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One of my funniest Ash Wednesday memories comes from my high school years. I was on the Mater Dei swim team and we took our workouts seriously, but we took our faith seriously too. At sixteen, we were “adults” and expected to abide by the rules of fasting on that day. My swim coach, who was also my religion teacher at the time, told us that we were exempt from fasting, but I wasn’t buying it. “Don’t fast,” he said. “Yeah right,” I thought. By the time I got out of the pool for sprints at the end of the workout, I was light-headed, nauseous, seeing stars, but I wasn’t the only one. He had kids falling down all over the pool deck! Something like that is only going to happen at a Catholic school!

One of my least favorite Ash Wednesday memories happened last year, when we spent the day at the E.R. at Rady Children’s Hospital.  Molly had to be readmitted a week after her back surgery for uncontrolled pain. By the time they finally doped her up, she was delirious on multiple doses of Valium and Atavin, which precipitated a crying, laughing, and truth-telling spell we will never forget (and she’ll never remember.) A female pastor – Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal – I can’t remember, came by the room and asked if we would like to receive ashes. Tim and I stepped out of the room and held hands as she completed the ritual: “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” It was a poignant moment, but painful. The evidence of the fragility of life was just beyond a pane of glass.

This morning, I sat down to begin my first official “Lenten” practice – an hour of morning reading, meditation and prayer. That’s it for the most part this year, nothing too dramatic, not like in previous years, which you can read about here, here and here. I thought about how my Advent journey in December was directed by a question: “What gift do you want to receive from God for Christmas this year and what do you have to release in order to make room to receive it?” I had been hoping another question would come to me from the cosmos, something significant, or holy to ponder, but there’s been nada. Each time I tried to pose one for myself, it rang false, like I was a poser.

So I just let it go.  I’m much more trusting these days that the right thing will show up at the right time if I’m paying attention (that’s the actual trick – paying attention instead of being distracted by our iphones, Netflix, food, alcohol, shopping, do-gooding, expectations, etc.) This morning I sat down to write in my journal, where most of the entries are written as letters to God. Instead of something significant, these were the questions that came to me:

This Lent, can I be content? Can I be of service? Can I participate with your work in the world: to love, to heal, to befriend, to connect?

And as I wrote, I realized that the first two questions were for me, but that I had written the final question to Jesus, not to God. That might not stand out to you, but for me, it was really weird.  I don’t pray to Jesus. I don’t write to Jesus. I wouldn’t even claim to know Jesus, even though he’s probably my favorite person who’s ever walked on the planet and I consider myself one of his followers. I love what Jesus said and did and taught and lived. I love the Eucharist and communion tables, especially when they are open to all. But Jesus himself? Mostly unapproachable. So, I sat with that oddity for a moment, and then I kept writing to him:

Jesus,

 Rarely do I pray to you. Your humanity seems too real to deserve prayers “to,” and yet your divinity is too alienating for me to feel like we’re friends. I have been taught my whole life that you were like us in every way, but sin, which always confuses me, because then you aren’t like me at all! Most of what I am is my “sin,” though I don’t use that word any more. If you were “perfect” and “sinless,” then you have no experience at all with the ways I fall short every day, the ways I disappoint, don’t get things right, hurt feelings, speak hastily, covet something, lose my patience, fall into temptation and eat/do/watch something I probably shouldn’t. I think I’ll be trying to work out that paradox – who you are and how exactly we’re related – my whole life…

 But today, I stop and consider for a moment, that this Lenten season is wholly devoted to you: your life, your teachings and of course, your death.

You were like me, (or so they say,) but I see it here in a way I usually can’t.

You had a life, and a path (which probably didn’t work out the way you thought) and a deep Love for God, and you kept trying to be obedient to that Love, even when it led you to Jerusalem and the mob and authority figures that killed you. You didn’t hit the escape button.

How much of that I can relate to!

What if I remembered that these are your 40 days, Jesus, the last 40 of your life? In the end, you knew you were a “dead man walking,” but you didn’t walk away. How tempting it must have been! So, here’s a question: Can we be friends this Lent? It sounds so silly, but would that be a good question?

Can I be content? Can I be of service?  Can I participate with your work in the world to love, to heal, to befriend, to connect?

It is not God’s work I describe there, but your work in this world. I watch how you lived and loved and bucked the system and ate and drank and touched and taught and broke a lot of rules and through that lens, maybe I can approach you, not as a theological dilemma to be solved, but as a life to be examined, a humanity to be loved.

I’m not really sure why I’m sharing these words with you all. I guess it’s because the complete change of focus from God to Jesus was so surprising to me. It was like I knelt down before the altar to my comfortable, slightly abstract image of a lovely and loving God, and I found myself on my knees before a complicated human being, who lived in the flesh and blood and the “full catastrophe” of what this life is. I don’t know what it means yet, but I know enough to pay attention, to keep asking questions and let my Lenten prayers take me where they may.

