What Should I Pray?

Sit With Me Prayer

Dear God,

I’m not quite sure what to say to you today. Is it ok with you if I don’t say anything? Can I just be aware of your presence? Will that be enough? I picture you out there. It’s comforting, but you’re not as close as I’d like you to be. Can I picture you within me instead? A spark of life deep down inside? Offering answers, hope, love, and comfort. A tiny spark to be sure, but it’s there. Let me just sit with this knowledge for today. That your spark lies within me. I don’t need to go outside of myself searching for it. I don’t need to sift through the rubble of broken hearts, bigotry, violence, and judgment to find you.  You abide in me, offering me all that I know is true and right. Maybe what feels like my gut instinct is really you, telling me what you wish and dream for me. I can follow that if I know it’s you.

AMEN.

Why Did God Become Human?

Nativity

As men and women of faith, Christmas means a lot of different things to us. It’s a season of hope, love, and promise. It’s a time of stillness, joy, and praise. It’s about peace. But if you boil it down to its very essence, Christmas is really about one thing.

The birth of Jesus Christ is the quiet and stunning moment in time when God became human.

As Max Lucado ponders in his book An Angel’s Story: “Jesus entered our world not like a human but as a human. He endured puberty, pimples, hot weather, and cranky neighbors. God became human down to his very toes. He had suspended the stars and ladled out the seas, yet he suckled a breast and slept in hay.”

Why did he do this?

God is all powerful, all knowing, and perfect. Why would He come to us as a human being, with all the limitations that come with being human?

Hundreds and hundreds of books can be written on this topic – God became human to save us, to die for us, to help us know God and become more like Him. I believe one of the reasons God did this was to understand our suffering. Jesus entered a world filled with the vast range of human emotions…including pain. He experienced it himself. He cried tears of grief and sorrow when his friend Lazarus died. He felt the brutal betrayal of Judas Iscariot. He experienced the pain of each nail as he was crucified. I don’t believe there’s any measure of pain we experience that Jesus didn’t experience too during his time on earth.

God does not want us to see Him as a remote and distant figure. He wants our relationship with Him to be everything. He wants to know everything about us and feel everything that we feel. This was accomplished in Jesus Christ and the life he lived on earth. As Max Lucado goes on to say: “He wants you to know that he gets you. He understands how you feel and has faced what you face.”

As the Christmas season comes to an end, let us contemplate the wonderful gift that God has given us in His Son, Jesus Christ.

A Cup of Tea for Advent

Christmas teapotAs the hectic pace of the holiday season ramps up, I encourage you to take a (short!) break from the shopping and decorating and sit down with a nice nourishing cup of tea. And when you do, spend some time reflecting on the teapot.

What makes a teapot a teapot?  Your answer might start with the materials it’s made of. The picture above is a ceramic teapot, so it probably started with clay baked in a kiln. Then some kind of glaze and paint.

But what if I took this teapot and broke it into pieces. It would still be ceramic, glaze, and paint, right? But would it still be a teapot? Looking at it another way, what if I took a solid lump of clay and baked it in a kiln, glazed it and painted it with this same Christmas image. Would it still be a teapot? No.

The missing element in both these scenarios is the empty space inside of it. That’s what makes it a teapot. The place that holds water and tea leaves. The part that bubbles and comes to life. Whistling when it’s ready. The empty space is critical for the teapot to fulfill its purpose.

Just like the teapot, we have an interior space within us, and that’s where our soul lives.  What happens in that space defines our relationship with God. It’s where our spiritual journey takes place. The empty space (and what we do with it) is what makes us children of God.

And so we are called to come to the Cross as empty vessels to be filled up with God’s love and grace. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he writes: “But this precious treasure—this light and power that now shine within us—is held in a perishable container, that is, in our weak bodies. Everyone can see that the glorious power within must be from God and is not our own.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)

We may claim the outside surface…the walls of the pot…but the space inside belongs to God. And we want to keep our interior space as empty as possible so that God can fill us.

Fr. Anthony Ndang Ndichia, a missionary priest in Africa writes: “For God to enter our lives fully, we must be ready to create space: longing opens the heart to receive. The door to our inner self, heart, and mind must be opened: ‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be.’ God needs openings in our lives to get through to us, to communicate with us, to stretch us to greater growth, to nourish us, to revitalize and renew us with love.”

Spend some time thinking about how you might be more like the empty teapot.  How will you make room for Jesus during this Advent season? In doing this, the weeks leading up to Christmas become an exciting time of possibility.

