

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Resurrection Monday

On the morninDSC_0079g after a lovely Easter dinner, I faced a kitchen full of dishes, pans, serving platters and glassware to put away. I put on some music and got to work. When I was done, I was delighted that the kitchen had been restored to order. I said with great triumph (to a cat that looked singularly unimpressed), “You’d never guess that anything had happened here.”

Household order aside, this is not what you want to be saying on the day after the Resurrection. Christ wasn’t raised from the dead so we could pack him away with the good china and Easter baskets until next year. Easter is about our resurrection life, too.

In Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright says that if Lent is when we weed the garden, Easter is when we plant and nurture.

“But you don’t want simply to turn the garden back into a neat bed of blank earth. Easter is the time to sow new seeds and to plant a few cuttings. If Calvary means putting to death things in your life that need killing off if you are to flourish as a Christian … then Easter should mean planting, watering, and training things up in your life that ought to be blossoming, filling the garden with color and perfume and in due course bearing fruit.”

We are invited to participate in the new creation that came into being on Easter Sunday. In the first creation God’s words manifested in visible, tangible things — stars, oceans, plants, animals, people. The creation that took place on that first Easter was largely invisible, though no less miraculous. What was created when Jesus emerged from his garden tomb was the hope that death was not the end. What came to being was the promise that the Holy Spirit would animate and give us power to live new and different lives, just as He did for the Apostles. Where once they were fearful, now they were bold. Once they were the students, they were now the teachers. They were now the healers, forgivers and welcomers to sinners. This was their resurrection life and it can be ours, too.

It’s Resurrection Monday. The world outside my window looks the same as it did last week. The news on CNN is, lamentably, more of the same. But In the spiritual realm, everything is new. God is calling me to join Him in His new creation, to take the daffodils from my Easter dinner table and plant them in the garden. He is inviting me to live and love in this world, to create beauty and do good, knowing that there is an unseen reality where love and justice reign, and where death is never the end.

It’s Resurrection Monday.  What will you plant? 

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To Die For

In the courtyard of Caiaphas' house, Jerusalem

In the courtyard of Caiaphas’ house, Jerusalem

Have you ever watched someone you love when you think they’re not looking and think, “Yes, if it would mean your happiness, if it would save your life, I’d die for you.” 

Maybe you have believed so strongly in the righteousness of a cause that you were willing to risk your very life for it. Some powerful images come to mind: the lone protester defying tanks in Tianamen Square, civil rights marchers facing snarling dogs in Selma, or a line of martyrs kneeling on a beach, seconds before they are beheaded for their faith. I am in awe of such people.

Popular culture is full of epic love stories and tales of heroism that demonstrate love and commitment so strong that it would pay any price to protect and ensure justice for the innocent.  These stories give us goosebumps and allow us to believe in the goodness of humanity.  They are beautiful stories, but they are not the story of Good Friday.

Like all of Jesus’ life, the story of Good Friday turns a familiar narrative upside down:

in this story, the Hero doesn’t sacrifice himself to save the innocent; he dies to save the villains.  Think Batman dying to save The Joker and you’ve got some idea of what happened on Calvary.  

This is how Paul’s Letter to the Romans puts it: 


We can understand someone dying for a person worth dying for, and we can understand how someone good and noble could inspire us to selfless sacrifice. But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him. (The Message)

 

We can understand dying for someone worth dying for. But what about the person who has hurt you deeply?  Would you give up everything so that person could live a life of freedom and peace?   What about the parade of evildoers that come into view every day:  terrorists who murder and rape, child abusers, financial criminals, politicians who make the veins in your neck pop and bile fill your mouth. Any volunteers to die in their place? Anyone?  

Maybe when I’ve mastered Jesus’ command to bless those who harm me, I can tackle something more challenging.  But for now, my answer is:  I would die for my husband. I would not die for Donald Trump.  But Jesus would and Jesus did.

And it wasn’t just for some abstract multitude of Sinners. What Jesus did was also very specific, very personal, and beyond any human calculus of good or bad, worthy or unworthy. Before He died for All of Humanity, he willingly died for one human: Peter, his weak and cowardly best friend.  The intimacy of his sacrifice is often lost in the Grand Story of the Passion. 

It all played out in a courtyard, where a cold wind blew and a rooster crowed.

