When God Says, “No Thank You”

Poor Cain.

We remember him as the world’s worst brother and its first felon. Over the millennia, he has been portrayed as arrogant, deceitful, vengeful, stingy towards God and nothing less than the son of Satan. To me, he is a tragic figure, the star of a cautionary tale of what can happen when we offer what we have to God and He says, “No thank you.”

Cain was a farmer in a land East of Eden, where his parents had been exiled after The Fall. His work was hard and painful, but still produced enough that he could bring some of his crops to God as an offering. God looks favorably on his brother’s offering, but not his. He isn’t told why and neither are we.

We don’t like it, but sometimes God is like that. In His perfect freedom and sovereignty, God can act in ways we don’t understand, and He doesn’t explain.

And so Cain reacts as most of us would. He is angry at God and at his brother, God’s favorite. He is a bubbling stew of envy, resentment, shame at his own rejection and offense at his sense of fairness and justice. Unable or unwilling to turn down the heat — even after God cautions him — Cain lets it all boil over into murder. He is exiled, a marked man. Poor Cain.

Poor us. Cain is the spiritual ancestor no one wants to claim. His protest of “It’s not fair!” springs as easily from our lips as from his. Whenever someone else gets the blessing we think is ours, our envy can burn as hot as his did. (Joseph Epstein put it best: “Of all the deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.”)

And sometimes, we know the pain and confusion Cain felt when God does not seem to want the gifts we are offering.

Hang around church long enough, and you’ll hear talk of identifying your spiritual gifts. There are spiritual gifts inventories, Myers Briggs tests and Enneagrams that are used to reveal our unique gifts and abilities. God will open doors for us to use those gifts, and He watches with great pleasure as we flourish and His kingdom grows. Frederick Buechner is often quoted to illustrate this:

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

And yet, there are times when we arrive at those places, gifts in hand, and find the door shut.

Where once we found the Lord had regard for our offerings, where our gladness meshed perfectly with the world’s deep hunger, now the way is barred. Like Cain, we are left wondering why. Cain is the object lesson of what not to do in this situation. So, what do you do when God says, “No thank you”?

Do the opposite of what you feel

Feeling hopeless? Pray hope. Feeling angry and slighted? Pray thanks. Feeling envy? Pray blessing on the one you envy.  You probably won’t mean it (at least not at first), but that’s ok. Do it anyway. It is a powerful defense against the sin that “crouches at the door.”  I find the Psalms are perfect for this.  No matter how despondent, frustrated, angry, or baffled the Psalmist was, these prayers always contain praise and thanksgiving to God. They are reminders that for every time you feel abandoned, forgotten or rejected, there are 10 times that God has rescued, remembered and welcomed you. 

Consider that God may be using “closed doors” to draw you to Him.

Cain is angry at God for overlooking his offering, but he sulks in silence. It is God who pursues him and wants to talk about it.

“God spoke to Cain: “Why this tantrum? Why the sulking? If you do well, won’t you be accepted? And if you don’t do well, sin is lying in wait for you, ready to pounce; it’s out to get you, you’ve got to master it.” (Genesis 4:6-7 The Message)

Knowing all the ugliness that lurks in Cain’s heart, it is possible God wants to bring it to the surface and show him how to deal with it. It is possible that God hopes in his pain, Cain will turn to Him. It could be that God wants Cain to recognize sin when he sees it, and having recognized it, resist it.

If you’re knocking and the doors aren’t opening, you could be in the wrong hallway.

Spiritual gifts inventories and personality tests are all well and good, but make no mistake: they don’t bind or constrain God. God could have something else in mind for you. Sometimes God invites us to places we feel we don’t belong, to a far country where the gifts and talents we use to define ourselves are a worthless currency, an offering that is unwelcome.

You may be happily using your gifts teaching Sunday School, but that doesn’t mean that God might not call you to pick up a hammer with Habitat for Humanity — even if you’re all thumbs. It may not make sense to now (or ever) but we have to be ready say, “I’m willing.”

Look beyond yourself
Maybe it’s not about you at all. As hard as it can be to imagine, God’s “rejection” of your offering it might not be about you at all. God’s ”no” to you could make “yes” to someone else possible.
In John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, the meaning of Cain’s story hangs on the translation of one word in verse 7 of Genesis: timshel. In most English translations, it is rendered must as in “Its (sin’s) desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” This is a command, and it can seem as if it is up to us to white-knuckle it and rely on our own strength and will. But timshel can also mean may, as in “you may rule over it,” which gives us a choice and a responsibility. To me, it also leaves room for the grace of God to help me to do what I can’t do on my own.

Sometimes we offer what we have to God and He says, “No thank you.” What we do next will lead us in the way of Cain — wandering in exile, far from God — or in the way of God’s sometimes surprising will for us. 

timshel-thou-mayest

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

Imagine That

Photo credit: Laura LaSpalluto

With the late afternoon sun at just the right angle, the Creation of the World, rendered in stained glass, had never looked more beautiful. I have worshipped in this space many times, with many of the same people that are here today for an interfaith worship concert. I know that this institution and the people in it believe the church is a force for good in the world, a light in the darkness. That’s why I was so unprepared for what happened.

In this sacred space, a lampstand of the second largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., people got to their feet and cheered the notion that what was wrong with the world was religion.

The song that elicited this Standing O was John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The soloist invited us to “Imagine all the people, living life in peace.” How we ache for that, when the city of Aleppo is reduced to rubble and its citizens dead, starving or in exile. Dare we hope for a world that “will be as one” when terror and mayhem are striking ever closer to home? We wake every day to a cacophony of political distrust and acrimony. It’s no wonder we hear hope in Lennon’s words and we stand and we cheer. Yes. This is what we want. This is what we hope for. We want it so badly that it’s easy to only hear the words of love and peace.

But there are other words that get lost in the sentimental haze of this beloved anthem. They are the words that show us Lennon’s way to this utopia:

Imagine there’s no heaven …
Imagine there’s no countries …

And no religion, too …

We can have the peace we long for if we could just be free from the corrupting forces of political and religious institutions. No countries, no religion, no possessions: this is how we can be selfless, loving and living in pure harmony. This is the thoroughly modern worldview that says people are basically good, and if they’re not, we can blame the government, or the church, or economic systems.

The Christian worldview is very different. Humans are a paradox. We are created in the image of God and declared good by Him, as depicted in the stained glass windows that were the backdrop for this afternoon’s exercise in irony. Yet at the same time, we carry within us the potential for rebellion, selfishness, violence and greed. In other words, we have the capacity for sin.

In this view, we can acknowledge that political and religious institutions have brought pain into the world. Yes, greed keeps some fat and happy while other starve. But these are the result, not the cause of human depravity and violence.

There is disorder in this world that political and religious institutions neither foster by their presence, nor prevent by their absence.

There is disorder in this world because there is disorder in us, and when that disorder is allowed to flourish, we have Aleppo and Orlando. We have modern day slavery and gun violence and every form of suffering a depraved mind can invent.

Ironically, “Imagine” — Lennon’s paean to basic human goodness — reached #1 in the U.S. after his death in 1980. The sources of violence and discord Lennon cites in his song — country, religion, greed — are not what motivated his murder and their absence wouldn’t have prevented it.

No, for that we have to look beyond the easy answers of oppressive systems into the human heart — even into our hearts.

The Christian worldview says that there is a persistent force of evil at work in the world, a force we can either resist or surrender to. To contend that the only obstacles to the peace we long for are political, economic and religious systems leaves us dangerously vulnerable to the most formidable obstacle of all: Sin.

Like John Lennon, the prophet Isaiah had a vision of a world without conflict and pain. Unlike Lennon, in Isaiah’s vision, the root cause of all the world’s pain will be dealt with by a savior with the power to do what we cannot. Our savior, in his life, death, and resurrection began the work of making us selfless, loving and able to live in peace with one another. And in his return, he will complete that good work he has begun.

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
 
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;

but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.

Righteousness will be his belt
    and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling[a] together;
    and a little child will lead them.
 
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
                                               (Isaiah 11:1-7)

Imagine that.

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

The Potter, the Clay and the Stone

 

DSC_0140

The potter sits at his wheel with his ashen hands cupping a squat chunk of clay. It looks unremarkable, giving clues neither to its potential for beauty nor the obstruction hidden within.

He plunges his fingers into the center of the spinning clod and the walls of a vessel begin to rise. As it grows taller and its walls thinner, a small stone emerges, like a mole on an otherwise smooth and flawless complexion. The jar spins and spins and the stone surfaces, distorting the shape the potter is now laboring to maintain. With each revolution, it becomes ever-more lopsided until finally, it collapses onto itself. If this vessel is ever going to be beautiful and useful, that stone will have to go.

This is a story about hidden stones.

*****************************************************

The first time it happened I was kneeling at the altar with my hands outstretched to receive the Body broken for me. By the time the cup was passed, the bread I dipped in it was already wet with my tears. I was surprised, but I figured if you weren’t moved to tears every once in a while by Holy Communion, you probably weren’t paying attention.

Then it happened again and again — during holy moments when I keenly felt God’s presence, and during less transcendent ones, like the church announcements. It would rise up suddenly, like a summer squall. One minute I’d be sitting there listening to the sermon or happily passing the peace and the next, I’d be struggling to tamp down racking sobs. These were not ladylike tears that could be daintily dabbed away by a lace hankie. They were gasping, snot-nosed keening.

I had cried like this before, when grieving or in deep distress. Now, I was neither; I was just crying like I was.

The embarrassment was bad enough; to not even know what all the tears were about was excruciating. My husband pronounced it all a beautiful mystery. I was not convinced. I prayed day after day for God to make it stop. He did not.

**************************************************

I turned to the mystics, who knew a thing or two about holy tears. In fact, the desert fathers and mothers talked of the gift of tears as something to be greatly desired. They saw it as purification, a recognition of your brokenness and need of grace. Evagirus said this gift would “soften the savage hardness of your soul.” Others compared these holy tears with baptism.

My prayer changed from “Thanks, but can I return this gift?” to “Please show me what this means. Show me what you want me to see, help me to do what you want me to do.”

Months went by and nothing changed. I settled into a weary resignation about the whole affair. I continued to worship. I continued to cry. I continued to pray for revelation.

Revelation came one day through a song. While absentmindedly singing along to a favorite tune, the tears came. And for the first time, I knew why.

“I’m so sorry for things I have done,
I’m so sorry for what I’ve become
I’m so sorry for how I behaved
I’m so sorry for acting this way

If you take me back, I promise to seek your face“

These words that I had sung so many times had finally revealed a hidden stone. More than a stone: a stumbling block in my relationship with God.

Since becoming a Christian, I had asked for God’s forgiveness for many things. But never for the years I spent mocking Him, rejecting Him, secretly accusing Him of abandoning me. True, I had left all that behind me and turned towards God. I acknowledged Him as my Creator, my Father, my Savior. But I had never asked for forgiveness for my rebellion. This small stone stood between me and God. 

All at once — and finally — I saw my hidden and unconfessed sin. I asked for God’s forgiveness and in that moment, felt the mysterious burden I had been carrying for months lift. The tears left just as suddenly as they came.

*********************************************

Hidden stones. We all have them. They can be hidden sin or old wounds, disordered thoughts or unrecognized idolatry. They are invisible to us, either through familiarity or willful blindness, and it is God’s longing that we see them for what they are and how they have hindered us.  And if we are to be beautiful and useful, they’ve got to go. Uncovering them and removing them is hard and often painful. And if you’re hardheaded like me, it can take a while. (I often think that for me, God’s “still small voice” just isn’t enough. With me, He has to SHOUT. )

But I also know that we can become more sensitive, softer-hearted, more attuned to what God is trying to do with us, in us and for us. I like to pray these verses from Psalm 139:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

It is a prayer of preparation, allowing me to be formed true and straight and strong by purging my impurities.

It is a prayer for revelation, asking to see in myself what God sees in me.

It is a prayer of absolute trust in a God who wants to remove my “stones” and get on with the work of making me beautiful and useful to his purposes.

 

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

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

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

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

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