What questions are you asking this Lent? What practice is your heart leading you towards? What has to fade away, so that something new can arise? How will you approach these 40 days with grace and intention?

Dear Readers (and hopefully soon-to-be listeners)-

One of my favorite projects of 2017 was working on a podcast mini-series: “Practice Without Preaching: Creating a Family Spirituality”.

Here’s how it started.

About a year ago, my friend Paul, host of the Contemplify podcast, emailed me and said: I think you should start a podcast.

No, was my obvious answer.

He knew I was going to say that, so he had an alternative for me:

Record a podcast series. I’ll produce it and put it on Contemplify. Easy-peasy.

He believed in my blog, my stories and my content that much. We could all use more friends like Paul in our lives – the ones who think that the world would be a better place if more of YOU were in it, the ones who not only encourage you, but support you with repeated follow-up messaging and put their own resources at your disposal.

So after a lot of back and forth, a fair amount of technical difficulty on my part, and then actually screwing up the courage to listen to the sound of my own voice with all my “ums” and “you knows” and other verbal idiosyncrasies, I share with you Episode One of “Practice Without Preaching”.  It was released on January 18, with additional episodes being released, one per day for the next five days.

Depending on when you tune in, you may be able to access all five hours of content at one time. Is it binge-worthy? Who knows? You’ll have to decide that for yourself, but I hope you’ll give it a listen, beginning with the first episode where Paul puts me through the Contemplify paces, normally reserved for the rarefied air of published authors, eminent PhDs and theologians, world travelers, poets, filmmakers and the like. I have to admit; I felt a little intimidated going in. My primary job title for the last twenty years has been “mom,” but as Paul kindly points out in his bio on me, I wear a lot of other hats too, (including “an Ambassador of Love,” which just might be my favorite title ever.)

You might be wondering what the series is about. Why should you give up so much of your time (even though it can be down-time, driving time, gym time, etc) to a podcast on family spirituality? If you read, #Signs of Love, you’ve got an inkling of what’s coming. I talk about family, faith, fidelity and all the ways I (we) can fail to Love, but I also get out of my comfort zone and actually get prescriptive instead of just descriptive.

I tell stories, but I also offer some serious “how-tos” when it comes to offering kids a sense of faith and values outside traditional church settings. I challenge parents to intentionally honor their own truths, but also to consider the triggers that keep them from being the people and parents they want to be. I talk about the importance of finding a place to worship with integrity, not just convenience, or cultural acceptance. None of this is easy stuff, but I long for families to develop a healthy spirituality, one that honors the questions, the journey and the dignity of each of its members.

Here’s why I’m hoping you’ll tune in.

  • If you’re a twenty-something spiritual-seeker, I hope you’ll find that God is with you along every road you travel and all the way home.
  • If you’re a thirty-something parent with young kids, I hope you’ll find comfort in finding someone a little further down the road, who can help you map the terrain ahead.
  • If you’re in your forties or fifties and have teens, or young adults on their way out the door (like me!), I hope you’ll find the language to have some important conversations about who they want to be and how they want to show up the world.
  • And if you’re a grandparent whose kids have left the church, maybe this podcast will open up a dialogue about how the signs of your faith might be made manifest in future generations, whether they share your theology, or not.

Anyway, that’s what I hope for this project someday. In my mind, this series is just the beginning of a conversation I’d love to have with you, so stay in touch. Ask a question; post a comment; offer a constructive critique, and let the journey continue.

Start HERE on Contemplify. Paul will offer you all the links to all the places the podcast can be found, including iTunes, Stitcher and Google Play.

 

Knowing the podcast on family spirituality was coming out, I asked the kids to take an updated photo. Polished and perfect? Not by a long shot. Perfectly ourselves? Amen.

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As you can probably tell from my lack of posts, this Lenten season has not been a particularly devout one for me. The week before Lent was a blur after Molly’s surgery and Ash Wednesday coincided with her re-admittance to the hospital. The day made no impression on me until late that evening when a hospital chaplain stopped by and offered to pray with us and offer us ashes. Tim and I accepted gratefully, but when Molly indicated she wanted them, I almost knocked the bowl from the chaplain’s hands. Something deep inside me was repulsed by the thought of marking the body of my suffering child with a sign of her mortality. It seemed morbid and inappropriate, but I let it pass and it did Molly no harm. Still, it wasn’t an auspicious beginning to the season.

The next day, however, something my former pastor Nancy Corran preached to our community came back to me. She said, “If your life is a Lent this year, if you are suffering in a desert already – physically, mentally, emotionally, financially – whatever it is, don’t feel like you have to pile more on. Let your life be your Lent and let God Love you through it.” Those were some of the most profound and compassionate words I had ever heard a priest say, but the privilege of my life had always precluded me from taking her up on her offer. This year, however, I decided it was time. My life was Lent enough.

