Anticipation

Thinking at this time of year about Mary, the mother of Jesus, I wonder what it was like for a woman to be pregnant in those days.  Would Mary have been fearful, anticipating trouble and even the possibility of dying, or would she have been excited, anticipating the new life and wondering what this baby would be like?  I feel virtually certain she never anticipated watching this expected child die by crucifixion.

Anticipation is a tricky thing.  The free and open delight of anticipation is a joy.  I have a photograph of my then two-year-old son watching for the coming of a fireman’s parade.  His face radiates presence and joy.  He had no particular expectations or attachment to what had to happen.  He was just into it.

On the other hand, we can focus so much on what is to come that we miss what is happening in the present.  We can also anticipate negative things, being fearful and anxious, trying to hold onto control, struggling with perfectionism.  This kind of anticipation steals life and squashes the possibility of joy.  Of course, it can be a fact that hard things will happen.   Yet even in such circumstances one can find a peace that allows one to live in anticipation, not of what is to come, but in each moment with the presence and joy that is possible.

At Christmas time it matters what we anticipate.  Anticipating (maybe expecting) happy children and wonderful presents, or too much to do, family feuds, and food you don’t eat will color the whole season.  What we expect to happen usually misses the mark.  What would it be like if we let go of anticipation characterized by expectations, fears, and controlling, and with openness and wonder anticipated Christ’s coming, within ourselves or around us?

Queries:

What is anticipation like for you?

What is the meaning of Christmas for you?  Does it, or could it, include life-giving anticipation?

Prayer:

Take time in the busyness of this season to reflect on your experience of Christmas and make room for the New One to be born.

For further reflection:

“Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together. . . .” (See Isaiah 40: 3-5.)

“The shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place. . . .” (See Luke 2: 8-20.)

Easter

When I was a child Easter was about getting a new dress, a hat to match, patent leather shoes, and white gloves.  We celebrated the resurrection, had lots of people in church and many people who joined the church that day.  We hid Easter eggs with our cousins in our grandparents’ yard, so we were happiest when the day was sunny and the grass was bright green and growing.  As Protestants it was the empty cross that we lifted up.  We paid little attention to the days that had come before.

Now it’s the whole story of these last days of Jesus that inspires me.  Jesus’ struggle with what is coming, his choice to go to Jerusalem anyway, the betrayal of him and his arrest, the trial, the question of whether he had done anything wrong, the brutality, and the screaming of the people demanding that he be crucified—these events resonate with our times and our stories.  I hear the pain and protests of those who claim black lives matter; and I hear the hidden struggles, suffering, and unfairness that so many people endure.

To live through the story each Easter season is to be reminded that we do not suffer alone, that God understands, cares, and loves us in the midst of our own suffering, no matter how great or how small, no matter how deserved or undeserved it is.  The story of the resurrection offers hope when there seems to be no reason to hope.

The challenge is to be present in this Easter story with eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart that is open.  It is all too easy to be skeptical and dismissive instead.

Queries:

What stumbling blocks or particular joys do you experience with Easter?

When life seems unfair and you can’t fix things, where do you find hope?

Prayer:

Sitting quietly in a comfortable chair with feet on the floor, imagine yourself in one of the scenarios that are part of the passion narrative.  Where are you in relation to Jesus?  What do you see, hear, smell?  How do you feel?  What do you say?  What do you learn?

For further reference:

Read any of the gospel passion narratives—Matthew 26-28; Mark 14:27–16:8; Luke 22:39-24:53; John 18-21.

“For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (See I Corinthians 1: 18-31.)

An Interventionist God?

A loved one is seriously ill, an undocumented mother of children who have been born in the USA is threatened with deportation, color-blind racism means you have to fear for the life of your son in ways that white mothers don’t have to. In the midst of these and similar situations, can we cry out to God, or is that pointless?

A refrain among some who wrestle with religious or spiritual questions is “I don’t believe in an interventionist God.” At best, they say, we can pray for some general wellbeing, or perhaps we can pray for a specific situation so that we will be changed. It seems that to think God intervenes is to say that God healed this person but refused to cure that one, cared about this situation but didn’t care about that one. Who would want to worship such an arbitrary God! But if it is not God’s doing that one person is healed and another is not, that some migrants die in the desert or on sea and others don’t, then how does one explain such things?

I believe that God desires relationship, that our prayers are heard and answered even though we may never understand how or why. I know I am not able to manipulate God, that if the situation about which I have prayed resolves in a way that makes me happy, it is not my doing. I can be grateful and give praise, but I cannot extrapolate from that situation as to what might happen in another situation, mine or someone else’s. What I can do is stay in relationship with God. I can, even must, cry out.

In the Bible story of Job, when he is afflicted with terrible losses and ills, his friends assume he has done wrong and God is punishing him. But Job insists he has done no wrong and demands an audience with God to protest. When God comes, Job is humbled by God’s awesomeness beyond all Job’s understanding. We would like to figure out who God is and how God works, but we can only stand in the mystery.

Queries:

How do you deal with the fact that some children make it through all the terrible challenges to reach the United States and others die? That some things you pray for seem to get no response?

Human action in response to God’s call and leading is important. How do you listen for what is yours to do? When and how are you to be God’s hands and feet?

Prayer:

Take a situation that you care about. Hold it in your mind and heart and know it deeply. In your imagination, lift that situation to the heart of Jesus.

For further reflection:

“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (See Luke 18: 1-8).

“The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.” (See Hannah’s prayer when she who had been barren gave birth to a child, I Samuel 2: 1-10.)

There are things we can change about our character and behavior. By focusing our attention on the change we want, being highly motivated and determined, getting the support needed for the long haul, there are choices we can make and changes we can bring about. At other times what we can’t change is changed in us. We are released from the problem or given the new way. To succeed we must accept what has been given and find what it takes to hold onto the gift.

Yet many things seem to be built into our cells and emotional makeup beyond our ability to change. Perfectionism plagues me from many angles. The pattern is deeply entrenched. I can even get caught trying to be perfect about letting go of being perfect! What do we do with those changes we deeply desire but that don’t happen? Often they are a source of shame and low self-esteem.

The apostle Paul offers perspective and hope. He speaks about a thorn in his flesh, “a messenger of Satan to torment me.” He prays several times to be rid of it but it doesn’t happen. Instead God responds, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12: 7b-10). The invitation is for an inward change that results in self-acceptance and knowledge that one is first and foremost a beloved child of God. How the invitation and the resulting moves come I can’t say–maybe through experiences that open our eyes, through words or actions of others, in giving up our pretensions to be God, and/or in quiet opening to God. But that God’s love for us just as we are is available, I am sure.

Paul talks about his experience, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (2 Corinthians 5: 17-19). He doesn’t mean that behaviors that torment us go away. He means that our weakness contains a gift. The torment can make it clear that our strength comes in depending on God and that God is dependable. Abiding in that awareness is what I think it means to be “in Christ.” In Christ, the troublesome issue may not change, but it no longer defines us. Inwardly we become new. We live in the power of Christ, not of the “thorn.” The torment loses some of its grip, and we have gifts to give the world through a wounded and healed heart.

Queries:

What change have you found beyond your ability to make happen?

In what ways has your life been transformed?

Prayer:

Centering prayer, or another form of meditation, may open you to being changed in unexpected ways. For information on this form of prayer, see www.contemplativeoutreach.org or Father Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart.

For further reflection:

See the 2 Corinthians passages referred to above.

The story of Jesus with Zacchaeus (See Luke 19: 1-10).

Gratitude

When I was a chaplain in oncology, I met an ordinary but quite remarkable woman who had breast cancer. She had four daughters—two who were twins preparing to go to college and two younger girls. Everything that could go wrong did—a complicated kind of breast cancer, a chemotherapy infusion that infiltrated and damaged her heart, and eventually her death before her girls were grown. And yet it was she who taught me most about gratitude.

Despite the negative things I could see in her life, which she knew and acknowledged, it was the positive things she focused on. Every time I interacted with her, she talked about what she was grateful for and what she had written in her gratitude journal. This was no exercise in denial. She in fact bubbled with joy and delight as she talked.

About the same time, if anything had gone wrong in my patient and family visits, the problems were what I remembered as I drove home. Then I learned about the value of looking back over the day to see at what points I had experienced God’s presence. What were the moments for which I was most grateful?

