Wrestling

What is it like to be an academically successful college student wondering if you will be deported before you graduate, sent back to a country you left when you were so young you can’t remember it?   What is it like to be a parent of children you sense won’t have now the chance for success that you had when you were growing up?  Or a parent of children who still suffer the deck-being-stacked-against-them that you lived with years ago?  What about those who study the oceans, fish, and coral reefs, and who are already counting the destruction that is happening?  What about feeling ill but not knowing why, having tests and waiting for the results, fearing the news that might be coming?

Serious worry, fear, anger, hurt—how does one live in these times?  How does one avoid reacting in ways that hurt oneself and maybe others?  Where is hope?

This kind of time may be one in which to wrestle with God, being deeply and rawly engaged—to cry out, complain, be angry.  Faithful wrestling can uncover theological misunderstandings and superficial ideas that may be broken open to allow a stronger and more vibrant faith to emerge.  A quick look at the Psalms will let you know that in your complaint you are in good company:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  “Why must I walk around mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?” “How long, O Lord?”

As a chaplain in oncology there were times when situations were just too hard to bear.  I remember on such occasions finding a place by myself and having a talk with God.  Sometimes I wrote, sometimes I was able to be in my thoughts and feelings at the core, and to give voice to the pain.  (You could say I raged at God.)  I stayed with those feelings until I felt heard and I was finished.  (There certainly was no formula.) And then there came some measure of peace, some comfort or guidance.  Often the situation didn’t change but I did.  Certainly these have been times of spiritual growth.  I learned a lot about prayer and who God is, and I found greater trust.  Most importantly, I was enabled to live the next day, in the love of the Beloved.

Queries:

Think about a time when you felt frightened, angry, or in pain.  How do you handle such times?

Where is God in hard times?  Does Jesus enter your picture?

Prayer:

“As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for you, for the living God” (Psalm 42: 1-2a).

For further reflection:

“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” (See Exodus 32: 22-32.)

[Jesus said,] “I am deeply grieved, even to death . . . And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed . . . (See Matthew 26: 36-46).

To Be or To Do

Whenever I share with a group the story of Mary and Martha told in the gospel of Luke, some of the women in the group will be upset by the story.  They know very personally the work required to prepare food and provide hospitality for guests.  They identify with the overburdened Martha and the pain of not being helped.  Jesus’ response can feel to them like a slap.   I heard a man recently accuse Jesus of speaking from “male privilege” because Jesus didn’t know what it was like to be responsible for preparing meals and serving guests.  Things don’t happen if people don’t do.

So why did Jesus support Mary, who was sitting at his feet and learning from him?  I assume, of course, that in Jesus’ day (and in ours?) the role of women was to do the work of hospitality, which means his response was radical, expanding women’s value and possibilities.  He was also pointing to the importance of tending to one’s soul, of listening to one’s Guide, of being present.

What I find is that trouble comes when I see being and doing as an either-or.  If I go through my to-do list with a rushed and distracted checking off one after the other, the tasks will be accomplished but I most likely will have missed the gifts that were present along the way.  Even with the tasks done, I may well still feel burdened.  As I learned from Contemplative Outreach, if I participate in too much, I will participate in nothing.

The same is true of prayer.  If my prayer is rote, dutiful repetition of words or practices that do not leave me open to be moved by God, I have not been present.  I and the world have not been changed.  A time of true prayer is contemplation (quiet presence with the divine) and also action, an act of being that changes what can happen in an act of doing.

Queries:

Are you more oriented to action or contemplation?  How might you put the two together?

What helps you be present in a situation with all you are, not distracted and thinking about the past or future?

Prayer:

Find a time to sit quietly for 20 minutes, praying in any way that you can, listening with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.

For further reference:

“Abide in me as I abide in you.  Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me” (See John 15: 4-5).

“You have forgotten the Lord, your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundation of the earth” (See Isaiah 51: 12-16).

Being Prepared

Anne is a birdwatcher (what English people call a “twitcher”).  As a child she began learning to recognize and name the birds she saw—robin, cardinal, blue jay.  Now she has a life list and travels to special sites to have a chance to see birds she has never seen before.  Being prepared, she says, is the key to birdwatching.  But it isn’t the kind of being prepared that one does for some event occurring at a certain place on a certain date.  It is a preparation that allows one to receive gifts whenever they show up.

To be prepared to see birds takes having a body of knowledge that develops little by little; the more you know the more you can know.  It also takes some aptitudes and attitudes—skill at using binoculars, a framework for interpreting what you have seen, practice, patience, and joy at seeing whatever shows up or even nothing.

I practice a kind of Christian meditation called Centering Prayer, promoted by Contemplative Outreach.  It is a method that prepares the pray-er to receive the gift of contemplation if and when it is given.  Like those seeds that, once planted in the ground, wait months or even years for the conditions to be right—enough water, nutrients, and the right temperature—for germination, centering prayer involves staying put and waiting.

I believe that the whole of the spiritual life is about being prepared—both actively preparing and passively being formed and readied (and everything in between)—for living and for death. The elements of such being prepared include experiences and a framework or knowledge base for interpreting those experiences; a deep desire for, commitment or dedication to this life and to the One who gives it; and a community with whom to prepare.  There are also aptitudes and attitudes that help—practice, ability to listen, trust, and gratitude.

I believe that God’s goodness grants us moments of abundant life, and being prepared enables us to notice them and soak up the joy that might otherwise simply fly by without being seen or appreciated.

Queries:

For what do you have a deep desire to be prepared?  What do you need to do?

In what ways have you been prepared and in what ways are you in the act of being prepared?

Prayer:

Knowing rote prayers of the church can be a way of being prepared.  There are multiple ways of praying. Being prepared happens when one prays regularly.  Take on a spiritual practice of prayer.

For further reflection:

“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (See Matthew 25: 1-13).

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (See Luke 3: 1-14 and Isaiah 40: 3-5).

Lost Baggage

On a trip to Rome for the wedding of a relative who grew up there and whose parents still live in Rome, my husband and I arrived but our suitcases didn’t.  Trying to sleep the second night we were there, lying in bed wearing my friend’s nightgown, I fretted.  Not only was I missing my clothes for coping with the heat of Rome and the special dress I had picked for the wedding, I was missing jewelry I had packed, including several pieces of some value and much sentimental significance.

I felt foolish for having packed the necklaces, helpless in the face of cultural and language barriers and airline run-arounds, and pained by the mistakes and losses.  I lay there hurting.  Eventually I turned to prayer—not so much the kind with words addressed to God requesting a fix or a rescue, but more putting my heart in the goodness of God.  At a certain point I felt myself let go.  I valued the clothes and jewelry; but as far as I knew they were gone, and they were only things, possessions.  I had a choice—to be miserable or to make the best of things and be open and present to the adventure.

I had a wonderful time.  Letting go of fretting about my losses also let go much of my usual need to be in control and even my perfectionism.  In the week we were in Rome I found joy all over the place.  And that joy has followed me home, allowing even more spiritual and psychological changes and freedom.

In reflecting on the experience I find myself back in the Lord ’s PrayerGive us this day our daily bread.  As I understand these words, all we need is what God knows we need for this one day.  All the extra is unnecessary, maybe even baggage that gets in the way of life.  I still have too much stuff, and I’m not interested in losing anything.  But I do have a taste of another way.

(P.S.: We did retrieve our luggage, with no items missing, one month after it should have arrived in Rome.)

Queries:

What baggage would you benefit from letting go?

Where can you go for comfort and direction when things go wrong?

Prayer:

Creator and Sustainer, help me to know what really matters and to be able to let go of the rest.

For further reflection:

“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (See Luke 12: 13-21.)

“. . . do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. . . (See Matthew 6: 25-34).

Thy Kingdom Come

The world of American politics is very divisive.  People have strong feelings that this party and its supporters are good and the other party is wrong, bad, even frightening.  Politics seems fundamentally about power and being able to have power over others.  In the midst of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions I find myself turning again to the Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father), this time to Thy kingdom come.

When I was younger I was upset by the appeal Thy kingdom come.  It seemed like a plea for a male-dominated, hierarchical governing system, which didn’t interest me then, nor does it now.  Admittedly if God is a white male with a long, flowing beard, seated in heaven far away, pulling strings and sending down lightning bolts to punish, God’s kingdom won’t have much appeal for many of us.

I now yearn for God’s kingdom because I believe it is a time when there is shalom, a Hebrew word meaning peace and wellbeing for all.  I think of it as Eden renewed, when God’s word is written on our hearts and God is God of us all and we are all God’s people.  It is like a hidden treasure in a field or a pearl of great value that is worth selling all that I have in order to buy.

The prayer asks for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done, and for that to happen on earth, I think right here and right now.  So how do we open to that possibility, because it does happen already in moments and in part?

I think we can choose to try to know all of us as God’s beloved children.  There is so much social change happening now and international insecurity of terrible proportions.  How can we comfort and be comforted?  Can we ask what are the fears, needs, dreams, and hurts of those with whom we disagree?  What am I blind to in those whose views I find unacceptable that keeps me from recognizing our common humanity?  I think everyone yearns to be listened to, heard, and respected.  Everyone wants a sense of having a valued place at the table.

Queries:

What do I understand as the kingdom of God?

What do I have to let go in order not to slam and box up those with whom I disagree?  How do I disagree strongly with someone and yet be open to hear that person’s soul?

Prayer:  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

For further reference: 

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (See Jeremiah 31:31-34).

Do what you can to be peace and to do justice, but never expect or demand perfection on this earth. It usually leads to a false moral outrage, a negative identity, intolerance, paranoia, and self-serving crusades against “the contaminating element,” instead of “becoming a new creation” ourselves (Galatians 6:15)—Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations, July 27, 2016.

Hurting

My husband Ralph took our grandsons John and Andrew skiing in Colorado over their spring break.  Andrew had been before and is an accomplished skier.  Ralph had taken John skiing years ago at a small ski area in West Virginia, but never in Colorado, so Ralph started him out in a beginners’ class in the resort’s ski school.  The necessary precautions were taken, but when John, following the instructor’s directions, started to ski down the mountain, he didn’t make it.  Instead he picked up speed and lost control, got his ski stuck in the snow, fell hard, and broke his leg quite badly.  The skiing was finished, and a trip to the Denver Children’s Hospital began the new challenges.

In Davidson a 49-year-old mother of four children had a business of pet-sitting and dog-walking.  At an intersection on Main Street that had a new crosswalk and pedestrian-crossing light, she got a walk-light and headed across the street with two dogs in tow.  At the same time a big garbage truck, with a green light, turned the very sharp left onto Main.  Neither the woman nor the driver of the truck saw each other until it was too late.  The woman and one of the dogs were killed.  The driver was taken away in handcuffs.  Word came quickly that no speeding and no alcohol were involved, and that the driver was a respected employee.

Both situations hurt to the core of my being.  I would like to lash out, be angry, and blame someone—as if that could change the situation.   With John, while I was home alone worrying about them, I spent one night imagining John’s trip down the mountain and trying to make the accident not happen—as I do when I have a scary dream and wake enough to try to imagine something different happening in the dream that will overcome the scariness.  Of course that didn’t change anything, and with both situations I am simply left with grief and a big hurt in my heart and my belly.

Where is comfort—for me and for those even more intimately involved?  Speaking for others seems cheap and wrong.  For me, I can do something to reach out and express care in some way.  I can share the hurting with others.  Holding it together makes the hurt a little lighter or less unbearable.  And I can cry out to God, hold it in the Light, lift it to the heart of Jesus, be still in the Presence.

Queries:

How have you or others you know handled the grief and hurt of a terrible situation you can’t change?

What spiritual resources give you comfort?

Prayer:

Divine Mercy, we long for your presence and healing touch.

For further reflection:

“But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases”. . . (See Lamentations 3: 16-26).

“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

Time

With the recent return of Daylight Savings Time, my body is all confused about what time it is and what needs to be done, which makes me think about time. My life often seems driven by the clock and the calendar. I think I am somebody if my days are busy and my calendar is full. But the same conditions just as easily can make me feel anxious and overwhelmed.

While I worked a regular job I used to wish for balance in my life, but I never found a way to have that. My time was full of things I was doing, and there wasn’t time to add what I thought would create balance.

I wonder now how it would have been if I had focused on simply receiving the day, and how it would be if I did that now. Our attitude about the day and how we can live in it changes if we realize and remember that each day is a gift from God, even that having both dark and light in a day is God’s creative gift.

Particular spiritual practices can reinforce one’s awareness and gratitude for God’s presence in the day. A traditional morning prayer is, “O Lord, open my lips. And my mouth will proclaim your praise.” Another possibility is the psalmist’s words, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” What would happen if we began the day with a prayer of praise, maybe even shared that experience with someone else? And during the day, before going on to the next thing, we could simply stop and breathe, until we have returned to calm or remembering.

New Testament Greek has different words for time–chronos, which is governed by clocks and calendars, and Kairos, which is set, arranged, ordered by God. Any time of our chronos day may be a Kairos time. At the close of the day, before falling asleep, we can remember and receive the gifts of the day.

Queries:

How would you talk about time as it is experienced in your life? What does being busy mean to you?

How can you be open to receiving the Kairos times in your life?

Prayer:

To start your day, use either of the prayers mentioned above (or your own words) and then name the ordinary, everyday things for which you are grateful.

For further reflection:

“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

“I keep the Lord always before me; because God is at my right hand, I shall not be moved” (Psalm 16:8).

Daily Prayer

It matters to me to have time for prayer daily. I recommend the practice to you. The prayer can take many forms and when and how it happens can vary as individual circumstances vary.

I particularly like morning prayer—since I am most likely to take the time because it happens before much else does. It also means that I start my day remembering that all is in God, maybe remembering to walk with Jesus. I practice Centering Prayer. Some people may want simply a time of stillness or a brief period of meditation, or even just a morning ritual stretch—maybe a reaching up “Good morning, God” and a bowing “Thank you for this day.” Or maybe a daily time of intercessory prayer on the commute to work, with a planned different category of persons or things to pray for and about each day.

The morning prayer could also be a devotional reading. There are plenty of books, monthly guides, and websites that can direct your content—readings from C.S. Lewis, Richard Rohr, Joan Chittister, poetry selections; Sacred Space; denominational guides such as Give Us This Day or Moravian Daily Texts. Sharing this time is especially sweet—with a person who shares your living space or by having a partner at a distance who is reading the same thing (or just praying at the same time). Bible reading can provide rich food—reading one Psalm a day or one each day for a week, praying slowly through a gospel one small passage at a time, or following a daily lectionary.

Evening prayer—remembering the day and noticing the gifts and learnings in the day, embodied prayer like praying the rosary, or simply taking time to commune with God—is just as valuable.

I find such prayer is like doing a jigsaw puzzle. When I start a new puzzle and the pieces are dumped chaotically out on the table, I like to find the edge pieces and put them together, forming a frame that begins to suggest some order for all the other pieces. A daily time of prayer creates a frame around all my day.

Queries:

What resistance do you have to drawing inward in prayer, stillness, or meditation, and especially to a daily practice of it?

What name do you use for that One who brings life– God, Higher Power, Jesus, Mary, Light, Love, Inward Teacher—and what does that name mean to you?

Prayer:

See suggestions above.

For further reflection:

“In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (see Mark 1:32-35).

“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight” (see Philippians 1: 3-11).

Mercy

Pope Francis has declared 2016 to be the Year of Mercy. To grant mercy for people who make mistakes and are repentant or “worthy” of mercy is fine. But what about those people or groups who are doing terrible things, or who might include some who would oppress or do great harm—or even have values different from mine? Don’t we need to judge them, or wouldn’t we rather pass judgment? James 2: 13 says that “mercy triumphs over judgment,” a statement that seems backwards.

J was arrested for selling cocaine. Mary knew too many young men whose lives had been ruined by cocaine. She could easily judge J. She was clear that what he had been doing was wrong. Yet, he was in fact a young man she had known from the time he was a baby. She had been his youth group leader at church. She knew his father abused his mother and had beaten her so badly that she had been blinded, and she knew that his mother had only recently died. She felt compelled to offer mercy.

She lined up his pastor and got letters of reference to take to his hearing, and together she and the pastor went to court and waited all the time it took for J’s case to come before the judge. Convinced by the support that had been presented, the judge, pointedly holding the young man accountable for what he did with this new chance, released him into their care.

Mercy is not the same as passivity or accepting anything and everything. It is a standing with, recognizing one’s own need for mercy, rather than feeling or acting superior and standing on top of. Mercy has costs. It isn’t about safety and security. Mercy recognized for what it is and received has the effect of yeast added to a measure of flour and liquid. Mercy transforms hearts. It comes from Love.

Queries:

What about your life would make you want to receive mercy rather than judgment?

What do you need to leave behind in order for your life to be more mercy-full?

Prayer:

Breathe in mercy. With the outward breath, let go.   An alternative prayer is the one routinely used in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church–“Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.”

For further reference:

See James 2: 1-13, a passage that warns against showing partiality for one group over another and ends with the call for mercy.

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (Psalm 51:1).

Grace

Grace

On Thanksgiving morning last year all was calm and quiet. No family present or coming. No one from my family, my husband’s family, or our family. This was new, and I felt lonely. But across the miles greeting me that morning was an email from a childhood friend—a blast from the past and a surprise.

Margaret and her four siblings lived on a farm next door to my grandparents whom we visited for two weeks each summer. Two weeks full of fun— feeding baby calves, playing hide-and-seek in the hay barn where we could move bales around to make secret spaces that were hard to find, celebrating her birthday, catching tadpoles.

We grew up. I stayed east of the Mississippi. She married a farmer in Kansas and taught school until her eyesight failed. Our ability to communicate diminished. Our friendship seemed like something from the past. And then last year she got a computer that allowed her to see email with large print. Suddenly we again could be actively in touch, sharing the dailyness of our lives and our families.

So it is her message that arrived first that morning and reached out to my loneliness. Who would have thought, all those years ago, that our lives would be intersecting when we were older than our parents then were? We couldn’t even have imagined being as old as we are now. What a surprise. What a gift. Grace.

Grace is unexpected, unmerited, life-giving goodness.

Queries:

When have you experienced grace?

What helps you notice it when it happens?

Prayer:

Reflect back over the past 24 hours. Notice the moments of grace—moments you especially appreciate, moments that glow as you remember them. Make this a regular practice.

For further reflection:

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

“Bless the Lord, O my soul . . . who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy . . .” (See Psalm 103).