“The Holy Innocents”

Herod, king when Jesus was born, is told by wise men from the East that there is a child born king of the Jews whose star they have been following.  To eliminate the threat this child poses, King Herod has all boys under age two killed.  But Jesus escapes because Joseph had been warned in a dream to take his family to Egypt.

This story has many parallels with the story of Moses, who led the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt, and points to Jesus as a new liberator.  But the story also kicks up some deep and perplexing questions.  What about all those children who were killed, and what about their families?  Why weren’t they saved?  Where was God?  Did God abandon them?

How can I say that God healed me when so many people are not healed?  Does God listen?  Does God really intervene?  Does God play favorites?  Can God be trusted?  Do these hard things mean that God doesn’t exist, or that God doesn’t care?

This Bible story doesn’t give answers to these questions but it does point.  In the gospel story, the death of the children does not go ignored.  Matthew includes a very powerful quotation from Jeremiah about Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be consoled.  The death of children did not and does not go unheard.  In the Roman Catholic Church there is a feast day on December 28 memorializing Herod’s victims—the feast of the Holy Innocents.

When children are killed today, there is outcry.  On September 15, 1963, four school-age African-American girls were killed in a bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  People knew this was wrong.  It became a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement, and it contributed to support for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  When on December 14, 2012, twenty children were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a pall lay over the country.   Their story is not forgotten.

What I particularly value is that Matthew’s account makes clear that the God the Bible talks about is not one who prevents bad things from happening even to people who love God.  God intervenes in human lives but not always and not predictably.  God is mystery; God’s ways are beyond our human comprehension.  What I know experientially is that God is, God acts, God communicates, and God is available—regardless of outward circumstances.

Queries:

Under what circumstances have you questioned God?  What is it to trust God?

What groups of young people suffering call for your care?

Prayer:

You who are beyond our comprehension but not beyond caring, help us notice the children who are being wounded by the circumstances of our world and let us be heard wailing and in loud lamentation.

For further reference:

“Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.  Come, let us deal shrewdly with them. . . . (See Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10).

“When Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick” (See Matthew 14: 13-21).

Praise and Thanksgiving

There is a morning devotional that begins, “O Lord, open my lips and my mouth will proclaim your praise” (Psalm 51: 15), to which the response comes, “Thank you, God.”  The practice made me think about the difference between praise and thanksgiving.

When I asked a friend about the difference, her immediate reply was a felt sense or body awareness:  “With praise, my hands are raised, my head is up, and my mouth is open.  With thanksgiving, my head is bowed and my hands are in a prayer position at my heart.”

Thanksgiving is a wonderful practice.  A woman I know begins the day with her partner—sipping a cup of coffee, eating a bowl of oatmeal, and naming things for which they are grateful.  I have benefited from ending my day looking back over it to see the things for which I am thankful.  Often they are things that I would have forgotten about without that reflection time.  And I’m convinced that reflecting like that before I go to sleep makes me more likely to wake up cheerful the next day.

Giving thanks makes us aware that all that comes our way is not of our own making.  There is someone or something bigger.  Praise lets us focus on that source of goodness and grace.  Praise involves acknowledging and rejoicing in what underlies all things.  It arises out of faith and trust, not comprehension.  Praise takes us out of ourselves and into oneness.  For me, praise can be helpful even when I am doubting or discouraged, because it takes me into something beyond myself.  When we praise God, we find our true proportion.

Queries:

How do you understand thanksgiving and praise?  If one is harder or less comfortable than the other, what is the difference for you?

How do you want to express thankfulness or praise at this time?

Prayer:

“Praise and thanksgiving let everyone sing.  To our Creator for every good thing.  Alleluia, joyfully sing.”

For further reflection:

“O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. . . . For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.”  (See Psalm 96.)

“I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.” (See Psalm 146.)

Friends

I am very fortunate to have many good friends, in my town and around the country.  They challenge, support, and sustain me.  They are the source of lots of fun and joy, whether by phone or in person.  This morning I was out for a walk on a beautiful day when a friend drove past in her truck, recognized me, and waved.  Automatically I waved back, smiled broadly, and felt my heart touched–ah, this is a good day.

I have a friend with whom my husband Ralph and I regularly take hiking trips as couples.  Ralph picks out where we go, my friend finds a place to stay, Ralph picks out the hikes, I find wildflowers and interesting things on the trail, my friend takes pictures of them, and her husband brings up the rear finding things we miss and keeping us altogether.  Each of us has a part to play, and the whole is much richer than any one part or even their sum.