But Holy Week is here and Molly is back at school. She hardly needs any medication and can manage most things on her own. If you weren’t watching closely, you’d never know she was six weeks out from surgery. And so I began to wonder what I had learned during my “life as Lent” experiment. Jesus’ forty days in the desert showed us that a Lenten practice isn’t about a transaction to be completed, but a transformation to be undergone. He went in to the desert a newly baptized man, but emerged a man on a mission. What about me?

While there were no great changes of heart, my sense of mission has deepened this Lent. More than ever, Love is the ground from which I want to ”live and move and have my being.”

Last night, I read the Passion account from the Gospel of Mark and I was struck by the fact that the word “Love” is never mentioned. 1 John 16 may remind us that “God so Loved the world…” but in the eye witness accounts, Love fades away. Instead, fear, betrayal, pain, cruelty, guilt, and abandonment each take their starring turn. Love may be the motivation for Jesus’ actions, but it’s never explicitly stated and if there is one thing I have learned from all my years of study, it’s that we can’t see what we aren’t told to look for and through it all, Love is what we should be looking for. Any time I see a story about Jesus where Love is not mentioned, I know it’s not the whole story and I have to look again. God is Love and so for Jesus to be unloving, or unmotivated by Love was not possible.

Love is what sent Jesus out of the desert ready to serve humanity: Love of God, Love of self, Love of neighbor. They were all one in his heart and mind and it is that Love, that deep internal knowing of perfect relationship that allowed him to walk through the desperate time we call Holy Week. Jesus’ Love is what makes it holy, because he was wholly committed to Loving us and showing us what Divine Love looks like.

This week, it’s so easy to fall into the pattern of worshipping Jesus, for who he was and what he did. But he didn’t ask us to worship him; he asked us to follow him. He didn’t want admirers; he wanted disciples, women and men who were willing to do what he did, however imperfectly, (because that’s the only way we do can anything). Perfection is the enemy of the good and that was never something Jesus wanted to get in our way. We just have to read the post-Resurrection accounts to see that’s true.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t tell the painful and tragic story of Jesus’ death on the cross. I’m not saying we shouldn’t acknowledge our own culpability in his death and ask for forgiveness. I am saying that maybe we could use this Holy Week to try to Love as Jesus did.

On Holy Thursday, how can we humble ourselves before our friends and family as a sign of our Love for them?

On Good Friday, how can we allow ourselves to not need to be right, or defend our positions and reputations?

On Holy Saturday, how can we rest and just let things be as they imperfectly are, instead of rushing to make everything all right already?

On Easter Sunday and every day after, how can we celebrate the truth that death is not the end of the story and that Love conquers all?

Today, I’ll be washing feet. Tomorrow, I’ll be shutting up. Saturday, I’ll be unproductive and Sunday, I will be smiling and singing Alleluia. I hope you’ll join me.

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Here are some of the other posts I’ve written about Lent and Holy Week in year’s past.

“So Long Sad Lent”

“Rethinking Lent”

“The Day Before the Bad Day” 

“It’s Holy Week in Belgium” 

 

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“Thinking of Brussels and all of Belgium,” courtesy of Flavia Pennetta on Twitter.

I woke this morning, like all of you, to the news of the terrorist attacks in Belgium. I thought, as surely all of you did, “What can I do?”

What can any of us do?

As a practicing Catholic Christian, Holy Week gives me an answer.

I attended mass on Palm Sunday, just two days ago, where I heard the gospel writer Luke report that Jesus saw the city of Jerusalem and wept, saying, “If this day you only knew what makes for peace, but now it is hidden from your eyes…” Jerusalem was a stand-in for God’s chosen people, which Jesus knew included everyone.

Surely Jesus is weeping today – for Brussels, for Belgium, for the world, the victims and the perpetrators.

We do not know how to make peace. It eludes us at every turn. We have tried more sanctions and surveillance, anger, revenge, violence, and profiling to no avail. We have won individual battles, but we are losing the war. We have to find another way forward – at least in our own hearts, because that is where all lasting change comes – from the inside out and the bottom up. And I think about how Jesus acted during the final days of his life and it gives me a clue about where to begin.

The Buddhists have a term for individuals who act as Jesus did in the world, especially as he entered Jerusalem, knowing he was going to his death. They are called SPIRITUAL WARRIORS. 

A spiritual warrior is “one who combats the universal enemy; a heroic being with a brave mind and ethical impulse.” The spiritual warrior’s “only complete and right practice is that which compassionately helps other beings with wisdom.”

I believe that is how Jesus entered Jerusalem. He went, full of compassion for the brokenness of our world, in order to teach us another, wiser, way to be.

While some Christians cling to the idea that Jesus’ death paid our debt to God, I don’t see it that way. Honoring a divine blood price and human sacrifice sounds far more like something the Islamic terrorists would embrace than the God that Jesus’ humble, loving, and merciful life revealed.

Theologian Ronald Rolheiser wrote a beautiful alternative metaphor of how Jesus’ willing, sacrificial death might have accomplished the same purpose of universal love and salvation, but through an entirely different mechanism.

