In Love in Holy Week

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.

IMG_1508

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” 

 

It’s Holy Week in Belgium

CeJOHz4WoAA8IoM
“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.

The Day Before “the Bad Day”

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.

Light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel-stckxchng

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.

Rethinking Lent

8536f3694e2ed95028567fdb725d7568-2

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.

 

The Incarnation of Love

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.

8db8f15824771a965082f72e88b001cd
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?

toy-christmas-heart-heart-red-branch-needles-pine-tree-holiday-decoration-christmas

Four Eyes are Better than Two

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

Distraction-Free Living

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.

The Man I Didn’t Want to Love

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.

There’s No Place Like Home

The Entrance to La Casa de Maria Retreat and Conference Center
The Entrance to La Casa de Maria Retreat and Conference Center

Traditionally, today is the saddest day of the year for our family. Barring any major tragedies during the year, the third Monday of July breaks our collective heart open and grounds us back into reality. It is our first day home from Family Retreat.

As I was packing last Saturday, I posted on Facebook that we were headed to “The Happiest Place on Earth,” and I wasn’t talking about Disneyland. La Casa de Maria Retreat Center is a perfect gathering place, nestled in the hills of Montecito, just outside Santa Barbara, CA. Even Oprah thinks so. One of her favorite vacation homes is just a few miles away. The weather is a perfect 75 degrees most days with cooler nights. The fog rolls in off the Pacific Ocean to blanket your morning walks and prayers, but burns off before lunch to warm the rest of your day. Ancient trees soar overhead; a creek trickles by and gentle wildlife surrounds you.

For one week each year, our family, along with dozens of others, gathers for what has frequently been described as a glimpse of “Heaven on Earth.” From Sunday evening until Friday at noon, there is Sabbath and there is God. From the moment of arrival, we are new family, Family Camp 2013 gathered together in the spirit of Love. There is neither catholic, nor protestant, sinner, or saint, leader, or follower, woman, or man, married, divorced, or single. In this holy place, we are “all in all” in God. One man, a Christian pastor and new to Family Retreat, looked at me after a few days and said, “This must be a bit like heaven. Look at the abundance.” And it’s true. There is an abundance of Love, of food and laughter, rest and activity, fun and friends (who quickly become like family). There are ideas to fill your head and stories to change your heart. There is the palpable presence of the Holy Spirit at work, though the name of God is not on every tongue. What need is there for words, when actions speak so much louder?

At Family Retreat, everyone belongs. Older children care for younger and the young care for the old. Technology is mostly missing and as a result, parents, teens and toddlers engage with each other and move beyond their comfort zones. Children roam free on the acreage, independent, but safe under the eyes of dozens of concerned adults.  IMG_0060_2There is no speaker-driven lecture series, or one set of answers. There is no prescribed set of Bible verses, as interpreted by one pastor, or faith tradition. There are stories told, personal truths shared, music played and a multitude of gifts and personalities on display. A volunteer team of returning families does their collective best to present a new theme each year, a framework of ideas about God and Christ and Love and how to become better, stronger families, more able to survive and thrive in the world and the many pressures it applies to us all. Instead of breaking us apart, Family Retreat teaches us how to stay together and hopefully gives us the courage to return to our “other” homes and live out our heavenly values there, for the other 360 days of the year. It gets harder and harder as time goes by, which is why so many families return year after year.

Apart from what it feels like, Family Retreat is also heavenly in the sense that it is ecumenical in the best sense of the word. We celebrate the best of each tradition, from the Catholic mass to Protestant music, liturgical and free-form prayer. We gather to be one Church and to worship God, focusing on what we have in common, instead of what could divide us. And just like heaven, Family Retreat welcomes all types. IMG_0094Though there may be a few “angels” among us, most of us are just real human beings with too much flesh and a lot of blood, coursing through our veins. We have dreams and disappointments, joys and sorrows, demons we struggle with. We are unique, but we share a belief in the creative power, healing presence and ability of Love to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things. We trust that Love will never fail to do its work, if we are present and open to it.

One of my favorite songs is U2’s “Walk On,” a song about the end of a life and a soul’s journey to heaven. They say Heaven is “a place that has to be believed to be seen.” Family Retreat at La Casa de Maria is one of those places. No matter how often we tell other people about our second home in Montecito, no matter how many times we invite them to join us, very few have ever accepted the invitation. They simply can’t believe such a place exists, or that they would feel comfortable there. Perhaps they prefer the security of the Law to the messiness of Love. Perhaps it is simply a matter of logistics, or maybe, just maybe, it sounds too much like a cult whose Kool-Aid we’ve been drinking.

IMG_0040Let me assure you, there is no Kool-Aid, just Minute Maid fruit punch and Coca-Cola products in the cafeteria drink machine. There is a swimming pool and a tennis court, a consecrated chapel and a Peace Garden. There is a ping-pong tournament and a talent show. There are family meals, but no dishes to do. There is farm-fresh produce and home-grown wisdom and this blog is my invitation to you. Come and see for yourself how average men and women, children, old and young, families, big and small, can find a glimpse of “heaven on earth” by the grace of God and the power of Love.