Ralph loves for me to bake a fruit pie.  It doesn’t happen very often because they take a long time to make and no time to finish eating.  I have another friend with whom Ralph once shared a piece of his apple pie.  Ever since then she has been begging me to make an apple pie for her.  One day I will, because her friendship has enriched my life beyond measure, including introducing me to people, places, and ideas that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

True friendship—with its equality, intimacy, and oneness—is special.  Jesus tells us that if we obey his command to love one another, we will be his friends.  We will not be servants or slaves to a master whom we must fear and obey for the benefit of the master’s business, which of course we do not know.  If we love, we will be one with Jesus and with God, and can do much good that will last.  It isn’t easy to love, but we have help.  It is quite an invitation.

Queries:

Who are your friends and what do they mean to you?  How are you as a friend?

What is it, or would it be, like to be a friend of Jesus?

Prayer:

Begin by thinking of a neighbor friend and hold that person in God’s love and light.  Next, but not too quickly, move to a special friend from past or present and do the same.  And lastly to someone not yet a friend or even to someone who is very hard to like.  Again, hold that person in God’s love and light.  Thank Jesus for his offer of friendship with you.  Thank God for God’s love of you.

For further reflection:

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (See John 15: 9-17).

“And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him” (See Mark 2: 2-12).

Another Gray Day

My mood is definitely affected by the weather.  One gray day after another can be hard.  Of course there are some good things about gray days.  They may be warmer in the winter, cooler in the summer; and they provide one of the conditions for things to grow.  A gray day also invites rest and reflection.

But when I am really looking forward to a break in the heat or the cold and enjoying more time outdoors, the gray is especially challenging.  How do we deal with the gloom, low spirits, and lack of energy that can accompany a succession of gray days or a period of spiritual dryness?  Of course every situation is different and every personality distinct.  But here are some possibilities.

Remember that this period will not last forever.  The weather will change and so will you.  Don’t fight the gloom.  Accept it for what it is and find its gifts for you.  Spend time resting, reading, praying in silence.  Perhaps it is a time to dig deep within yourself to find what is going on inside.  Maybe there is a lament that deserves to be heard.  Or questions, frustrations, doubts, or dreams that need the light of day.  If nothing else, it is a time to cultivate patience, faithful waiting, and persistence.

Stability of heart is the Benedictine vow that Joan Chittister highlights for times like these.  It is holding fast to one’s commitment made in clearer times—to the life of the soul, faithfulness to the community of which one is a part, and trust and perseverance in seeking God.  “Stability of heart tells us that the prayer, and the work, and the service, and the study, and the reading and the believing are worth it, even when all of it has never felt more useless, more pointless, more empty of the God we had hoped to find there.” (Joan Chittister, The Monastery of the Heart, chapter 20.)

Queries:

What gifts have you found in gray days or periods of spiritual dryness?

What are the core values to which you want to remain committed?

Prayer:

Maintain your usual prayer practices, even if you wonder about their value.

For further reflection:

“[T]he way we deal with whatever happens to us on the outside will depend entirely on what we have become on the inside.  Wherever we have fixed our hearts, whatever it is to which we have given them, will determine the way we experience all that is happening to us now.”  (Joan Chittister, The Monastery of the Heart, chapter 20.)

“Sing and rejoice, ye children of the Day and of the Light, for the Lord God is at work in this thick night of Darkness that may be felt . . .” (George Fox, 1663.)

Living in Unknowing

I read an article in the newspaper saying that the time to dig up iris and divide them is July-August.  At the very end of August (and into September), I decided that for the first time in twenty years (instead of every three or four years) I would dig up my iris.  The little garden plot had become a jungle of long leaves, and the iris had not bloomed well this spring.  Having put off the digging up and dividing for years because I didn’t know how to do it, I turned to YouTube and watched two videos about how to do it and how easy it was.

I am amazed at how many iris came out of the garden and how few went back in where they had been.  The process was far from easy, and without an experienced person to answer my questions live on the spot, I have no certainty that what I did in the digging up phase or in the planting phase will result in healthy and blooming iris next spring.  Now what I can do is water and wait.

So much of life is like that.  At the end of a certain project what will come next?  Will there be another project and more work?  We really can’t know.  Or, we may have inner clarity that a move is in order, but what we will face in preparing to move and being in the new place is largely unknown.  We may be able to read some guides, get some information, but ultimately we don’t really know what will come.