Jesus took away our sins in the same way a filter purifies water. A filter takes in impure water, holds the impurities inside of itself and gives back only the pure water. It transforms rather than transmits. We see this in Jesus. Like the ultimate cleaning filter, he purifies life itself. He takes in hatred, holds it, transforms it, and gives back Love. He takes in chaos, holds it, transforms it, and gives back order. He takes in fear, holds it, transforms it and gives back freedom. He takes in jealousy, holds it, transforms it and gives back affirmation. He takes in Satan and murder, holds them, transforms them and gives back only God and forgiveness.

This is it friends! This is how we can live like Jesus, no matter what our faith, or belief system, or even if we have none at all.

 In fact, I guarantee you are already doing it! Every time you act, instead of react; every time you hold your child’s fear, your friend’s anger, your life’s chaos, and give back something better, you are the holding tank and the filter of Love.

But in these difficult times, we have to crank up our internal filtering systems and start working overtime. We have to pay attention to what’s coming in and be intentional about what we are putting back out, because that is what a spiritual warrior does and that is what we are all called to be! Of course, some of us are called to be military warriors as well, to work on the front lines of defense against terror and violence, but we are still called first and foremost to be spiritual warriors, especially if we call ourselves Christians. Only by holding and transforming hate into Love as Jesus did will we meet the evil of this world with a more powerful force than itself. Remember what Paul affirms for us: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love NEVER fails.” 1 Corinthians 13:7. If Love appears to be failing, it is because we haven’t really tried it yet.

Mark Nepo says that the spiritual warrior is “someone who is committed to a life of transformation not knowing where it will take them, or what it looks like,” but that you can be sure “they have a crack in their heart, because that’s how the mysteries get in.” Jesus wept because his heart was full of cracks; it was broken open for all of humanity and we must allow the same to happen to us if we have any hope of being a part of the peace-making process in the world. I don’t know what it will look like, but I know we must begin there.

I had plans to commemorate Holy Week in church settings: to share Jesus’ last meal, recall his final words to his family and friends, and observe his persecution and death, but my piety has evaporated in the face of tragic reality. This week instead, I’m going to learn all I can about the victims of today’s bombings, the ones who ate their last meals and spoke their final words and walked to their deaths, not willingly, but betrayed, as Jesus was, by the worst of blind, ignorant, and fearful humanity. My faith demands that I hold them, as I would hold Jesus this week, in Love. I don’t know what difference it will make, but it is what the cracks in my heart ask me to do.

I know I quote Richard Rohr way too often, but he is so good and as always, he gave me a path forward just this week. In his daily meditation on Saturday, he wrote, “True spirituality is about keeping your heart space open. It is daily, constant work. The temptation is to close down: to judge and dismiss and hate and fear.” But if we are training to be spiritual warriors, we have to resist that temptation, because giving into it means deserting the work of God in the world, which is Love, mercy, reconciliation and healing. Richard goes on: “You have to work to live in Love, to have a generosity of spirit, a readiness to smile, a willingness to serve… Love is a choice. You have to deliberately, consciously, intentionally choose to stay connected through your practice to the Source of Love, which is the heart of God.”

Practice, warriors, practice! This week especially! Every time you remember, every moment you have to spare, let the cracks in your heart be a filter for Love. Breathe in the pain of the world and breathe out healing and wholeness. Breathe in the hate and breathe out forgiveness. Breathe in the judgment and breathe out compassion and mercy. Breathe in the toxicity, pain, and fear of humanity and breathe out Divine Love. And although I know we cannot bring new life to Belgium at the end of this Holy Week, we will be bringing new life to the world from the inside out.

In the words of one of my heroes, Carry On Warriors!

P.S. The list of the victims is very sketchy still, so I can not name any as of yet, but when I am able to find more information, I will try to update the blog, so perhaps you can hold them in your hearts with me during this Holy Week.

It’s Holy Thursday, a day I’ve always loved. Holy Thursday was the day before “the bad day,” the day we captured and killed Jesus, the day before the whipping and crucifying and dying. When I was young, I used to get a migraine every Good Friday. Our mom would pull us in – from twelve to three in the afternoon, the hours Jesus hung on the cross – no TV, radio, or friends, just quiet playtime or reading, in solidarity with Jesus. It was like our own mini, pint-sized crucifixion. I used to dread that time. As the inevitable call to come home crept closer, I could feel the headache coming on. Later, there would be a church service, a dark, somber affair, with great drama, a reenactment of Jesus’ suffering and death, a time for compunction and weeping for all that we had done to put him there, followed by a simple meal at home. I don’t remember those evenings after church. I imagine they weren’t joyful, lighthearted, or boisterous, our usual routine. I imagine we slipped off to bed, each to our own quiet reverie, overwhelmed by all that we had seen and experienced.

