Meeting Jesus Somewhere Along the Way

I’ve been thinking about how often I use the word “perfect.” When I experience a day where everything goes just exactly right, I describe it as a “perfect” day. If I’m throwing a dinner party (remember when we used to do that?) every last detail has to be “perfect.” If I’m writing a blog post or a spiritual reflection, I have to find the “perfect” way to get my message across. In each of these examples, I’m placing incredibly high expectations on whatever I’m doing or experiencing. My standards are impossibly high, and if anything goes wrong, it tarnishes the entire thing.

I wonder if this type of thinking is more harmful than good. The human condition is that we are not perfect. In fact, we were never meant to achieve perfection. It’s our flaws and our brokenness that make us children of God. 

God loves us… 

in spite of… 
because of… 
regardless of… 

our brokenness.

More than that, our brokenness is actually critical to a deepening relationship with God. We need our cracks and broken places. As it’s so beautifully stated by playwright Heather McDonald: 

“It is said that grace enters the soul through a wound.”

What if we stopped looking at our cracks and imperfections as barriers to God, but instead saw them as openings through which God’s love and grace might enter our souls? In other words, just because we’re not totally perfect, it doesn’t mean we’re totally worthless. This “all or nothing” thinking gets us nowhere and leaves us stuck. If I can’t achieve perfection, then why not just give up? Why bother?  

I work at a university, and a professor once told me a story of a bright and talented student who was three weeks late turning in a paper. When he asked her to explain the delay, she revealed a deep fear that the paper wasn’t perfect. She was frozen. She couldn’t bring herself to turn in her paper knowing it had flaws.

Although we routinely use this gauge of perfection to judge ourselves and others, that’s not how God sees us! God wants us to know that this “all or nothing” thinking is not constructive. It doesn’t move us toward wholeness. It doesn’t aid our spiritual growth. We do not need to be perfect. In the words of St. Augustine:

“This is the very perfection of a man, to find out his own imperfections.”

God’s love has never been dependent on our being perfect. When Jesus lived on earth, he spent his time with the poor, the meek, the sick, and the sinful. None of these could claim to be perfect. Yet Jesus loved them. Just as Jesus loves us. Not because we’re perfect…but because we belong to God. We only need to look at the saints to see the truth in this. They were not perfect either, in fact some of them were deeply flawed. But what sets them apart is that they gave their flaws over to God. They came to God with open wounds…willing to let God’s grace enter.

Our journey of faith is not one that has a finish line. It’s not something we “win” or come in first place. We don’t need to arrive at this mythical place of perfection…in fact we cannot. We remain in the middle of the road or the “somewhere along the way” point. 

  • What does this “middle of the road” look like to you? 
  • Picture meeting Jesus “somewhere along the way.” What might Jesus be saying to you as you continue on this journey together?

During this Lenten season, I pray that you will know and believe that God loves and accepts you exactly as you are! It doesn’t mean God doesn’t want you to strive towards “better.” But you can do this knowing you’ll never reach “best.” And that’s “perfectly” ok!

The Wonder of Waiting

Advent is a season of waiting. A time to prepare for the coming of Christ. A period of anticipation. In general, how do you view the experience of waiting? Some people find it very difficult. They don’t have the patience or the trust to let the process unfold the way it’s meant to. (There are plenty of times when I fall into this category!) Research has shown that over the years people expect things to happen faster and faster. The pace of pedestrians walking on sidewalks has sped up. Road rage is more common. Waiting in line feels like agony for many people.

Other people welcome waiting because of how they choose to view it—as an act of anticipation instead of a waste of time. I have always felt that looking forward to an exciting event (a trip, a party, a special occasion) was just as enjoyable as the event itself. My husband tells me I live my life “looking forward to the next thing.” During this year of the pandemic, we’ve all been forced to put many of our plans on hold. It’s not easy, particularly in celebrating the holidays. My niece, Lucy —in her lovely optimistic way—predicted that next year, our holiday season will feel all the more joyful, because of how long we had to wait to gather with our families. Every hug will feel like a small miracle. The waiting is incredibly painful right now, but the joy that will come fills me with hope and excitement.

The season of Advent ushers in the coming of Christ, but we aren’t simply remembering that long-ago time of waiting for the birth of Jesus, something that happened 2000 years ago. Our waiting is active, and present, and alive. During Advent, there are three layers to our waiting:

  • Waiting for Jesus to be born (past)
  • Waiting for Jesus to come into our lives every day (present)
  • Waiting for Jesus to come again in glory (future)

It’s the second one—the everyday waiting—that I’m focused on these days. My college-aged sons have a car now, so when they come home from school, I never quite know when they’ll arrive. That excited feeling of wondering when they’ll walk through the door is so filled with hope. What if we approached every day with this sense of faith-filled anticipation? When or how will Christ come to us today? When will Jesus walk through the door of our hearts?

Each day brings opportunities for an encounter with our loving God…during a phone call with a friend, a walk with a family member, or an email exchange with a co-worker. Or you may find God while walking in the woods, admiring a sunset, or listening to the ocean. Christ may come to you in your art—through music, writing or any creative act.

In Latin, Advent means “coming,” not “finding.” We don’t have to go out and search for Jesus. Christ will come no matter what—that’s the core of our belief as Christians. We simply have to notice when He comes into our lives. This is a daily invitation—not just for the four weeks of Advent—but for every day throughout the year. Wake up each morning and ask yourself: “When will I encounter God today?” These moments are easy to miss when we’re preoccupied and distracted, so be awake and watchful in your waiting. Hold onto that excited feeling of waiting for a beloved family member to walk through the door, and I promise you won’t miss the moment when Jesus comes to you in your day.

Maranatha
Come, Lord Jesus!

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

To Be Full of Confidence

Canoe

If you’re like me, you may not be feeling too confident about a lot of things right now. You’re not confident that schools will reopen or stay open, or various leaders will make the right decisions to keep communities safe. You’re not confident that everyone in your community will abide by public safety measures to protect one another. You’re not confident that you’ll keep your job or stay healthy. Perhaps most importantly, you’re not confident that you’ll be able to handle all this stress, fear, and uncertainty!

There’s a Hebrew word “batach” that means “to be full of confidence.” Not a tentative feeling of hope, but a bold sense of well-being that comes with placing our trust in God. A sense of security that never fully comes when we place our trust in things of this Earth…in our own actions, in other people, in institutions, or in material possessions.

In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
(Psalm 22:4)

Batach encourages us to ask the question: “Who’s really the captain of this ship?” It’s such a temptation to believe that we’re in control of our own destiny. The entire “American Dream” was founded on this belief. We are in charge! But what happens—as we saw this winter, spring, and summer with the horrifying spread of the coronavirus pandemic—when something happens to upend our carefully laid out plans? Something we did not expect and did not prepare for? We feel shaken. 

I have only been in a canoe once in my life. I hated the feeling of stepping into the shaky canoe and trying to gain my own balance while balancing the rocking canoe at the same time. (It didn’t hurt that during my one and only trip, my sister and I capsized the canoe trying to take a turn too sharply!) Nothing about the experience left me feeling in control and it was easier to never step foot in a canoe again. I chose the safety of my feet on solid ground.

What would it take to boldly place our trust in God? It’s tempting to resist this feeling of not being in control. But actually, it’s incredibly liberating! God is the “captain” of our ship and loves us unconditionally and is working for good in our lives. God can be trusted. Batach is the knowledge that God is leading us to our destiny and our only job is to follow.

What you put in God’s hands is safe. God can go where you can’t go. So why not put your life in God’s hands and let go of the need to control? If we relinquish our tight-fisted control over our own lives, we will achieve inner peace. When we put our trust and belief in something greater than ourselves, our world will open up in new ways.

The next time you get that scared or panicky feeling because you don’t know what’s going to happen in your life or in the world, take a deep breath and repeat the word “batach.” Imagine yourself placing the worry or uncertainty in God’s hands. Keep doing this until you feel more and more confident that God really is in control. It won’t eliminate the uncertainty from your life, but it will give you the calm sense of confidence that you can face whatever comes, because you won’t be facing it alone.

Blue Skies Above

blue skies

When was the last time you experienced a day free from worries? A day when you had a spring in your step, there was not a cloud in the sky, the birds were singing and all seemed well with the world. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Our world just isn’t that sunny right now. The COVID-19 pandemic still grows in many states. Racial inequality continues to reveal itself in our society. The economy has people worried about losing jobs, paying rent, or affording school. These are some REALLY dark clouds; there’s no use pretending otherwise. But amidst the darkness, there’s something else we need to acknowledge.

“Above the clouds the sky is always blue.”
 – St. Therese of Lisieux

Perhaps you’ve heard the commonly told metaphor about the airplane that ascends through thick, turbulent clouds and eventually breaks through above the clouds to brilliant blue skies and dazzling sunshine. It was up there the whole time. The passengers on the plane learn something that those on the ground may have trouble believing. Above the clouds the sky is always blue.

For those of us on the ground right now, it seems like those blue skies are very, very far away. Feeling bogged down with worries last week, I decided I needed to see the ocean. Feeling spontaneous and free, my husband and I hopped in the car and drove to the shore, only to realize as we got closer that the overcast sky was not going away, and instead producing a steady drizzle. I almost cried in frustration and disappointment. It felt like a sign that my worries were justified. My always patient husband convinced me to wait it out a little while. We took a leisurely drive through the shore towns and returned to the beach just in time for the rain to stop. The clouds were still there, but we were able to walk, swim, and breathe in the ocean air. It was just what I needed. I learned two important lessons from my beach trip that morning.

GOD IS ALWAYS WITH US

Just as the presence of clouds doesn’t mean the sun is gone, dark times in our lives do not mean that God is absent. As I was writing this reflection yesterday afternoon, it was another dark and cloudy day. The clouds were so thick that I had to turn on the lights in my house. At that moment it was hard to imagine a brilliant sun was still up there shining in the sky. But it was. God is always there, loving us, holding us up, and gifting us with grace. It requires faith—sometimes LOTS and LOTS of faith—to believe this, especially when there is so much suffering around us. We must trust in God and believe that God is working in our lives.

GRATITUDE IS ESSENTIAL

The second lesson I learned is that the sun may not come out exactly when we want it to. Patience is required. The darkness can linger, but it is easier to bear if we approach it with gratitude. Look for things to be grateful for despite the clouds…or even because of the clouds. Cloudy days have something to teach us. There are lessons to be learned about love, life, and faith. Even in the dark, there is so much light around us. 

I believe in my heart that things will get better in our world. By putting our trust in science, honest leaders, and the fundamental goodness in humanity, the clouds will pass, and we will see blue skies again. We are learning lessons through this time of turbulence that will change the way we treat one another, the way we treat our planet, the way we take care of ourselves in body, mind, and spirit. Most importantly, many of us are learning a new way to trust in God.

“Do not look forward to what may happen tomorrow. The same Eternal Father who takes care of you today will take care of you tomorrow, and every day of your life. Either He will shield you from suffering or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it.”
-Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622) 

Happy Color pic

The Breath of Life: The Killing of George Floyd

dandelion 3

In these extraordinarily troubling times, I find myself reflecting on the act of breathing.

Breathing is so basic and fundamental to life, but it also calls forth our connection to God in a very powerful way. The book of Genesis says: “Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” In Latin, spiritus means “the breath of life.”  The very spirit of God breathed into us at the moment of our Creation.

Using breath as a form of prayer is an ancient Christian practice. The Hebrew words for “breath” and “spirit” are the same. When we’re breathing, we call forth the Holy Spirit that dwells within us. We’re using our bodies to focus on the essence of our connection with God—our own moment of Divine creation when God breathed the breath of life into our nostrils.

In practices like yoga and mindfulness, we focus on breath to center ourselves, to calm our minds, to relieve pain. How easily we take for granted the simple act of taking in oxygen to sustain life in our human bodies.

Then came COVID-19 with its insidious attack on our respiratory systems. We realized how fragile life can be.  As conversations swirled around chest pain, ventilators, and intubation tubes, we watched this virus cruelly suffocating people, resulting in death, after death, after death.

But it wasn’t COVID-19 that killed George Floyd. His life was taken by a cruel act of violence at the hands of a police officer. His words “I can’t breathe” should haunt each and every one of us as we confront this vile sickness of racism that plagues our country and robbed George Floyd—and so many other Black citizens—of their breath and their lives. Systemic racism is a contagion that has been around far longer than COVID-19, and has taken life and liberty from countless numbers of God’s children.

For those of us with privilege, doing our part to rid the world of COVID-19 was in many ways easy. All we had to do was stay home. We made donations from the safety of our computers, we sewed masks, and we supported our local businesses.  But we also took long walks, played board games, baked bread, and organized Zoom gatherings with our loved ones. We spent more time than ever before outside, breathing in deeply as winter gave way to spring. We worked hard to manage our anxiety as we prayed for God’s healing for all those who were sick, and we prayed for God’s protection for all those bravely serving on the front lines of this virus.

For those of us who are white, doing our part to rid the world of racism will not be as easy. It will make us uncomfortable and ask more from us than we may currently be giving. We must begin by examining our own assumptions and behaviors, and this can be a painful process. We must speak up in ways that may feel scary. I have been guilty of this for many years.  I stayed quiet for fear of “making waves,” turning people away, saying the wrong thing, or offending someone.

Remember, Jesus came to challenge the status quo. He wasn’t afraid to speak out, to call out hypocrisy, to stand in solidarity with the marginalized and the oppressed. If we believe in a God of love, we cannot remain silent. If we believe in the sanctity and dignity of human life, we must actively speak out against the loss of Black lives from systemic racism and acts of hatred. In the words of Fr. William Wallace, O.S.A., J.D.­As members of the one Body of Christ we must stand in support of all those who are understandably outraged and who feel that they are not being heard. We must affirmatively choose the more difficult, but more right and just, path of engagement and action, instead of the easy path of indifference and inaction.”

I am more conscious of my breathing now, recognizing each breath as a gift from God. A gift that belongs to each and every one of us. I will use my breath to thank God for sparing me and my loved ones from the terrorizing reality of COVID-19. I will use my breath to talk about the fact that Black Americans are disproportionately affected by this virus and are losing jobs at a higher rate. I will use my breath not only to pray for an end to racism, but to actively work to be part of the solution, speaking out against the racial violence that has been perpetrated against Black Americans for hundreds of years. I will use my breath to listen, to educate myself, and to stand in solidarity with the Black community.

“And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

Encountering God Within

silhouette prayer

With churches closing all over the world due to the spread of COVID-19, many of us are being kept away from our parishes, our beloved retreat centers, or other places of prayer. It’s easy to feel closed off from God during this time. 

If we can’t get in…how can we encounter God?

We are used to seeking God outside of ourselves, but now we must find God in our own hearts. This time of social distancing requires us – even encourages us – to look deep within, for the Holy One dwelling inside of us. Distractions of the outside world are greatly reduced as we embrace stillness and quiet. We take solace in nature. In God’s beauty. In the knowledge that we can rest in God when we feel overwhelmed with worry, sadness, or exhaustion.

Jesus says: “Remain in me and I will remain in you.” (John 15:5).  What does it mean, to have Christ remain in us? It means that Jesus is not someone who exists outside of us. He dwells within us, a constant presence and source of hope. 

In Richard Rohr’s meditation “God is Everywhere” he states: “The pinnacle of prayer is reached when we can trust that we are constantly in the presence of God. We cannot not be in the presence of God!” Our churches may be closed, but we – the children of God – are open to God’s great love. We are open to pray for one another and our world. We are open to God’s gift of grace. Amen!

Please share your thoughts below. How are you keeping your faith life alive during this time of church closings?

A Prayer of Receiving

Winter sun

We pray in wonder and awe for Creation, your ancient gift of grace. You made the sun and moon, the land and seas, and all the creatures of the earth. You created us in your own image as your beloved sons and daughters. Today we reflect on your gift of precious life here on earth.

Open our hearts, O Lord, to receive your gift of amazing grace.

We pray in wonder and awe for your gift of grace—fulfilled in your Son, Jesus Christ, who suffered death on a cross that we might live. In mercy, you gave us your Son to pay ransom for all our sins. Today we reflect on your gift of everlasting life.

Open our hearts, O Lord, to receive your gift of amazing grace.

We pray in thanksgiving for the blessings you grant us. Your grace is not something we must earn or deserve. It is a gift freely given. We pray in thanksgiving for your extravagant love. Like the compassionate father, you welcome us home when we are lost.  Your redeeming grace rescues us from a life of darkness.

Open our hearts, O Lord, to receive your gift of amazing grace.

We promise to seek you in sanctuary. In the quiet stillness, we hear you speak to us. In your loving embrace, we are restored and nourished. We promise to seek you in the everyday moments of ordinary life. To pray where we are and invite you into each moment. Through this ongoing conversation with you we receive peace and contentment.

Open our hearts, O Lord, to receive your gift of amazing grace.

Give us new eyes to see the beauty of God’s creation, new ears to listen for God’s whispers, and a new outlook to experience the transforming power of your love.

AMEN.

A Prayer of Emptying

Snow on branch

Lord, I bring to you all that is on my plate.  The noise, the clutter, the chaos, and the distractions.  Help me to empty myself so that I may see you, hear you, and feel your presence.

Loving God, may your Spirit come to move my life. Empty the interior space of my soul that I may receive you and discover who I truly am.

Lord, I bring to you my fears and worries…all the things that are so heavy and hard to carry. I place them into your hands.

Loving God, may your Spirit come to move my life.  I place my trust in you. I place my faith in you. I place my life in you.

Lord, I bring to you my burdens. Things that I cannot control weigh me down like a heavy rock.  On the days that I am tired, stressed, and weary, I know that you walk with me.

Loving God, may your Spirit come to move my life.  I know that you are my rock—my cornerstone—and I can find rest in you.

AMEN.

 

Photo by Roman Trofimiuk on Unsplash

Drifting Towards God

two boats

I have a friend who is a social worker at a middle school, and she spends a lot of time talking to her young students about the peaks and valleys of friendship. Children’s loyalty can change with the wind. A best friend one day can be an icy acquaintance the next. This can lead to confusion and hurt and can be very difficult to navigate. To help her students make sense of it, my friend uses the metaphor of two drifting boats. It’s ok to drift away from a friend for awhile, if that’s what seems best. It doesn’t mean you can’t come back together at some future point.

More than anything, God desires to be in relationship with us. But the metaphor of the drifting boats isn’t quite right in describing this divine relationship. God never drifts away from us, but is instead the constant fixed point. Firmly anchored in a place of love and faithfulness. We may come and go depending on our feelings, emotions, doubts, and life circumstances…but the best news is that God never moves. We can always drift back (or even come crashing back!) onto the shores of God’s love. 

In her book Journal Keeping: Writing for Spiritual Growth, Luann Budd poses the question: “On a scale of 1-10 (10 being intimate), how close do you feel to God today?”  Before continuing with this blog post, sit for a few minutes in silence and answer this question. Write down the number.

Now spend some time this week examining why you scored yourself that way. If your number is on the low side, why might that be? Have you drifted away from God for some reason? What is holding you back from moving closer to God? Very often it’s guilt. Or maybe confusion. A feeling that God has abandoned you during a time of need. Or it may be a fear of revealing yourself. If God truly saw me for everything I am, God couldn’t possibly love me! 

Recognize that these thoughts may be natural and very human, but they are not based in the truth of God’s love. Try to spend a little bit of time each day pondering God’s unconditional love, acceptance, and presence in your life. You’ll find your thoughts begin to change and you’ll drift closer to God each day.

