Listen Up!

I’m a light sleeper. I’m constantly on the qui vive for intruders and middle-of-the-night phone calls announcing catastrophe. Earplugs make me blissfully unaware of my surroundings and allow me to sleep through the night. Those little balls of wax are a blessing to my physical and mental health.

Of course, insulation from reality can also be dangerous. Sometimes the very things we want to screen out are the things we are in most need of hearing. I don’t need to hear noises that will disrupt my sleep. But God is so sure I need to hear some hard truths about myself that He will shout until I hear His voice.

I’m reading Isaiah Chapter 58 every day during Lent. This past week, I’ve found myself lingering on the first verse:

“Cry aloud; do not hold back;
lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
to the house of Jacob their sins.”

Before He begins His litany of the people’s sin, God warns Isaiah he’s going to have to break through the self-righteous, self-satisfied, self-pitying bubble they’ve constructed. He’s saying, “You know all the stuff these people don’t want to hear? You’re going to shout it at the top of your lungs! All their dirty little secrets? You’re going to blare it over a loudspeaker to get their attention!”

Isaiah 58 is withering indictment of the people’s hypocrisy. Their lips pray to God one minute and quarrel the next. Their fasting is more concerned with appearances than with true humility. They worship and praise the Creator while they mistreat His creation. And as if that isn’t bad enough, they have the effrontery of accusing God of ignoring their piety and not hearing their prayers.

“Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” (Isaiah 58:3)


The irony is too delicious.

They are so busy whining that God isn’t listening, they don’t see that they are the deaf ones.

They are all too happy to hold God to His promise of hearing their prayers, yet conveniently plug up their ears to His demands for justice, love and compassion. And so, God tells Isaiah to shout. He knows that there comes a time when gentle rebukes must give way to full-throated cries; when niceties and euphemisms must be abandoned.

He knows that nothing less than a blunt, blaring truth will penetrate our willful deafness.

God’s salvation story is punctuated with God having to turn up the volume so we will hear Him:

  • Only the final plague of the death of the firstborn was loud enough to get Pharaoh’s attention and make him submit to God’s will.
  • Only the prophet Nathan’s bold confrontation (“You are the man!”) was loud enough to bring King David to his knees in repentance.
  • It takes nothing less than a knock-you-off-your-feet encounter with the risen Christ to make Saul hear God clearly.

And so on throughout God’s encounters with his stiff-necked people. Until finally, God sends Jesus, a walking, talking, healing, sacrificing Holy Bullhorn to call us to to repentance, to salvation, to reconciliation with God. His life, death and resurrection are God’s greatest — and loudest — proclamation to the world.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” The fact of having ears apparently isn’t enough to guarantee hearing. There needs to be a submission, a willingness, an active decision to hear with the ears we have been given. Sometimes this means pulling out the ear plugs that allow us to sleep in blissful ignorance of our failure to love and serve as God intends. And when we don’t, we can count on God to make enough noise to pierce our deafness.

My prayer for this Lent:

Lord, I do not want to make you shout.
I want to hear what you have to say to me, even if it is hard.  I confess my my obstinacy and my self-righteousness and trust that you will forgive me.
Lord, give me ears to hear.
Amen.

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

True and False Fasting

My inspiration for this Lent’s spiritual practice came from Twitter. There, among the streams of the sublime and the ridiculous, came this challenge from Lynne Hybels:

“Years ago a friend said that if I read Isaiah 58 for 30 days in a row, it would turn my life upside-down. I did. She was right. Try it.”

This seemed particularly appropriate for Lent, a time devoted to self-examination, penitence and fasting. Lenten fasting isn’t only about fasting from food, although that can be an important discipline. Fasting can be any intentional abstinence — from television, from gossiping, from social media. In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster says, “Fasting reveals what controls us.” I have certainly found this to be true. It is not until you try to do without something that you realize the hold it has on you and what deeper needs it masks. I never thought of myself as particularly tethered to my phone until I decided to abstain from electronic communication on the Sabbath. Talk about Fear of Missing Out!

But fasting isn’t only about what we give up; it is about what we can gain. Throughout Scripture, fasting is a way to draw near to God, to hear his voice, to know his will. Isaiah 58 will be my perfect companion this Lent. It challenges me to see the kind of fasting God honors. It shows me the true path to God’s blessing. It brings me to the headwaters of holiness.

I’m going to read Isaiah 58 every day this Lent and see where it leads me. Will you join me?

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