I think I get captured by fear of failure, fear of being shamed, and that fear can keep me from going forward.  But there is another perspective—knowing God loves us.

All the little things in our lives are part of a much bigger picture.  God is very much in the midst of failures as well as successes, good beyond measure can come even from defeat,  life is full of surprises.  And staying stuck in fear can let your iris turn into a tangled jungle that is much harder to deal with, and with more to lose, than if you had taken the risk of doing the work earlier.

Queries:

Where does fear of the unknown show up in your life?

What helps you live in times and situations of unknowing?

Prayer:

O God, you call us from our settled ways, out of old habits and rutted traditions.  You call us into the land of promise, to new life and new possibilities.  . . Deliver us from false security and comfort, desire for ease and uninvolved days.  Let your Word and Spirit dwell in us that your will may be fulfilled in us for the well-being and shalom of all.  (Vienna Cobb Anderson, Prayers of our Hearts in Word and Action)

For further reflection:

“Then Mary said . . . , ‘Let it be with me according to your word’ (See Luke 1: 26-38).

“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (See Genesis 12: 1-9).

Healing

The gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus’ healing of a woman who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years.  She was bent over and unable to stand up straight.  This is a wonderful story that is very easy for readers to identify with.  There are so many things that weigh us down.

I first thought about this story the day we had a number of first-year college students visiting our Quaker meeting before their classes had begun.  They were bright and perky; but I remembered other students I had seen in other years in the middle of the term, weighed down with schoolwork, relationship issues, concerns about the future, lack of sleep, and more.

I can also remember being weighed down feeling overwhelmed with many different projects that needed to be addressed, feelings of inadequacy, and a sense of great responsibility.  And, especially as a young woman, feeling burdened with being a woman and the struggles that brought me in trying to find my place.  I really value that in the story Jesus sees the woman, speaks to her, and lays his healing hands on her.  All three actions bring healing.  What a joy to be released from the spirit that crippled her—or cripples us.

One time I had been feeling weighed down for several days, with no particular cause that I could point to.  The more I felt uncomfortable about the feeling, the more I paradoxically seemed set on being bent over.  Until I heard a friend, who knows God’s love for her and has a deep and abiding love for God, say, “Sometimes I have things come up that I just can’t handle, and I tell God he is going to have to take care of that himself.”  So I tried that.  “God, I can’t handle this feeling.  You’re just going to have to handle it.”  I first had to agree to let it go if I were released from it, and I had to trust it into God’s hands.  The next day I woke up cheerful.  My anxiety about a particular responsibility had shifted.  I felt companioned by Jesus, open and curious instead of fearful.  The crippling spirit had been lifted.  I was standing up straight again.

Queries:

In what way are you, or someone you know, bent over with a spirit that cripples?

How does your faith speak to that condition?

Prayer:

Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.  In thee I trust.  (And thank you, God, for faithful friends.)

For further reference:

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.  See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (Isaiah 49:15-16a).

“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” (John 15: 4).

Light of Christ

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world (John 1:9). This key biblical text for early Friends contributed to the shape of their theology.  Their emphasis was on the power of the Light of Christ rather than on human sinfulness, although it was that power’s ability to bring change in their lives that mattered.  The Light revealed what was hidden, it convicted, and then it empowered change.

Recently I’ve become aware of some small examples in my life of what that might be like.  A friend I see only on rare occasions reminds me at those times of some words I said to her years ago in a particular context and place.  I at best vaguely remember the occasion and have no sense that my words came from any spiritual depth or wisdom. But for her, those words gave her hope when she was despairing.  She must have experienced through the words a light that allowed her to see a clearer picture of her condition, brought her worry up short, and comforted her so that she could go forward in greater peace.  A little incident, but significant enough in her life that she continues to remember it.

While in Rome for a family wedding I was asked by a friend why I did a particular behavior.  Her tone kept what she said a question and not a criticism.  And I gave her a quick and reasonable answer.  But the question stuck—a light shone on that issue.  Later I was able to reflect on the revealed behavior, see it for what it was, and choose to change, although I wondered how I would be able to.  As if the prayer of my heart were answered, I was empowered to live differently, at least for a time.  The old behavior remains in the light, and the desire of my heart to change is not forgotten.  I am more aware of what the behavior does to another.  I remain dependent on Christ to live in the new.

Queries:

When has someone’s words revealed to you what was hidden in you?

What has enabled you to change—for a short time or more permanently? And how could you or do you stay connected with that power?