I am grateful, however, that Good Friday was the only day of the year where the image of Jesus’ death, and our complicity in it, was emphasized. The substitutionary atonement theory existed, but not as a major theme in my life. We weren’t told daily that Jesus died to pay for our sins, that the difference between our guilt and God’s greatness could only be overcome by the blood of God’s own son. Though it was on full display once a year, it was quickly followed by beautiful, glorious Easter Sunday. Before dawn, we were up and dressed and eating candy. By 6 a.m. we were singing Alleluia en masse on the church lawn as the sun rose in the East, secure in the knowledge that death had lost its sting. The risen Jesus had gone to prepare a place for us in the dazzling glow of the glory of God.

For some readers, my Easter memories might sound similar to your own, while others might think my family sounded like religious nuts. Who exposes a child to a reenactment of an ancient death penalty and tells them (or allows them to be told) it’s at least partly their fault? It all seemed so normal at the time…

But what is normal now?

That’s the question I ask myself continually. What is the new normal? What is right for today? What have I taught my kids? What do they know, or believe? More importantly, what do their hearts tell them?

I have raised them in Church, with religious education and the Bible. They know most of the prayers, and have received the appropriate sacraments. I did these things as I felt called, honoring the tradition I was raised in, the very one that set me on my journey with God.

I pray their hearts tell them that Love is the answer, that connection and compassion are the keys to happiness, that authenticity is the only way to be a person of integrity in the world and to be authentic means that you need to know who you are. The only way to know who you are is to be still long enough to find out, to be willing to listen to the urgings of your heart, the still quiet voice inside you, and when you hear that voice, you have to be brave enough to act on it and be willing to fail, to know humbly that no one has all the answers, but that questioning the status quo, the way things are, is the only way to keep growing. If you aren’t growing, you are going backwards. And, oh yes, in case you forgot, Love is the answer.

And by Love I don’t mean that sickly, sweet, destructive emotion that is depicted in almost every TV show and movie produced in Hollywood. Love is the ability to keep your heart space open when everything in you wants to shut down and say, “No, not this.” Love is the ability to be brave when you want to run away, to do the right thing when the wrong thing or even no-thing is so much easier and safer. Love has the power to change the world, because it is the root of compassion, justice, equality, hope, humility, commitment, faithfulness, and tenderness.

Do my children know this? Probably not yet, not entirely, but I am sending them the message every chance I get, including tomorrow, Good Friday, “the bad day,” when I will ask them to attend a service with me. What I hope they see, when we commemorate the death of Jesus, is not a death that “had to happen” because we sinned. I reject that premise entirely. But rather the underlying truth of the universe it reveals:

Something has to die, so that something new can be reborn. It might be a dream, a relationship, a belief, a tradition, or even your very sense of self, but what follows can always be better than what came before if you Love. If you hold your heart space open, if you don’t shut down in bitterness, or fear, if you forgive reality for being what it is, Life will begin again. Love always wins.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called God, “Love energy.” Love is the Alpha and the Omega point, where we came from and where we are headed, but we will get there a lot faster if we participate in the process. By choosing Love ourselves, we can live an Easter miracle each and every day.

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P.S. If you remember my Holy Thursday tradition, it continued this year. I am so grateful that at their ages and stages, my children still participate in this ritual of tenderness and blessing. You can read more about our annual foot-washing here and here.

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Last week as I began to prepare for Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent (which starts tomorrow by the way), I decided to review my previous posts on the topic, as well as my journals.

2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 … It wasn’t a pretty sight.

I discovered an unfortunate pattern of pain, struggle and personal humiliation. I set lofty goals, make myself miserable in the process and ultimately end up needing to apologize to Tim on Good Friday for taking him down with me.

This year, I’m doing something radically different.

I’m not changing a thing: I’m simply going to practice my practice.

I’m going to meditate and walk, read and write.

I’m going to hug my family members whenever they get within arm’s length.

I’m going to teach my students and smile at friends and strangers alike.

I’m going to look for Love and share it whenever and however I can.

Whatever I am already doing that opens me up to God’s Loving presence in the world, I’m going to keep doing. Whatever shuts me down, I’m going to forgive and move on.

When I told Tim my plans for this Lent, he let out a huge sigh of relief and possibly even sent up a silent prayer of gratitude to a God he isn’t even sure he believes in.

If I was looking for a sign I was on the right track, that would have done it, but the peace I feel in my own heart is confirmation enough.

So whether you celebrate Lent or not, maybe six weeks in to the New Year is a good time to check in with yourself. How’s it going? How do you feel? What in your life reminds you that you are enough, you do enough, you have enough? I’m not saying you should add anything to your daily routine, but I hope there is at least one moment every day where you think, “This is exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

That, my friends, is a practice worth practicing. That, my friends, is a resurrection.

 

December 5, 2014

Christmas is only a few short weeks away. Nineteen days to prepare, shop, bake and decorate. I was blown away at how quickly everyone got their Christmas stuff out and up and displayed on Instagram and Facebook last weekend. The turkey carcass from Thanksgiving dinner was still warm by the time the lights were on the tree. I’m not criticizing! I admire an ability to work on a full stomach. It’s just not the way I work.

