Anniversary

 

baby-1433453-640x480

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)

 

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

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? 

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

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)


Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

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

 

 

 

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

True Love is a Folded Newspaper

DSC_0014

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.

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

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.)

 

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

Right Thing, Wrong Reason

shack-384021_640

or How I Wound up Building a Shack

 

I’ve been a writer most of my life. When I was in elementary school, I wrote in a little red diary with a gold lock and key, then graduated to spiral bound notebooks full of poetry and teenage angst. I wrote in marble composition books, in leather-bound journals and on manual typewriters whose keys would stick and tire my hands.

Eventually, I became a corporate wordsmith-for-hire and I wrote what others wanted — their message, their schedule, their purposes.  And I wrote what I wanted less and less. The thing was, at the end of a long workday, I just didn’t have any more words left in me.

Last year I decided to do what I had long dreamed of: write in my own voice. And so, three months ago, I began a construction project. I dreamed of building something beautiful, something that would use my life and my gifts to draw people closer to God. I envisioned using my words to invite people into a warm and welcoming cottage where we could sit by the fire and share the joys and challenges of following Jesus.

I tackled it like any of the other product launches I’ve worked on over the years. I took care of the infrastructure (procuring domain names, setting up the website, etc.). I devised a marketing plan. I tried to make the best product I could and deliver it regularly. I set benchmarks to measure success — Likes, followers, retweets, subscribers, comments.

I found joy in writing what is in my heart. With every post, I kept a careful eye on those “success” benchmarks. What a joy to receive praise! Every positive comment makes me giddy. Every new subscriber buoys my spirits. Every new follower makes me feel like I matter. It’s been over a year since I left my last job, a year of discernment in which I often felt uneasy and adrift. The praise and Likes and Favorites quieted that unease and gave me direction. “I have a purpose. I have value. Yes, this is who I am now.”

Wait. What?

I have always looked to external measures and rewards to tell me who I am. I was the kid who looked forward to report card day. A gold star told me I was a good girl, worthy of love and attention. To this day, when I walk into a room, I quickly get the lay of the land: Am I the thinnest woman here? the best dressed? the smartest, wittiest, most organized, the holiest? (By the way, the answer to all of these is usually “no”. Still, that’s OK. I can exhale and get on with it, just knowing where I fit in the pack. I guess in that respect, I’m temperamentally more dog than cat).

Every A, every gold star, every comparison I ever made told me
who I was and what I was worth

And I was doing it again. Without realizing it, I had gone from wanting God to use me to using God to get those gold stars that would make me feel important and worthy. I was amazed at how easily the line is crossed between doing something for God’s glory and doing it for my own. It stopped me dead in my tracks. What do I do now?

I stopped writing and started reading. A book about Ignatian spirituality, Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, and one about Islam. Most importantly, I started my “Bible in a Year” reading program, (only a few weeks late!) because I knew that my words needed to be undergirded by and subject to The Word. And that is where I read this:

If God doesn’t build the house,
the builders only build shacks.
(Psalm 127, The Message)

I wanted to build a beautiful cottage and instead was well on my way to building a shack. No cozy chairs by a warm fire, just made for conversation. No, what I and my hunger for the world’s gold stars had built was just a bare bones, barely adequate shelter.

That Psalm reminded me that God must be the architect; I am just the construction worker. I bring him what I have: my words, my heart, my fingers on the keyboard. I ask Him to remind me, as many times as necessary, of who I am in Him and what I am worth to Him. I bring my repentance when I forget. I ask Him to be my divine “blind spot warning system” that lets me know when I need to make a quick course correction. And I work to expand the audience for the message he entrusts me with, remembering that all those Likes, Follows and Favorites belong ultimately to Him.

Mother Theresa said, “I do not pray for success. I ask for faithfulness.” Amen and amen.

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

In God We Trust

I spent this morning in a room full of pain. It is not a space designed for comfort, physical or otherwise. The wooden benches are hard and the heat is stifling even on a frigid January day. An aisle separates the “sides” in this judicial proceeding — the victim’s family and friends on the right, defendant’s on the left, like some sick joke of a wedding. It lacks the majesty of movie courtrooms: no dark wood panelling, high ceilings or gold inlay. Just a drab little box of a room with scuffed linoleum floors and a microphone that doesn’t work. It hardly seems a worthy setting for the drama unfolding.