There Peter stood by a makeshift fire that couldn’t warm the spiritual shiver slicing through him. Just a few hours before, he proclaimed with great bravado, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!”  Those words mocked him now; with each denial, he grew colder and more ashamed. The rooster crowed, and his despair was complete. Bad enough he had failed so miserably, but His Lord knew he would and knew he did.

He knew he did because Jesus was near, just beyond that courtyard in a dark, damp pit, utterly alone. Jesus heard the rooster crow and He knew it happened exactly as He said it would.  Peter — His comrade-in-arms, who promised to defend him to the end — had failed him miserably. His friend has broken his heart. And still, He allows himself to be tortured and humiliated and mocked, not only for the sake of all sinners past present and future, but also for this sinner, for this one, weak, flawed man who had abandoned Him.  

Christians often talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus.  If we’re anything like Peter, that means there are times we’ll boast about our faith and our fidelity and in the next breath, lie to save our own skins.  It means that, for all our confidence in our own goodness, we will falter and break His heart.  For us, in our humanity, this would seem to be a deal breaker.  But Jesus knows that our human frailty, while painful to Him, is exactly why He had to step into the breach.  

This Good Friday, let us not be satisfied to say that Jesus’ sacrifice was grand, sweeping and for the salvation of all.  Let us stand in the courtyard with Peter, shocked at the pain we have visited on our Lord.  Let us crouch in the pit with Jesus, the Hero of this upside-down story, whose sacrifice for the unworthy was and is intensely personal, emotionally costly and for the salvation of one.  

And let us remember that Peter’s story didn’t end in that courtyard and neither does ours. God will do for us what he did for Peter:  Forgive us.  Give us resurrection life, fueled by the Holy Spirit.  Give us grace to heal, reconcile, love, maybe even to sacrifice ourselves for those we consider “unworthy.”  

More from Paul’s Leltter to the Romans:

“We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.”

Not cowering in that courtyard — but standing tall and shouting our praise in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory.

 

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Speak, Lord

A plain cross lies on a Bible, at the beginning of the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, describing the birth of Jesus.

“The right scripture at the right time, every time.”

That’s what a little Bible reference book in my library promises. Want to know about repentance? Take off your hair shirt and turn to page 106. Pondering forgiveness? Stop plotting revenge and flip to page 134. Struggling with lust? Go to page 178, and quick.

This handy-dandy book is part of the Bible as Instruction Manual genre. It’s an appealing idea on the surface — let’s face it, we all want easy answers to difficult questions. When we can’t get our new Smart TV to connect to Netflix, we’re happy to have step-by-step instructions to follow. With any luck, the manual is clearly written, and we can be binge-watching House Hunters in no time.

But our lives aren’t electronics and God isn’t some techie writing FAQs.

The Bible isn’t a static reference work offering one right answer to any question. It is a conversation and conversations, especially with the Creator of the Universe, aren’t neat, predictable, or free of nuance.

Unlike an instruction manual, the God who reveals Himself through written words asks as many questions of us as we ask of Him. To really know how Scripture informs any given situation, its Author is going to want to know more. I may ask, “How should I handle this conflict?” The Author will ask “Why does this situation make you so angry?” I may ask, “Do I need to reconcile with this person who has hurt me?”  The Author asks, “What would reconciliation look like?” I might wonder, “Does scripture support what I think is right?” The Author asks, “What would bring shalom — wholeness and peace — to this situation?”

Case in point: the email that made my blood boil.

Not long ago, I got an email that hurled an accusation at me, in a snarky and condescending tone. The church-y words it contained — “I’m praying for you” and signed ”Peace” — only made me madder.

My first instinct was to proclaim my innocence, so skillfully, with such stinging eloquence that my correspondent’s maladroit missive would be put to shame. I would expose his calumny and his bad writing in one fell swoop. And, for good measure, I would point that, really, this was all his fault. Perfect.

I didn’t send it right away. As I sat with my counterpunch coiled and ready to deliver a devastating blow in the name of all that is Good and True, I wondered: what would scripture say about this contretemps, especially given that it was in the context of Christian community? What did God want to see happen here? 

The Truth as a (Blunt) Weapon

The first thing that came to mind was God’s prophets, who were given the thankless task of proclaiming Truth to people who didn’t want to hear it.  God respects and honors the truth, I told myself.  In fact,  Psalm 15 says this is a condition for coming into God’s presence.

Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
    Who may live on your holy mountain?
The one whose walk is blameless,
    who does what is righteous,
    who speaks the truth from their heart;
(Psalm 15: 1-3)

I liked the sound of this. It gave me Holy permission to defend myself by speaking the truth.  Unfortunately, the next verse says otherwise . . .

whose tongue utters no slander,
    who does no wrong to a neighbor,
    and casts no slur on others;

Hmmmm. Speaking truth isn’t the only measure of righteousness. We are reminded that we must not cast “slur on others.” My counterpunch felt good, but it suddenly didn’t feel right.

Turn the Other Cheek?

Perhaps  Matthew 5:39 should be my lodestar: 
 

But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.

Maybe I should just let it go. Maybe I should shrug my shoulders and chalk it up to “You can’t fix stupid.”

I live with this possibility for a day. Ignore it, shake the dust off my feet, move on. When Jesus suggests this response, it comes from a place of bravery and confidence: “The Lord is my stronghold, whom shall I fear?  For me in this situation, letting it go feels like cowardice and fear. It didn’t feel good and it didn’t feel right.  

Truth, Tempered

While I’m in Matthew, I read on:

“If your brother signs against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”

                                                                   Mathew 8:15

What if I responded — honestly, but without rancor? Could I confront with charity? Was it possible to defend myself without attacking him?  Was it possible to respond in a way that honored the truth while holding out hope of shalom?   And so I wrote a response, direct, but minus the venom and self-righteousness.  This felt right.  Much to my surprise, my correspondent apologized, which NEVER would have happened had I sent my first email.

The thing is, each of these “answers” to my question could have been appropriate. I can imagine other circumstances when God might want me to be a latter-day John the Baptist, speaking Truth, no matter the consequences. I can imagine a situation in which God would want me to hold my tongue, and walk away, confident in God’s vindication of me.  

But I can’t be trusted know which is which without the Holy Spirit to “guide me into all truth.”

I keep this prayer in the front pocket of my Bible to remind me of what I am holding in my hands.   It tells me that I need to read reverently, listen carefully and allow the Author to ask me questions before answering any of mine.

Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.
Grant me ears to hear,
Eyes to see
Will to obey
Heart to love
Than declare what you will,
Reveal what you wiIl
Demand what you will.

                                     (Christina Rosetti)


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Always We Begin Again

I’d like to report that my first week practicing the Prayer of Examen was flawless in execution, spiritually enlightening and emotionally fulfilling. I’d like to, but I can’t.

Being the impatient overachiever that I am, I imagined myself immediately getting into the groove of this daily spiritual inventory.  I figured it was a matter of putting myself the right place at the right time, following the proscribed progression of prayer, and voila!  A deep spiritual experience.  A refining fire. A revelation of seeing myself as God sees me.  The reality?  Sadly, none of those things.  At least not yet.  
The idea of the Examen is to invite God to review your day with you to see where you have experienced God’s presence, absence, joy or sorrow.  Ideally, this is done at day’s end, which has proved to be a challenge.  It’s gone something like this:  at the end of the day, I try to quiet my mind. I close my eyes to avoid distractions. I breathe deeply and slowly, conscious of each inhale and exhale.

I invite God to help me see the day through His eyes.  Breathe in, breathe out.  

I give thanks for the day’s blessings. Breathe in, breathe out.

I begin to review the day.  Breathe in, breathe out.  

And as the movie of the day plays in my mind . . . I fall asleep.

Although I love the idea of falling asleep in the company of the Holy Spirit, I feel I am failing at my assignment.  So, although it’s not ideal, I might try shifting my review of the day to the next morning.  I also need to be more patient and humble, acknowledging that, like all prayer, I must abandon myself to the mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit. Although there is a structure to the Examen, it is not a mechanical exercise.  As Richard Foster says in his classic Celebration of Discipline, “By themselves the spiritual disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us the place where something can be done.”  

In the meantime, I came across this beautiful description of what I hope my Prayer of Examen will be. As I begin again, these will be my words of inspiration:

“My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. Nor is it the trivial reckoning of a small tradesman: Give me and I shall give you.

 

My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general: This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector; these are the obstacles I found, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.

 

My God and I are horsemen galloping in the burning sun or under drizzling rain. Pale, starving, but unsubdued, we ride and converse.

 

“Leader!” I cry. He turns his face towards me and I shudder to confront his anguish.

 

Our love for each other is rough and ready, we sit at the same table, we drink the same wine in this low tavern of life.“

          from The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises

                                               by Nikos Kazantzakis

 

 

 

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True Love is a Folded Newspaper

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If you dare to open a newspaper, watch TV or venture into a store in the frenzied run up to Valentine’s Day, you’ve probably run the gift gauntlet between the sublime (anything with diamonds) to the ridiculous (silly silk boxer shorts printed with large red hearts). Perhaps you’ve had the overwhelming feeling of shame that comes from believing that if you don’t get or give the perfect gift, or arrange The Bachelor’s idea of a romantic dinner, you have failed at this love thing.

To hear the world tell it, Valentine’s Day is the Ultimate Love Litmus Test,

whether you’re in the early stages of love or have been together so long your wedding video is on VHS. The size, cost, or intimacy of the gift is supposed to tell you something about the relationship. Did he give you jewelry? He’s a keeper. A toaster? Generally, not a good sign, although I once got a cordless drill for my birthday and I was thrilled. Every gift, every card, every part of The Valentine’s Day Experience is scrutinized for clues and hidden meaning about the relationship. That’s a lot of pressure on something so delicate as love.

Valentine’s Day can be particularly tricky if you’re married to someone who chafes at being told to be romantic on command by Hallmark and 1-800-Flowers. My husband is, by nature, a generous and caring person; he just doesn’t like having that generosity and care dictated and scheduled by someone else. When the whole world has gone Valentine-mad, it can be easy to forget the flowers he brings me for no reason or the fact that the cat that he wasn’t thrilled about adopting is nevertheless sitting in my lap. No one ever asks me about those things. Instead, people want to know, “What did he get you for Valentine’s Day?” What I want to say is, “Let me tell you about the time he handed me a folded newspaper.”

Like most couples, we have different ideas about how things should be done. For instance, how to read the newspaper. We get three papers a day, and I read them in the same order every day. First the local paper. Then the New York Times. Then the Wall Street Journal over lunch. With each paper, I begin with Page 1 and read in the order in which the editors put it together. Being a writer, and a respecter of authority, I figure that a professional put the paper together in this particular way for a reason, and that’s good enough for me. In other words, I read the paper the right way.

Now — how shall I say this delicately? — my husband is a newspaper anarchist. He’ll read sections out of order. Within sections, he’ll pull pages out of sync. He’ll even mix and match from one paper to another. You can imagine what I think of this.

Then one day, this happened: We were riding on a crowded train together and found seats far apart from each other. I took one paper, he another to read on the ride into the city. When we got off the train, we exchanged papers. The paper he handed me was in pristine condition: perfectly folded, sections in order, not a page out of place. There was only one explanation.

“Why didn’t you read your paper?” I asked.
“Oh, I read it.”
“But it’s in perfect order!”
“I knew you were going to read it next and I know how you like it.”

I just about cried, right there on Track 24 of Grand Central Station. He folded the paper for me, even though my rigidity is as annoying to him as his anarchism is to me. It was a trivial thing — a tender, loving, selfless, trivial thing. That day, hundreds of commuters brushed past us on that platform, not knowing that the Ultimate Love Litmus Test was unfolding right before them.

I will spend this Valentine’s Day with a man who folds the paper for me.

Don’t get me wrong. I like getting jewelry. I love roses (just not red). I even like flowery cards and candlelit dinners. And I did love that cordless drill. He gives me all these things, maybe not on proscribed days, but according to his own Romance Calendar. But as much as I love those things, I don’t want my head to be turned by them. I want to hold fast to the words of St. Paul, who couldn’t have had newspapers in mind when he wrote this, but who nevertheless lays down the challenge of loving God’s way:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant, or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

This kind of love is more costly than anything Tiffany’s has to offer. It can be elusive and sometimes downright impossible. It asks us to think less of ourselves and more of the other, and not just when we’re feeling all lovey and besotted with them. Especially when we’re not feeling lovey and besotted with them. When, by the grace of God, we manage to be patient and kind, when we do not insist on our own way (even though we’re clearly right!), when we bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things— well, then we get a glimpse of True Love. Not Hallmark love. Not Hollywood Rom-Com love. Not even Top 40 Romantic Ballad love.

True. Love.

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A Road Paved with Questions

 

“You sure do ask a lot of questions for someone from New Jersey.”

Saturday Night Live fans of a certain age will recognize Rosanne Rosannadanna’s response to all those letters from Mr. Richard Feder of Ft. Lee, New Jersey. Like the fictional Mr. Feder; I sure do ask a lot of questions.

It’s like part of my brain is still two years old, constantly asking Why? Why not? Where? When? Who? How? What if…

When I was in the corporate world, this held me in good stead. A client once told me, “At the beginning of a project, I always know that sooner or later I’ll get The Phone Call From Laura. You know, the one where you ask lots of questions, usually questions that no one had thought of. Or worse, questions that exposed the weakness in the product design, marketing strategy or communications plan.” My litany of questions helped me craft the right message for the audience, and sometimes helped my clients rethink their products and strategies. 

On the homefront, my husband will tell you that any story he tells will spawn a series of questions: “Did she say why?” “Did you ask if she needed …?” “What did he say” “What did you eat” “What was she wearing?” “Do they need us to call/go/do/something?”  Every one of his sentences seems to give birth to three of my questions.  Did I mention the man is a saint?

I ask God lots of questions, too. There are the Big Questions that are cosmically important, the ones every one asks: “Why is there evil and suffering”. “How do I forgive?” “What is your purpose for my life?” Then there are less weighty ones, really born more of curiosity than theological moment, like what was Jesus like as a child, do dogs go to heaven and will I have this body in the resurrection or dare I hope for a better one?

Here’s the weird thing. For someone so inquisitive, I’m oddly uncurious about myself. Days come and go and I do what I do, say what I say, feel what I feel, and don’t really stop and ask any of the questions I’d so readily pepper someone else with: “Why did you do that? How did you feel when that happened? Could you have done that better/different/not at all?” I don’t examine my day to see where God was, where God wasn’t, where I stumbled, where I soared. Of course, sometimes, God’s presence or absence is very obvious, in a burning bush sort of way. When I witness a miraculous healing, there’s no need to look very hard for God; there He is, plain as day.  When I see cruelty or violence, I don’t need to do an exhaustive search to know that God isn’t in it.  

But often, God’s presence is hiding where I don’t think to look.

Often my motivations are a mystery to me and my actions are a disappointment.  I often find myself baffled by the disconnect between my intentions and my actions.  But at least I’m in good company — St. Paul tells us he had the same frustrations: 

“For I do not do the good I want,
but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”
                                                           Romans 7:19

And so, this Lent, I’ve decided to turn the questions on myself, using an ancient spiritual discipline called the Prayer of Examen.  In his delightful book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, James Martin says, “God is always inviting us to encounter the transcendent in the every day.  The key is noticing.”  

And the key to noticing is to take stock, performing a daily, prayerful spiritual inventory. The Examen begins with gratitude for what the day has brought.  It continues by asking the Holy Spirit to come and shine a light on the day past.  We ask the Spirit to show us where we have honored God and where we have failed Him. We ask for forgiveness where it is needed.  The point is to help us see ourselves as God sees us, rejoicing where He rejoices, to feel grief over where we have grieved Him, and to accept his grace and forgiveness.  

I know that doing this under the guidance of the Holy Spirit is crucial, particularly when it comes to acknowledging where I have fallen short.  Often, I think I know perfectly well what I need to repent.

But there’s a weird Catch-22 of the spiritual life: my consciousness of sin is clouded by my sinful nature.

 How do I repent what I’m not even aware of?   I need the power of the Holy Spirit to help me see clearly what needs to be confessed and forgiven. I need the power of the Holy Spirit to reassure me that God knows that I am better than my worst moments, more than my sins.  God doesn’t want my confession to gather evidence for my prosecution; he wants it to exonerate me, to make me whole. I can feel safe making this searching and fearless inventory because I know God rejoices over every prodigal who wants to come home.

If you’d like to join me on this road paved with questions, here is one version of the Examen: 

The Examen Prayer Card

(For a wealth of resources on the Prayer of Examen and Ignatian spirituality, I recommend visiting Ignatian Spirituality.)

 

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