I tend to put the Christmas cheer on a slow burn, much to Molly’s dismay. There have been years where the tree isn’t even bought until the 20th. Presents are kept in closets and cubbyholes until I get around to wrapping them on the 23rd. Some of this delay is simply practical. December is the busiest month of the year for Tim at the surf shop. My semester ends mid-December and I am inundated with finals and papers to grade. The kids are typically in school until the third week. Throw in a couple soccer tournaments, Christmas parties and holiday events and who has the time to decorate?

This year, most of those factors still exist, but more so than ever, I find myself holding back from the Christmas “spirit.” Instead, I’m immersing myself in Advent and the mystery of the Incarnation. If I could, I would wrap my house in deep purple. It would stay dark and candle-lit and smell like pine needles. I would transport us to the top of a snowy mountain where we could sit quietly and reflect on what it means to give birth to Christ in and through our very selves. Of course, Tim and the kids would hightail it out of there the first chance they got, hopping on toboggans to the nearest gingerbread village they could find.

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My December dream house

 

Trying to keep them away from the joy of December, Christmas carols and cookies is more Grinch than Mother Mary, so decorating, baking and singing will commence tomorrow morning. I hate to hold back anybody’s good time, but in my own quiet time, in my reading, writing, and meditating, I am going to hold on to the mystery of the Incarnation that is pressing so deeply on my heart these days.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus was born from and through Mary, but the Christ is born in each of us, over and over again, throughout time and across every continent, in every gender and age, regardless of purity, sanctity or professed faith tradition. All is takes is a willing heart.

Every act of Love is an act of incarnation.

God is Love and Christ is the physical manifestation of God, so whenever we Love, truly, actively and deeply, we are bringing Christ to the world. God is incarnated through us.

Mary said Yes to giving birth to Jesus, because she Loved God. She trusted that God’s Love would sustain her through the shame and pain and instability the Incarnation would cause her. The result, she was assured, would be something wondrous, greater than anything the world had ever known. Love like this, in flesh and blood, would change everything.

Let’s be brave like Mary this time of year. Instead of going nonstop, let’s wait. Let’s sit quietly in our homes sometimes, maybe for a few minutes in the evening by the light of our tree, maybe with a cup of tea on our couch in the morning. Let’s be still and listen for where God is asking us to bring Love into the world through our own flesh and blood.

With God, who knows what that request will look like?

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I've got my four eyes for every occasion.
I’ve got  four eyes ready  for every occasion.

Since it’s been six weeks since I last posted a blog, this confession might come as no surprise to you.

Sometimes, I forget I’m a writer.

Summer is not an ideal time for writing. It’s a time for being and doing. Whether I like it or not, it’s time to be with my children. Without school, they are simply around more. It’s also a time for doing, since they need more rides, more meals, more entertainment, more money, more looking after. So between all my doing and being, there has not been a lot of time for writing.

But summer’s end is quickly approaching and my thoughts have turned to writing again.

A few months ago, I wrote a piece called, “Standing on the Threshold,” about how a far off dream of going to seminary was going to become a reality this fall.

I blinked; summer passed. It’s fall.

I leave for school on Sunday and I can hardly believe it’s here. Though I will only be gone for a week, it’s the start of something new. It felt like an important time to write again, to mark where I am, where I plan to go and what I hope to do along the way.

I heard a sermon yesterday at Keara’s back-to-school mass at the Academy of Our Lady of Peace. The gospel was the story of how Jesus cured the blind man. The priest himself looked like he could relate. He wore thick glasses and without them, I’m not sure he could see at all. He shared that growing up, he was called “Four Eyes” by many of his classmates. They meant it as an insult, but today he takes it as a compliment.

The priest told the story of watching a young, blind boy go to communion. He used a cane to check what was in front of him, but his mother walked behind him with her hands on his shoulders to guide and protect him. The priest admitted that if someone asked him to describe his mother, he would say that she is 5’7,” with blue eyes and brown hair. If someone asked that little boy, he would talk about his mother’s demeanor, her voice, the feel of her hands, her care. The boy, out of necessity, moved beyond his first vision.

Too often, the priest mused, we see only with the two eyes in our head. We take in what we see; we judge it, process it and put everything in its proper place. But how much are we really seeing if we only use our two eyes? We stay on the surface of things, like physical appearance and condition, but miss the essence. We stop short, not plumbing the depths and complexities of people and situations. We see quickly and partially, but unfortunately, we assume we are seeing all.

If left to our own devices, we think the first set of eyes are all we have, when in fact “Four Eyes” applies to us all.

I am a pro at using my first set of eyes. I’ve always been adept at learning anything and everything (except complex math) and spitting it back at the appropriate time – when needed, or when needed to impress someone. And though going to seminary has always been a dream of mine, one of the reasons I’ve held back for so long is because the ones I’ve encountered seemed to focus on the first set of eyes.

What do you know? What can you learn? What can you prove? What can you write, explain, or deduce from what you’ve seen?

I jumped through all those hoops in graduate school. I cared passionately about the subject matter, but it was all words, and head knowledge. It was learning for it’s own sake, instead of the greater good. I couldn’t imagine learning about God, Love, forgiveness, compassion and mercy in that way, with my first set of eyes. They simply don’t see enough.

I want to develop my second set of eyes, the eyes of the heart, and that is what The Living School offers.

At one point in his sermon, the priest held up a mirror to one of the girls in the assembly and asked her what she saw. “Myself,” she said simply. He turned the mirror to his own face and said, “That’s funny. When I look in the mirror, I see beauty.” The girls giggled, but he was serious. He countered that when they look in the mirror with their first set of eyes, they judge the surface that is reflected back at them, and usually they will find a flaw (or many), but if they can look at themselves with their second set of eyes, they will see beauty and goodness and infinite possibility.

The eyes of the heart are the eyes of God.

The eyes of the heart see past the surface, beyond the masks, the posturing, the pain and scars of this world. They know that everything belongs. They may not understand how, or why, or when all things will be reconciled, but they know it is true.

There are many ways to nurture our second set of eyes, but first we must acknowledge they exist. Many of us deny it, clinging to Rousseau’s folly that “I think, therefore I am,” or else living a kind of practical (and pragmatic) atheism, even if we claim a religious tradition. We follow the letter of the law we see, rather than the spirit of the law, which takes longer to discern and requires a comfort with ambiguity.

But when we acknowledge our second set of eyes, we also need to start using them, all the time. We can’t leave them at home on the shelf, or tucked away in our coat pocket for when we are feeling particularly brave. We can’t just pull them out for an hour on Sundays. We have to wear them whenever the need arises, whenever our ego hastens to judge, categorize, or dismiss something, or someone that makes us uncomfortable.

When I was a little girl and got my first pair of glasses, I remember the doctor telling my mom that I should only wear them for about an hour. I could wear them a little longer each day, but if I tried to wear them for too long, too soon, I might get a headache, feel nauseous, and even disoriented.

I have to admit that seeing through the eyes of the heart can make me feel that way too. It’s like the things I knew to be true – about what was good and bad, helpful and hurtful, successful, or a failure – aren’t just that anymore. Most events bring both good and bad; they hurt me and help me; they break my heart, but when it heals, it leaves all sorts of little cracks that let the light in. When I keep the eyes of my heart open, I am more able to see the beauty in everything.

Over the next two years, I am going to try to see all that I can with my double vision.

Thanks for reading and joining me on my journey.

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift. The rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant, and has almost totally forgotten the gift.” –Albert Einstein, who I’m pretty sure had four eyes

Augustine

Ash Wednesday is always a big day for me, a day of purpose and change. I feel like it’s a more natural place than New Year’s Day to reflect on our lives and the resolutions we might want to make.  To create lasting change, one must consider the alternatives, prepare and be focused. New Year’s Day, coming at the end of a consumer rush and holiday hangover, doesn’t offer ideal conditions. But this day, an ordinary Wednesday at the tail end of winter, seems like a quieter time, more conducive to thoughtfulness and resolve. And this past week, when I have given myself over to thoughtfulness, my questions about my Lenten practice for this year were resolved.

It is in my nature to stay busy, buoyant and engaged, which is good, because that’s what my life requires. (Funny how it worked out that way, isn’t it?) I like to live life “up high,” not in an altered state, but at an elevated one and I can usually achieve it without even trying, or so I thought until recently.

As I went about my business the past few days, I began to see a pattern emerge. When I was feeling low, I noticed how frequently I used certain crutches to get back to my favored high. To be honest, I have quite a collection.

In his Pensees, 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal defines the human condition with three awful words: boredom, inconstancy and anxiety, which are pretty much the antithesis of how I like to live. Previously, I might have dismissed his observations out of hand, but after watching myself this past week, I think he might be on to something.

As a result, these habits are on the chopping block this Lent.

  • My daily Diet Coke
  • My almost-daily alcohol intake
  • My multi-time-a-day Facebook check
  • My weekly novel
  • My bi-weekly bargain hunting at Target, Costco and other, mind-numbingly overstocked stores for little things I really don’t need

None of those habits are bad in and of themselves. They aren’t even bad for me, except for maybe the Diet Coke. I don’t have a drinking, or spending problem and I don’t neglect my family in favor of my fictional friends.

Rather, these are the items and actions I use to distract me. When feeling flat, they pick me up, make me smile, and ease the burden of the boredom, inconstancy and anxiety that Pascal named as the reality of our existence. In other words, they keep me from feeling what I don’t want to feel.