I have come to this most unprepossessing place to hear sentence pronounced on the man who killed my friend. I sit in the same seat as I did during the trial, although at least this time, I have a soft down coat to cushion that unforgiving bench. The same cast reprises its roles: the young prosecutor, the bumbling defense attorney. The victim’s grieving husband, brother and friends. The defendant and his grieving wife and children. The judge, whose words will change so many lives. We meet again, in the same room where a few months ago, I willed myself to stay and see the autopsy photos, where I listened to the defendant deflect all blame for taking my friend from us all.

Something is different, though. I notice for the first time the words in large, gold block letters that hang over the judge’s head:

IN GOD WE TRUST

Funny, they must have always been there, but I just now see them. In God We Trust. I look at the red eyes of my friend’s husband, at the sagging shoulders of her brother, then at my husband’s hand holding mine. I look across the aisle at the defendant asking for mercy and the women who love him weeping, and I wonder what those words mean, here in this room full of pain.

In God We Trust.  Is the State of New York and its legal system declaring their trust in God? To hear courts tell it, no. In response to legal challenges over the years, courts have declared these words have no more than “patriotic or ceremonial character”  and “have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”  Ok.  As far as the government is concerned, these words are just a quaint, patriotic, meaningless decoration.  

But for me and for many of us here today, “In God We Trust” isn’t just some patriotic trope. These words are the only oxygen in the room.

We came praying, trusting God for justice, although what that would look like depended on which side of the aisle you were sitting on. Was it God’s justice or man’s that we witnessed here today?  I don’t presume to know.  But I do know that, regardless of whether God “answered” our prayers for justice, we trusted Him enough to pray in the first place, knowing that answered or not, God would still be with us.  

We trusted God for comfort in our grief, although for some that grief was over a brutal, untimely death, and for others it was over a life irrevocably changed by having caused that death.  We put our trust in God to help us absorb whatever blow the sentence would inflict.

After the sentencing, one of the defendant’s relatives approached my friend’s husband.

“Can you forgive him?” she asked.
“Yes, I forgive him. This is what our faith teaches us.”
“May I hug you?” she said, tentatively, tearfully.

They hugged and I was in awe of this God in whom we put our trust. This is a God who fills a room full of pain with strength and solace.  We trust this God who sits next to us on those hard benches, whether we are grieving violence done to us, or the violence we have done to others. We cling to the God, who, in the words of one of my favorite hymns is “a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.”

 

 

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

What Now?

Today we celebrate Epiphany, the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. After worshipping Him and offering gifts, Matthew tells us, “Having been warned in a dream, they left for their own country by another road.”  This is the last we hear of the Magi in Scripture, but do you ever wonder what happened when they returned home? They travelled a long way to Bethlehem and found the King they were looking for.  Then what?

The poet T.S. Eliot pondered this same question. In a poem written not long after his own conversion experience, Eliot gives voice to one of the Magi, looking back on that dividing day between then and now, between belief and unbelief, between old life and new:

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed,
refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the
terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and
grumbling
And running away, and wanting their
liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the
lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns
unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high
prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all
night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears,
saying
That this was all folly.
…..

 

All this was a long time ago, I
remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth,
certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had
seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different;
this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like
Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these
Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old
dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their
gods.

(For a real treat, listen to Eliot reading the poem himself)

Its easy to forget amid the sweet nativity scenes and sentimental carols that the Incarnation was a turn-the-world- upside-down event. It had King Herod quaking in his boots, and all Jerusalem with him. Jesus’ birth challenged not only the political and religious powers of the day, but also irrevocably changed the lives of every person who encountered Him.  The shepherds, Simeon, Anna, the Magi — none would ever be  the same.   Eliot’s poem is a fiction full of truth about life after the drama of encountering God.  It is a contemplation of the Day After the Altar Call.  What now?  What next?

After finding and worshipping Jesus, the Magi went back to their own country, to their old lives, surrounded by the very people who mocked their journey.  If these folks thought it was crazy to follow a star in search of a king, can you imagine what they said when they heard He was found in a manger in backwater village? No, this was no triumphal return. In addition to the ridicule, these pilgrims were “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.”  They were strangers in their own homeland.  