If you’ve experienced Family Retreat, use the comments area below to share your stories, or memories. Help me spread the good news!

What’s Better? Bigger or Smaller?

I grew up in a big church community and by big, I mean really big – something like 3,000 families – and Catholic families at that, with a minimum of three kids, but more likely four or five, or an occasional eight. The church sat over a thousand people and most of the services were standing room only. There were a dozen communion stations and a hundred pews. There was big music and an even bigger Jesus behind the altar. In my young mind, everything about that church shouted, “Alleluia.”

On any given Sunday, there were babies crying and toddlers whining, old folks coughing and parents shushing, but it didn’t matter. A thousand voices raised in song, a thousand voices saying, “Amen,” a thousand pairs of knees hitting the ground in unison drowned the distractions out.

That church community was a second home to me. For eight years, I went to school in the shadow of the church steeple and on Sunday mornings, I was back under it for mass and then over to the school gym for doughnuts. You don’t spend that much time in a place without it leaving its mark on you, for better or worse. Thankfully, in my case, it was virtually all for better, but there were a few things I had to unlearn and a few I am still unlearning to this day. The biggest of those was that size matters.

Because my church was big, I developed an unspoken belief that bigger was better, at least as far as faith communities go. Why pray alone when you could pray with 30 classmates, 300 schoolmates, or 3,000 other parishioners? Why sing solo if there is a choir to sing with you? Why go your own way when you could join a parade already in progress? If one was good, two was better and it grew exponentially from there. For someone who struggled to fit in, I liked the safety of being one little piece of a very big pie. I felt like I was part of the in-crowd, part of something powerful, universal and true.

When it comes to community and solidarity, there is power in numbers. A big church means you are doing something right, doesn’t it? The prevailing wisdom is that if you are getting people in the door, contributing and singing along, you must be preaching a mighty fine gospel.

When I grew up and left my hometown, I spent many years trying to duplicate my childhood experience. I wanted big and loud and joyful and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a part of who I am and what I like best in just about everything from church services to family dinners to birthday parties. But looking back on it now, I see that what I really wanted was to be a part of a church that was part of a scene and I cringe to think how I scorned small churches, with their cassette-tape choirs and single-service schedules. Surely, I thought, they should just give up.

So it is with great irony (which I often think is a sign of the Holy Spirit at work) that our family has found ourselves drawn to a small church community and by small, I mean really small. There are only a few rows of pews, a tiny, but valiant choir and a single service each weekend. But from the time we first walked in the door, Tim and I felt like we were home. The message is loud, the personalities are big and the spirit is joyful. The mission is Love, inclusion, equality and service. It has moved us towards greater humility, compassion, social justice and a lived experience of gospel values. Over time, this community has taught me that size doesn’t matter as much as I thought, but I’ve never quite shaken the feeling that my kids were missing out on a crucial experience of being a part of something big. There is no “safety in numbers” for my kids at this church. Keara and Finn are the only two teens in regular attendance and Molly is one of a half-dozen elementary schoolers. The saving grace is that everyone there knows their names and that is something you just can’t get in a big community.

But I witnessed something at church last Sunday that helped me see in a new light why bigger isn’t always better. It was the First Communion for five of our young members, which is about half of all the children who attend the church. It was exactly like my First Communion and yet totally different. Each child was dressed in her, or his finest. They were surrounded by parents and godparents, aunts, uncles and friends. They walked to the altar timidly, but eagerly. Cameras flashed, videotape rolled and the priests smiled, but that is where the similarities ended. When I received my first communion, I went to the altar with 70 of my classmates. I was one member of a big, white, satiny army and besides my family and friends, hardly any one there could have picked me out of the crowd.

Not so for the little ones this past weekend. The priests blessed each child by name and praised them individually in front of the community for their hard work and unique gifts. Each child was welcomed to the table as a beloved child of God, which we were reminded, we all are. Each child received a gift from the community that reflected their greatest passion, which we hope they will use in the service of others. There was no safety in numbers, no anonymity for these children. Instead, as I looked around at our community, I saw love and gratitude in every visage for the precious gift of these children and my eyes filled with tears and I thought, This is what smaller can do.

Smaller makes us more aware of each and every person and more grateful for each and every gift. It makes us more cognizant of what we have to lose and the part we play in the outcome of everything. It’s hard to remain anonymous in small.

So although I long for my kids to experience what it feels like to get swept up in the movement of a youth group, or a mass of two thousand, I know they are getting something else that is valuable. They are getting called by name. Their unique presence is cherished. They are both receiving and being a blessing each and every time they show up.

Our culture likes to super-size everything – from movie franchises to mega-churches. If some is good, then more is better. I know I always go for the 42 oz Diet Coke instead of a 12 oz can. I love my weekly trip to Costco. More for less? Sign me up! But the last few years have taught me that although bigger is sometimes better, smaller can also be sweeter. There is a beauty in both that I can appreciate more now than ever before. And if at some point, our budget, or time, or church community ever gets expansive again, I won’t be totally relieved to lose the intimacy I have known in these smaller spaces.