As someone on a spiritual journey, I want to get better at recognizing what I feel and facing it, instead of simply turning away.  Instead of changing the subject, I want to stick with it for a while and see what happens. Why am I bored in the midst of my busyness? Because writing is solitary work, because I have a routine, because the 20th paper I grade on the psychology of obedience sounds a lot like the 1st and the 5th and the 17th, because life just is a little boring sometimes. What’s making me anxious? Ukraine, health insurance, college tuition, the pain in my lower back, the little roll of stomach fat that settles around my waistband when I sit at my desk, students who don’t turn in their final papers, not knowing what the future holds. What change is on the horizon that I can’t control? Teenage drivers and a college search, future boyfriends and girlfriends and inevitable heartbreaks, a new school for me, an empty nest eventually. In short, everything. Everything changes and I don’t get to be in charge of how it turns out. As you can imagine, there are countless answers for each of the questions, so it’s no surprise that I seek relief in countless ways.

By giving up my favorite “go-to” solutions, I’m trying to skim a little off the top of my wildly successful, distraction scheme and build up my tolerance a little bit. I’m no fool however; I’ve got more tricks up my sleeve.  When I want to get out of my own skin and can’t consume something sweet, or fun, I’ll grab a broom, or clean a closet. I’ll pick up Augustine, instead of Austen.  I’ll go to the library and borrow things they won’t let me buy, just for the pleasure of walking out with something “new.”

My second tier distractions are infinitely less thrilling than my top choices. While the items on my Lenten “no-no” list pick me up and bring me higher, these other strategies just help me tread water. Their purpose is to distract me enough to make it through a tough moment, but not so much that I want to stay there. My top tier does that far too well.

I imagine that by the end of Lent 2014, my floors will be cleaner and my closets less cluttered. Hopefully, my heart and mind will follow suit.

If you want to read of my past Lenten practices, you can check The Big 4-0 and Father’s Knows Best here.

Pope Frances I

Like most of the world last spring, I watched in fascination as Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope. The first day, I was non-plussed. Another old, white guy? Big surprise. The second day, I began to take notice: he was a Jesuit and he chose the name Francis, the first Pope ever to do so. The third day, I got a little discouraged as Catholic pundits and news organizations across the nation scrambled to prop up his conservative credentials and hard line stances. But as the week unfolded, I heard the stories of how he paid his own bills, carried his own bags and rode in a modest sedan across town and my heart melted a little bit. Then came his ordination and in one Pope Disabled mansimple gesture, stopping to cradle a disabled man in his arms, he captured my imagination. I was willing to entertain the possibility that he just might be a different kind of Pope.

Reading the full interview from America Magazine confirmed it. Yesterday, my Facebook feed was abuzz with quotes, excerpts and articles about the interview, but it wasn’t until this morning when I read it for myself that I understood the import of what he had to say. I know journalists and news organizations need the juicy bits, and so focused on his words about homosexuality, abortion, divorce and birth control. Those issues concern me too, but I wanted to know the context. Did he really mean it that way? Did he follow up his compassionate comments with an even stronger emphasis on obedience to the Church, its hierarchy and doctrine?

He did not.

Not once.

Instead, Pope Francis offered an avalanche of Love, a deluge of Compassion, a flight of Hope. What I found most striking as I read the article was the consistency of his theme, no matter how far-ranging the topic. It was simply this:

You are Loved.

That is the bottom line, according to Pope Francis and when you are loved, you are forgiven and you are cherished. Your presence and company are desired. The Church is “not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people,” rather “it is the home of all.” He takes it a step further, strengthening a connection, which has become frayed and worn in recent years. He seems to say to each of us, “You belong to God and as such, you belong to God’s Church. As Christ’s servants on earth, you are our beloved and we must do a better job of treating you as such.”  He calls on the members of the church, particularly the clergy, to focus on the “proclamation of the saving love of God” before all else.

A few minutes after I finished the interview, I received an email from my brother, a soft-spoken, easy-going man and a practicing Catholic. This is what he wrote:

“This article almost brought me to tears…I LOVE OUR POPE. This pope can help this church heal wounds with love. He will open the doors to the church to people who have felt excluded. He will inspire the members to LOVE.

I believe he is exactly what the church needs at this time. 

I’m excited to be led by a guy who ‘gets it.’ The teachings of Christ were about loving one another not about following all the rules.

(Is it okay to refer to the pope as a guy? I think he would be okay with it!)”

And I laughed, because those were my very thoughts. Pope Francis “gets it.”

He knows compassion and mercy must come before discipline and correction. He wants to see church ministers behave “like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor,” instead of simply saying, “Get up and walk” – on the straight and narrow path.

As another theologian I know puts it, “Love wins” and Pope Francis may just have won my heart, by being so open, vulnerable, and humble, unafraid of mystery and content to go where God leads him. I like that in a guy.

He may not be the man of my dreams, but he’s allowed me to dream of a new direction and a new future for the Church.

If you haven’t read the full interview, it is well worth the time and can be found here.