What is God going to do with the interior space of your soul?  How will He fill you up?

Sacred Struggle – Journeying through the Desert

desert

My parish choir sang a hymn on Ash Wednesday that described Lent as a “sacred struggle.”  What a beautiful and thought-provoking phrase.  It suggests that Lent is not a time for putting up a front of spiritual tranquility.  It’s not a time for pretending everything is rosy and perfect.

Think of Lent as a pilgrimage—a journey—and not necessarily an easy one.  It’s time to dig deep.  To walk in the desert with Jesus.

Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit out into the parched wilderness to be tempted, tested and prepared, just as the ancient Israelites wandered the desert so many years before, in preparation for their entry into the Promised Land.  We are called to make this same 40-day journey.  To be tested, prepared, and renewed.  To encounter God in new ways.  And to ultimately be transformed by the experience.

Let us approach this Lenten season as an opportunity to embrace that which is difficult.  To face temptations. To examine our personal failings. To reveal our doubts. To work through blocks and barriers to our faith.

Don’t be afraid to walk through the desert.  You are not alone in the journey.  When you encounter thirst and drought, cry out to God to quench your spirit.  Know, without a doubt, that God will answer.  “They were not thirsty when he led them through the deserts; he divided the rock, and water gushed out for them to drink.” (Isaiah 48:21)

A desert journey is not a time of punishment, but a time of strengthening.  Jesus left his time in the wilderness with a renewed and strengthened spirit to begin preaching the message that the Kingdom of Heaven was near. (Matthew 4:17)  Your time in the desert will lead you closer to that Kingdom.  To a place of deeper connection to our Divine Creator.  To a greater understanding of the gifts we receive – brought to fruition with the Resurrection of our Lord on Easter Sunday.

May your Lenten journey be blessed, as you come out of the desert with a renewed spirit. Amen.

Responding to God’s Invitation

 

jesus-knocking

“Stop in anytime!”

“My door is always open.”

I’ve never felt comfortable with these kinds of open invitations. They’re much too vague and raise way too many doubts for me.  What if I choose a bad time?  What if they don’t really mean it?  Maybe I’ll put it off for now.  They’re not really expecting me, so I won’t go today.  It becomes too easy to let time fall away and never really take advantage of the invitation.

I’ve always preferred something more formal.  An invitation addressed specifically to me with a specific date/time and specific details of the event so I know what to expect.  (As you can see, I’m big on specifics!)

As we begin this holy season of Lent, we are told that God invites us into an intimate relationship with Him.  Again, this sounds a bit vague.  How do we take advantage of this invitation?  When and where do we show up?  What is expected of us?

Today’s Ash Wednesday blog post is my attempt to make God’s invitation a bit more personal and… specific!

WHO
Make no mistake… God is directing this invitation to YOU.  Not to a general group of chosen people to which you may or may not feel you belong—but to you.  Our Lord says: “I have called you by name.  You are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1)  God promises that He will never forget us, for He has written our names on the palm of His hand. (Isaiah 49:16)  John’s Gospel introduces Jesus as the Good Shepherd, caring for each of His sheep in a deeply personal way.  “The sheep hear his voice and come to him; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” (John 10:3)  What a powerful thing to realize that this invitation from God—through His Son Jesus Christ—comes to each of us so individually.  Close your eyes for a moment and imagine God calling you gently and sincerely by name.  You are a child of God… and you matter.

WHERE
Interestingly, our holy invitation does not direct us to God’s house, although we do visit there every Sunday.  But our connection to God takes place within our own hearts.  Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, God abides in us; and for our faith to flourish, we have to let God in.  There’s a famous depiction of Jesus standing outside a door… but there is no doorknob on the outside.  It is based on the Scripture from Revelations 3:20: Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” God respects our free will.  Jesus will not enter unless we let Him in.  He is always there, waiting for us, but it is up to us to open the door.

WHEN
Our invitation from God is for NOW.  Today.  Right when you finish reading this blog post.  It is a daily call to keep Jesus with us always.  God should be invited into every moment of our day.  If this is still too vague or overwhelming to contemplate, then look for ways to make it more specific.  Plan “dates” to be with God.  Set aside a few minutes each morning to pray or read Scripture.  Attend a Lenten retreat.  Take advantage of any spiritual programs offered by your parish.  Spend some time in silence each day.

WHAT TO BRING
All you need to bring is an open heart.  A willingness to let God in.  A desire to be connected to God in all that you do and say.  A willingness to live out the teachings of Jesus in your words and actions.  Jesus tell us:  “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4)

My prayer for you this Lenten season is that you accept God’s invitation.  That you remain connected to the Vine as we await the promise of our Savior on Easter Sunday.  That you live in God’s love just as God lives in you.  Amen.

A Sinking Heart

bleeding-hearts

There are times we move through life with our hearts on our sleeves.  Wide open to receive God’s amazing love.  Moved to listen and understand, we are part of the vast family of the children of God. We offer prayers of gratitude for belonging.  We reach out to our sisters and brothers in loving communion.

With our hearts on our sleeves… we sing, we laugh, and we love.

There are times that our hearts curl inward.  Nestled deep within our souls.  We enter into a period of searching and deep contemplation.  Our hearts are wrapped in mystery.  We long to hear God’s whisper.  We know there is something God wants to teach us and we cling to the quiet so we may uncover His truth.

With our hearts drawn in… we listen, we pray, and we learn.

And still other times our hearts just sink.  We are lost in the fragments of a broken world.  Hope eludes us and despair overwhelms us.  We cannot imagine a world in which God is present and working for good.  Our rational minds tell us that God is out there, but with plummeting hearts we cannot see Him.

With our hearts in the depths… we doubt, we cry, and we ache.

If our hearts are going to sink, let them sink into God.  Not an out-of-control free fall, but a falling in faith. This act of surrender will bring us closer to God than ever before.  We give up our pain, our flaws, and our doubts, confident that God is strong enough to bear it all.  The further we allow ourselves to fall, the higher God will lift us up.

If our hearts are going to sink… let them sink into God.

Allegory of Five Gardens (Part Five)

walled-garden

Long ago, in a land far away, there lived five sisters. The Master Gardener, who loved them all very much, gave each sister a gift – a small plot of land to plant a garden. With excitement and hope, they prepared the soil and planted seeds, giving them lots of water and sunshine until they sprouted into healthy plants. As time went on, the five sisters tended to their gardens in their own different ways.

Months later, the Master Gardener invited each sister, one at a time, to come and share with him how her garden fared. But the fifth sister did not appear. After waiting for some time, the Master Gardener went out in search of her, and found her sitting in her cottage, staring blankly at the walls.

“I come to ask about your garden,” he said. “How does it fare?”

“I have no idea. I prepared the soil and planted the seeds like you asked me to. And then I built a high stone wall around it to protect it from the rabbits and deer.”

“Tell me what grows in your garden?” the Master Gardener gently pressed.

“I really don’t know. I haven’t been in there in months. I just don’t see myself as a gardener. There are days I think about going inside, but it’s been so long now, that I don’t know what I would do in there.”

“My beloved daughter, I gave you this garden as a safe and sacred space. It is yours. All I ask is that you enter and sit awhile.”

The fifth sister did as the Master Gardener asked. She sat in her garden for a morning… and felt nothing. She returned for the next three mornings, and still nothing. On the fifth morning, she sat quietly in her garden and felt the sun warming her face. She watched a butterfly dance among the flowers. She breathed in the scent of earth and nectar and rain. She was overcome with a rush of feeling. A memory of the love she felt on the day she received this precious plot of land. Peace settled deep within. She vowed never again to wall herself off from her garden.

REFLECTION

A life of faith isn’t always easy. We wrestle with questions, doubts, and disagreements—matters that must be explored through deep prayer and examination of conscience. The process can be daunting. We witness those who claim to be Christian, yet do and say things that contradict the loving message of Jesus Christ. We see people use the name of Jesus to hurt and reject others. We don’t want to throw ourselves in with that lot. We don’t want to be anywhere near them. So we distance ourselves from the Church. It may seem easier to close ourselves off from the more challenging aspects of our faith. Avoidance is always easier.

Though our doubts may be justified, it’s our response to these doubts that can often drive a wedge between us and God’s love for us. But walling ourselves off from the love of God isn’t the answer. And the longer we do this, the more our faith becomes a remote and distant memory. Bring your questions to God. Bring your doubts, your anger, your dissonance. Trust that God loves you and will help you work through this time of uncertainty.

Just like the fifth sister, God only asks that you enter the garden and sit with Him for awhile.

Allegory of Five Gardens (Part Four)

sunflowers-268015_960_720

Long ago, in a land far away, there lived five sisters. The Master Gardener, who loved them all very much, gave each sister a gift – a small plot of land to plant a garden. With excitement and hope, they prepared the soil and planted seeds, giving them lots of water and sunshine until they sprouted into healthy plants. As time went on, the five sisters tended to their gardens in their own different ways.

Months later, the Master Gardener invited each sister, one at a time, to come and share with him how her garden fared. The fourth sister marched right up with her head held high and a satisfied smile on her face.

“How does your garden fare, my child?”

“Oh, you have to come see it!” she exclaimed.“I threw away the seeds you gave me because I knew they wouldn’t produce the biggest, most colorful blooms. The flowers I chose are amazing! The prettiest in the village. Every day I stand outside so I can see the villagers walk by my garden and marvel at how beautiful it is.”

“My beloved daughter,” the Master Gardener replied. “While it is true I gave you the garden to do with as you pleased, it seems as if your only goal is praise and admiration. Your garden can be used for so much more. To grow food for the poor. To provide a quiet place where you might sit and pray. You have turned it into nothing more than a showpiece.”

The fourth sister was humbled by the words of the Master Gardener, and she realized he was right. It had become too important to her to have the biggest, most beautiful garden. From that day on she replaced some of the more ostentatious blooms with beans, peppers, and tomatoes, which she shared with all who were hungry. And in the early morning, when no one else was around, she spent time reflecting and praying in her garden. Over time, it came to mean so much more to her than the dazzling display she used to show off to the village.

REFLECTION

If we take an honest look at ourselves, I’m sure there are times we’ve been guilty of behaving like this fourth sister. Putting on a show of our faith. Praying to impress. We may not even realize we’re doing it. It’s perfectly human to want people to think well of us, but it shouldn’t take the place of an honest and intimate relationship with our loving Father.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5-6).

A common misinterpretation of this Gospel passage is that Jesus is condemning public prayer. But we know this is not the case. When Jesus takes the seven loaves and fishes, he breaks the bread and very publicly gives thanks to God before sharing the food. This is what we do every Sunday when we gather to worship. Praying in community is not what Jesus calls into question here. Instead, Jesus challenges us to examine our motives.

Ask yourself these questions: Am I praying to put on a show, to garner praise from others, to compete? Is it more important for me to be seen as pious and spiritual than to really be present to God while I am praying? Am I making my prayer life all about me instead of all about God?

Years ago I belonged to a prayer group that gathered together once a week to pray for our children. I often received praise for the prayers I offered, compliments on a particular turn of phrase or the words I chose. I liked the feeling so much that the weekly sessions became like a performance for me. I was determined to impress each week with the prayers I offered. In my efforts to earn praise and compliments, I began to lose sight of why I was praying in the first place. It was a humbling lesson to learn.

Prayer life isn’t about appearance. It should go much deeper than that. Prayer is conversation with God—the words we speak to our loving Father directly from our heart. We don’t need an audience or a stamp of approval from our peers to achieve this kind of close relationship with God. Let your garden of faith become a time of quiet stillness. A time of praying and listening.

Allegory of Five Gardens (Part Three)

weeds

Long ago, in a land far away, there lived five sisters. The Master Gardener, who provided all that they needed, gave each sister a gift – a small plot of land to plant a garden. With excitement and hope, they prepared the soil and planted seeds, giving them lots of water and sunshine until they sprouted into healthy plants. As time went on, the five sisters tended to their gardens in their own different ways.

Months later, the Master Gardener invited each sister, one at a time, to come and share with him how her garden fared. The third sister approached with shrugged shoulders and confusion in her eyes.

“How does your garden fare, my child?”

“Not well, and I don’t understand why! I sit in my garden every day and pray. For hours I offer prayers of thanksgiving and praise. Yet my garden is a mess! Weeds are sprouting up everywhere, crowding the healthy plants and robbing them of sunlight and nutrients.”

“My beloved daughter,” the Master Gardener replied. “Your prayers are always welcome, but I gave you this garden as a gift, in the hopes that you would care for it through your actions, not just your prayers. The garden needs you if it’s going to thrive. You must show your love by tending it.”

Understanding dawned on the third sister’s face as she realized what she had failed to do. Running home, she spent an entire day cleaning up her garden. Pulling weeds, pruning, watering, and feeding her plants. As a result, it flourished. She had healthy, nutritious vegetables to feed the poor and hungry in the village. She promised never again to forget to do her part.

REFLECTION:

Jesus came to preach a radical message of love and social justice. Our actions matter just as much as our words.   Piety and prayer – while extremely important – is not enough. Jesus challenges us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those in prison. He reminds us: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)

I’ve written before about introverts like myself who are very good at finding time for quiet prayer, but more challenged by the idea of living our faith through action – or Inter-action in this case. God’s gift of grace is ours for the taking, but we must be active participants in this gift. We do so by living out Jesus’ message of love. By becoming the face and hands of Jesus for all those we encounter. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, it is the Samaritan – not known for being pious or obedient to the law – who wins the praise of Jesus through his act of compassion. So many of Jesus’ parables emphasize the importance of putting our faith into action through our deeds.

A faith lived in words only will resemble the neglected garden of the third sister. Take some time this week to look for ways in which you might reach out to others to spread Jesus’ message of love. Come up with an “action plan” for the rest of month or the next season. You will be rewarded with a garden filled with abundant love and grace as you begin to fulfill God’s purpose and plan for your life.

Allegory of Five Gardens (Part Two)

crowded garden

Long ago, in a land far away, there lived five sisters. The Master Gardener, who loved them as his own, gave each sister a gift – a small plot of land to plant a garden. With excitement and hope, they prepared the soil and planted seeds, giving them lots of water and sunshine until they sprouted into healthy plants. As time went on, the five sisters tended to their gardens in their own different ways.

Months later, the Master Gardener invited each sister, one at a time, to come and share with him how her garden fared. The second sister approached with dragging steps and slumped shoulders. Her cheeks were reddened from hours in the sun, and her tired eyes revealed dark smudges underneath.

“How does your garden fare, my child?”

“Too well, I’m afraid to say. I wanted to plant as many things as I could, to thank you and praise you for this wonderful gift. So I have perennials and annuals, creeping plants and climbing plants, vegetables and fruits. The garden is truly bursting with life.”

“Then why do you look so unhappy?” the Master Gardener asked with kind but questioning eyes.

“Now it keeps me so busy I’m exhausted all the time. There’s so much work involved. Weeding, pruning, watering. It never ends. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even enjoy working in my garden anymore.”

“My dear child,” the Master Gardener replied. “I gave you this gift so you could find joy in your work. An overcrowded garden will not thrive and it will only leave you feeling tired and cross. You need balance and simplicity.

The Master Gardener helped her cut out sections of her garden (to pass along to other members of the village) and install a bench, where she could sit and rest in the shade and enjoy the beautiful bounty of her smaller and simpler garden.

A sigh of relief escaped her lips as the second sister delighted in the extra time she had to spend in quiet solitude. She promised never again to take on so much work that she forgot the reason she planted in the first place.

REFLECTION:

Does your faith life resemble the over crowded garden of the second sister? You’re involved in everything. You’re part of every church committee, prayer group, ministry, and Bible study. You can’t say no to anything. Like the sister Martha from Luke’s gospel, you’re overwhelmed with all the work you have to do.

This is a very common situation for many people who are actively involved in ministry and volunteer work. It’s called “church burnout” and we’ve all experienced it from time to time. Our busy schedule of church commitments begins to wear us down. It becomes a chore and even builds resentment. “Why do I have to do everything?!?”

Serving God through church ministries shouldn’t come at the expense of spending time with God.

The church work you do shouldn’t become a block to deepening your relationship with God.

Some points to consider:

Examine your motives. Why do you feel compelled to do so much? Is it an attempt to prove yourself worthy to God? A desire to impress others in the church? An inability to say “no”? There’s no doubt that God wants us to serve others. We see that in the example of his son, Jesus Christ. But we also see moments when Jesus left the crowds to go off by himself, taking time for quiet prayer and solitude. Look for this same kind of balance in your own faith life.

Set realistic boundaries. Once you become identified as the “go to” volunteer for getting things done, you’ll find you get called on for lots more. Be prepared for this and learn to say no if the work is getting to be too much.

Take a break.   “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) God’s grace is not dependent on a numbered list of good deeds we’ve accomplished. You’ll be no less deserving of that grace if you scale back a bit. Remember, God want us to live healthy, balanced lives. The garden of your faith life should reflect that.

So if you’re feeling like this second sister, take some time to sit in your garden and pray. Block out all distractions of fundraisers, committee meetings, and potlucks. Come to God in the silence and rest in His loving embrace. You’ll be glad you did and your faith garden will find new life after a period of rest.

*Read Part One of Allegory of Five Gardens here.