Encountering God can have an unsettling effect on our lives.  It is a thing of mystery and incomparable beauty.  But it isn’t only that.  It is a seismic event, leaving chasms where before there were only cracks that could be ignored. It is a destabilizing thing, casting “certain” things into doubt; making “essential” things dispensable; making us feel not quite at home anymore, among alien people clutching their gods.  Freeing us, certainly, from things we’re desperate to leave behind.  But also asking us to leave behind “the summer palaces on slopes, the terraces and the silken girls bringing sherbet,” pleasures and comforts and seemingly good things to make room for …  well, for what?  We don’t always know what God will fill those spaces with, and that makes it especially hard to leave them behind.    

What now?  How do we live with one foot in 2016 and one in eternity? How do we honor the God we have come to know in a world that is often indifferent at best and at worst, openly hostile to Him?  What does it look like to consecrate ourselves to God while living a (worldly) life that has its own rhythms and demands?  What death will my new life require?

So many questions. When I get overwhelmed with questions, I remember the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer, often used as part of New Year’s worship services.  

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be put to work for you or set aside for you,
Praised for you or criticized for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and fully surrender all things to your glory and service.
And now, O wonderful and holy God,
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer,
you are mine, and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it also be made in heaven. Amen.

These words quiet my soul and bring me back to the simple and explosive truth of my faith.  Whatever is past, whatever is next, whatever is born, whatever dies, You are mine and I am Yours.  So be it.  

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

Jesus Is

“It depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.” This was the famous response then-President Bill Clinton gave to a question asked of him about the scandal that rocked his presidency. Much fun was made of his lawyerly parsing of the question, of his squirrelly, squirming attempt to avoid telling the plain truth.

Oddly enough, this phrase came to mind when I considered the third aspect of Advent: the Advent of the present tense. In between the Advent of history — when Jesus came — and the Advent of the end of history — when Jesus will come again — is the Advent of the present, when Jesus comes into our personal history. It is here that we consider the Jesus of the here and now, the Jesus who is.

But what does it mean that Jesus is? In Advent, we contemplate Jesus’ Incarnation, His becoming human. But having “put on humanity” in the Incarnation, did He shed it once His earthly assignment was done? In other words, is Jesus still human? When we speak about Jesus in the present tense, are we talking about a purely spiritual being that has gone “home”, reverting to some pre-incarnation state? Or are we talking about someone who retains His humanity even as He has been glorified and is seated on the throne?

This isn’t merely a matter of splitting semantic hairs. It makes all the difference in the world to me. I always took great comfort in knowing that Jesus was human. He laughed and loved and mourned. He was hungry and tired. He became angry and frustrated and felt pain when his friends betrayed him. But if Jesus’ humanity isn’t just past tense, if it isn’t just some sense memory, if He knows what it is like to be human because he is still human — that adds a dimension of intimacy and immediacy that someone who is merely remembering an experience can’t give.

Jesus is — and not just in an ethereal way, at great remove. Now, maybe this isn’t the revelation to you that it has been to me. Perhaps you are one of those people who talks about and actually has a personal relationship with Jesus. Maybe you talk about Jesus as your friend or brother. I’ve long felt like a second-class Christian because as often as I’d heard these words, that was not how I saw Jesus.   Until recently, that is.

I was in a prayer session and during a guided meditation, I was asked to recall an early childhood memory. What surfaced was a frightening one: I’m five years old, blinded by the bandages covering my eyes after eye surgery. My cousin taunts me about all the monsters I can’t see lurking around every corner. I am helpless and afraid and vow that I never will be again. This was a seminal experience; so much of my life has been spent trying to protect that little girl.

My prayer partner asks me to imagine Jesus in the scene. I see Him sitting next to me, I feel His arm around me. She asks, “What does he say to you?” “He is says ‘I’ll take care of little Laura. You go and do what you have to do’.”

Jesus has never been more real to me than at that moment and all the moments since when I feel weak and small. Jesus comes, body and soul, to reassure, to comfort and to free me to move forward. In His eternal humanity, He comes as my brother and friend, who knows firsthand the joys and sorrows of this life. He comes as “the image of the invisible God” to offer me hope and healing as only God can. And every time is a new Advent, a new coming of Jesus into the world, my world. Jesus is.  

 

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss