A Threefold Cord

rope-1468951_1280“Never visit anyone empty-handed.” This was one of my mother’s inviolable rules of etiquette. When you rang the doorbell, you’d better be packing — a nice babka from the corner bakery, a book or magazine, or flowers from your garden.

I broke this rule recently.  I didn’t have any choice. The friend I visited is in prison.

I wasn’t allowed to bring in anything — no babkas, no books, no bouquets. The solid metal door slid open and I walked in empty-handed with nothing to offer but myself.  I felt like Wonder Woman without her bracelets — stripped of power and protection.  

In difficult situations, The Present is a welcome social lubricant. The book can be a conversation starter. The cake is an excuse for some distracting busy work as plates are fetched and tea is brewed. Your friend can marvel over the intricate stitchwork of the prayer shawl. But there would be none of that here; I had no props that could give me the illusion of being useful or any tangible sign of my care to leave behind. Like Alice’s Cheshire Cat, all that would be left at the end of this visit would be my evanescent smile.

If I couldn’t bring a present, I still hoped I could offer some magic words — words of explanation, exhortation, words of wisdom. I came up empty there, too. So I sat. I listened. I talked a little. We laughed. It hardly seemed enough.

And yet. Without the protective cover of a present, I was forced to consider the gift of presence. It is easy to minimize the power our “mere” presence can hold, and yet when I think of the hardest times of my life, what I remember are the people who sat with me, who let me grieve the way I needed to, and who were simply there. I think of the time my friend Peggy cajoled me into leaving my dying mother’s hospital bed to go for a walk. We went to the St. Patrick’s Day parade and it was an hour of respite, a reminder that outside that hospital room, there was life. Baton-twirling, bagpiping, beer-guzzling life. It didn’t change anything. We returned to the hospital to the same diagnosis.

But I returned knowing that whatever was coming, Peggy would hold my hand, make me laugh, let me cry. It was a small thing. It was everything.

This is all we really want and it is all we need. In times of crisis, we stand in a long line of sufferers stretching all the way back to Job who cry, “Why?”  There are theological arguments that address this question, but often we have to be satisfied with mystery. Ultimately, we make peace with “Why?” and instead ask, “Who?” Who will stand with me? Who will be brave enough to share my pain? Who will let me cry and listen to my darkest thoughts without shifting uncomfortably in their seat? Who will be Jesus to me?

This is one of God’s enduring promises: I will be with you. And while this is true in a cosmic sense, it is also true in the most literal, boots-on-the-ground sense. God was with me because Peggy was with me. God was with my friend because I was willing to walk into that prison, sit down and offer my presence, as inadequate as it seemed.  God is with us through us.

“Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

                                                               Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

Our presence can seem like an insignificant offering, all that is left after admitting that we can’t fix the problem, take away the pain or heal the illness.  We couldn’t be more wrong.  It is nothing less than the gift of God to the people He loves.

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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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Faith and Fear

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When I was 30, I thought that my life had become too safe. I decided that every time I went on vacation, I would do something that terrified me. So I parasailed over the Atlantic Ocean. One time, despite my fear of heights, I climbed a series of rickety ladders leaning unsteadily up against the side of a mesa in Arizona. I keep pictures of these accomplishments on my bulletin board to remind me that it is possible to not let fear rule my life.

Fear is just part of being human, which is why the Bible talks about it a lot. (The word itself appears 399 times!) Scripture assumes that we will feel fear. The question it asks is, “What are you going to do about it?”

One of my favorite stories is from the book of Daniel. Here we find Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, condemned to die because they would not worship the golden idol of the king of Babylon. They expected God would be faithful to His faithful promise to be with them, even if he didn’t save them from the fire.  Now it’s easy to think that their great faith in God meant they weren’t afraid. I think they were plenty afraid.

But faith is about what we do with our fear.

Do we allow our fears to set the boundaries of our lives, then resign ourselves to living within them? Or do we acknowledge our fear, even respect it, but make it subject to boundaries set by God – what God expects of us and what we can expect of God.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did that. Afraid or not, they knew what God expected of them: You shall have no other gods before me. Afraid or not, they knew what they could expect of God: God would be faithful to them, too.

Now, they weren’t sure how God would do that. They just knew he would. And when they are thrown into the furnace, we see how God fulfills his promise. A fourth man, “who had the appearance of a god” enters into the fire with them, and all four emerge, unharmed. Instead of removing these three faithful believers from the danger and pain, God was with them – in the most literal sense.
And for a completely different picture of faith and fear, I think of Peter. Peter and the disciples find themselves in a storm — the wind is howling, the boat is pitching back and forth and when he sees Jesus walking on water towards him, he thinks it’s some ghost come to finish them off. But even though it looks like Jesus, and sounds like Jesus, Peter needs more proof. He says, “If it is you, tell me come to you on the water.” Peter gets his proof – he is able to walk on the water towards Jesus. Then Peter looks at the storm and sinks because in that moment, he doubts that God is with him.
In the middle of the fire, you can almost hear Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego look at the fourth man and say, “God is with us!” as if they expected him all along. Of course God is with them! That is what God does.
In the middle of the storm, Peter seems to say, “God is with us?” as if he can’t quite believe it.  Peter not only didn’t expect God to be with him in the storm, he didn’t believe it when he was.

Faith is about what we do with our fear.  It is not about some unshakable certainty. It is not some superhuman bravado. It is expecting God to show up when what we fear has come true.
When you are in the middle of the storm, or the fire, or the health crisis, or the family problem, what are you expecting?  Do you expect God to show up?  More importantly, do you recognize it when he does?

 

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