What a change that practice made in my life. In reviewing my day, I saw positive moments that were luminous with God’s grace and presence, moments I would otherwise have forgotten and lost, especially since they were frequently quite small things. Instead of being weighed down by mistakes and failures, gratitude filled my heart, colored my days, and gave me perspective.

Queries:

What is your experience of gratitude?

What have you learned about the nature of God as you reflect on your days looking for the moments for which you are grateful?

Prayer:

Begin a prayerful review of your day, looking for God’s presence. In addition to looking for the moment you are most grateful for, you may also want to look for the moment you are least grateful for. Acknowledge these moments and hear how God is speaking through them. (See Dennis Linn, et al, Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life, Paulist Press, 1995.)

For further reflection:

“You drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock . . .” (See Psalm 40: 1-3).

“Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God . . .” (See Luke 17: 11-19).

Anxiety

At a School of the Spirit contemplative retreat there were five Bible passages to choose from for the devotional reading. One of them was the passage in the gospel of Matthew about anxiety. Almost everyone in the group chose that passage. Anxiety is something we know about.

Writing these devotionals keeps me plunging into anxiety. What if I can’t think of anything to write? What if no one finds these useful? What if I don’t have time to write because I took on too many other good things to do? I imagine disaster surely looms and paralysis is not far away.

Once anxiety gets started, it seems to rush with the air I breathe into the cells of my body, making a home there and growing like activated yeast. Rather than trying to get rid of anxiety, it is finding a way to change the air that helps. As the song says, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you. Sing allelu, alleluia.”

Queries:

How do you experience anxiety?

What does your faith have to say to your anxiety?

What brings you back to a rooted and grounded place?

Prayer:

Sometimes when I am anxious I want a hug from a safe person “to put my skin back on.” Slow, deep breathing, or repeating a sacred word may help. Holding the anxiety in the Light, looking for what underlies it, can give a freeing perspective. Letting the anxiety go may happen if you find words that put you in the arms of God.

For further reflection:

“I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry . . . .” (See Psalm 40: 1-3).

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life . . . ” (See Matthew 6: 25-34)

Seeing is believing?

Sitting at the computer, facing out the window, I suddenly startle.  I realize there is a bluebird, with its strikingly vivid blue color, on the tree just outside the window.  Only now have I seen what has been there for a while.  I had been looking that way.  How did I miss it?  How could I see and not see?

While doing walking meditation a friend heard an owl.  I love birds, and love hearing owls.  I was doing the same walking meditation, but I didn’t hear the call.  If I didn’t hear it, does that mean it didn’t happen?

Wild ginger is one of my favorite wildflowers.  It has a nice green leaf that can be seen year-round along many of the paths I walk.  It looks the same in the spring as in other seasons.  I know now, though, that at a certain time in the spring there is more than meets the eye.  Beginning in late March or early April, when I see wild ginger leaves I stop and scratch gently around in the dead leaves nearby, following the stem until it goes into the ground.  With leaves the right age, and at the right time, my efforts are rewarded by finding its one-inch jug-like bloom.  They’re usually not that beautiful, but for me finding the flower is a special treasure because it was hidden and I might have missed it.

How often is our faith, maybe especially our believing, limited by our not seeing or hearing or searching? It took me a long time to be aware of God’s presence and action in my own life because I wasn’t open to interpreting those experiences in that way.  I was internally blocked from their gifts.  Revelations, epiphanies, and theophanies are there in our lives, waiting for recognition and a response.

Listening to the yearning of one’s heart, beginning to wonder and to ask questions instead of staying with the assumed answers, trying new spiritual practices, or simply desiring to see may let you hear God’s voice or see the gift God is offering.  May we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Queries:

What have you seen or heard?

What might you be missing?  Especially related to faith, what would you have to let go or take on in order to see?

Prayer:

Take a walk or sit by a window looking out at natural beauty.  Read a gospel story (in Matthew, Mark, or Luke) ready to ask it questions and let it question you.

For further reflection:

“He looked and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.” (See Exodus 3: 1-6).

“Let anyone with ears to hear listen.” (See Mark 4: 1-9).