If you scored high on the scale, that’s great! You’re feeling close to God in this moment. Drink it in and let yourself be filled with gratitude. Examine the circumstances that have you feeling so close to God right now. What methods are you using to connect with God in your life?  

  • Maybe it’s nature. You’re in touch with the beauty of God’s creation. You find God in the warm sunshine, the gentle breeze, the endless ocean, the enduring woods. 
  • Maybe it’s relationships. You feel fulfilled by the love in your life, and you know that God has placed these people in your path. You feel God every time you hug your child, smile at your spouse, laugh with your sister, or cry with a friend. 
  • Maybe it’s your ministry or vocation. You are doing God’s work and you feel a sense of fulfillment and purpose. You can hear God speaking to you through the work that you do. Helping others, caring for the earth, tending to the needs of God’s Kingdom. 

Whatever the reason may be, lean into it. Capture the feeling. Write about it in your journal.  There will come a time when you inevitably drift away again, and it will help to have a reminder of this time when you felt close to God’s radiant love.  

And remember, our spiritual practice is constantly changing and evolving. Your score today may not be your score tomorrow. Return to this exercise again and again in your ongoing journey to draw closer to God.

 

Background Photo by Evgeny Nelmin on Unsplash

Let God Shine Through You

John 3 30

John the Baptist had no problems being the “guy behind the guy.”

In the region of Judea—where Jesus was baptizing people—John was nearby, also performing baptisms. John’s followers began to worry that Jesus’ ministry was starting to eclipse John’s. They approached John with concern, jealousy and maybe a little resentment. “Master, the man you met on the other side of the Jordan River—the one you said was the Messiah—he is baptizing too, and everybody is going over there instead of coming here to us.” (John 3:26)

John reminds his disciples that he is not the One. “You yourselves know how plainly I told you that I am not the Messiah. I am here to prepare the way for him—that is all.” (John 3:28) He compares himself to the best man at a wedding, waiting for the groom to arrive, and rejoicing when he does. And then he speaks these beautifully humble words about Jesus:

“He must become greater. I must become less.” (John 3:30)

John knew his ministry wasn’t to testify to his own greatness or his special role in the story of redemption. It was to introduce Jesus. To step aside and let the story continue. John was there to be a witness to Christ.

What better time than the season of Lent to let God become greater in our lives?

How can we live out these words of John the Baptist and follow his example? What does this “becoming less” look like in our daily lives?

STEP ONE: Believe in God’s Love
Truly believe that God loves you and has a plan for your life. This is where you must begin, for if you can’t see God at work in your life, you’ll be stuck in a world of self doubt and ego-driven insecurity. Wake up every morning saying: “I was created to be loved by God.” This is the profound truth that grounds us in all that we do…the stunning reminder that we are loved unconditionally by God.

STEP TWO: Empty Yourself
John the Baptist’s disciples were caught up in feelings of envy and arrogance. This focus blocked them from recognizing the truth that John was there to testify. When we allow ourselves to be filled up with negative attitudes that don’t serve us, we leave little room for Jesus. If we empty ourselves of self-serving junk—insecurity, envy, selfishness—we create space for Jesus to enter and dwell in our hearts.

STEP THREE: Practice Gratitude
The act of becoming less doesn’t mean denying the core of who you are, or downplaying your gifts or talents. Quite the opposite! Recognize that everything wonderful about you came from your Creator. Every time you feel good about something you did or accomplished, take a moment to thank God for making you exactly the way that you are.

STEP FOUR: Let God Shine Through You
Be the “guy behind the guy.” Let God shine through you. Each day, carefully examine your words, your actions, and your motivations to make sure they reflect God’s love. Instead of focusing on your own goals for the day, focus on your interactions with others. Make it your mission to let others see in you the shining reflection of Christ’s light.

As Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians: “We are ambassadors for Christ.” (2 Corinthians 5:20) Keep God at the center of all you do this Lenten season. Seek out the good for others before your own. Invite Jesus into all your daily interactions and see how the experience is transformed.

Wishing you a blessed and holy Lent!

 

 

Background Photo by Meiying Ng on Unsplash