Prayer:

May your light shine in my heart revealing what is hidden and needs the light of day.  Increase my consciousness of your light in my life, and the openness of my heart to be changed.

For further reflection:

“I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8: 12).

Your strength is to stand still, after ye see yourselves; whatsoever ye see yourselves addicted to, temptations, corruption, uncleanness, &c. then ye think ye shall never overcome. And earthly reason will tell you, what ye shall lose; hearken not to that, but stand still in the Light, that shows them to you, and then strength comes from the Lord, and help contrary to your expectation: then ye grow up in peace, and no trouble shall move you.  (George Fox, Epistle 10)

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).

Watch and Wait

A woman suffered from a terrible headache.  When she went to the emergency room, she came home with a diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumor.  Her friend, surrounding her with love, began to watch and wait.  The friend didn’t panic or try to find a way to fix what wasn’t fixable.  She simply was present, resting in God, holding the woman in Love.  Of course the friend hurt, grieved, wondered why it had to be.  And she celebrated their friendship.  She held all these feelings in an inner place of quiet and trust, as she carried the woman in her heart and her prayer.

I was on retreat, giving time and focus to preparing upcoming talks.  For a while I tried to push my way through the work I had to do.  I read relevant material from book after book, continuing even when I was sleepy and losing interest.  The harder I worked, the less useful the work was.  Remembering I was on a spiritual retreat, I stopped the pushing and controlling.  I surrendered and began to watch and wait.  I listened to what my body needed.  I did things that brought joy.  And when I heard in my heart that it was time to do more preparation, I turned to that, receiving what was given me.

To watch and wait is important in the contemplative life–a life grounded in God, being seated at the feet of Jesus, open to the leading of the Spirit.  Its opposite is busyness, being preoccupied with what is coming next, rushing from one thing to another and never being fully present anywhere.   When we watch and wait, we are inwardly and outwardly attentive, mindful, observant, prayerful, and present with our hearts open and tender.  In order to be so, we will be surrendered and trusting in Holy Mystery.

Queries:

Being in limbo can be a time of high anxiety and stress or an invitation to watch and wait.  What has been your experience?

What allows you to live in the quiet surrender of watching and waiting?

Prayer:

“Stay with me.  Remain here with me.  Watch and pray. Watch and pray.” (Sing this Taize chant over and over.  It invites a felt sense of being present with Jesus and of Jesus being present with you.)

For further reference:

“Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2).

“Only in God is my being quiet.  From God is my rescue.  Only God is my rock and my rescue, my stronghold—I shall not stumble” (Psalm 62: 1-2, Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary).

Image of God

I’ve been invited to give the morning Bible study at the summer sessions of our gathered religious body, which Quakers call Yearly Meeting.  There aren’t too many of us and they are all friends, so I shouldn’t worry about the opportunity.  I also believe that we have divine guidance available to us in a way that is discernible, and on good days I believe I have been led.  Yet I find myself all too often focused not on God’s love and care but on fears of my inadequacy.

What we believe (or don’t believe) about God and how we function in relation to God can be different.  A friend believed in God as loving, forgiving, and bringing us into peace.  But when invited to draw an image of God in relation to some concerns he was experiencing, he drew a person with a monkey on his shoulder dangling a key just out of reach.  This was a “God” who held the secret to peace but wasn’t willing to share it.  Instead “God” used the key to taunt him and make him frustrated.

What we believe (or don’t believe) certainly impacts us.  Another friend believes she is responsible to bring justice wherever she can.  She doesn’t believe in a God who acts in the world.  If there were such a God, she argues, there wouldn’t be so much pain and suffering.  So she works very diligently at doing good.

These limiting images of the Limitless—of which we are aware or not—leave us less able to see and less able to know the joy and love of God.  Being able to recognize these often-hidden images from which we function is a step toward the healing of our blindness.

Queries:

With what image of God did you grow up?  How has that changed (or not)?  What might blind you to a more life-giving image?

What would it take for your heart and mind to be prepared for an encounter with the limitless God?

Prayer:

“Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge” (Psalm 16:1)

For further reflection:

“Again the Lord called, ‘Samuel!’  And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, ‘Here I am; you called me.’  ‘My son,’ Eli said, ‘I did not call; go back and lie down.’  Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord:  The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”  (See I Samuel 3: 1-10.)

“God gazed down from heaven upon all humanity/ to see whether there existed a person of understanding, / one who was searching for truth” (See Psalm 14).  [For this translation, see Pamela Greenberg, The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation.]