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.

Finding Beauty in Bleakness

january-sunrise

Today is Valentine’s Day… 45 days into 2017 and I’ve already broken almost all of my New Year’s resolutions.  This is a more impressive feat than you may realize, because every year I make dozens and dozens of them.  It’s one of my favorite thing to do; like an opportunity to create a whole new me: spend more time outside, eat more vegetables, take up yoga, learn to knit, spend more time in silence, improve my posture, try new recipes.

Something about the unlimited potential of New Year’s resolutions gives me a lift every year. And I like to believe that somewhere out there is an alternate universe where I’m doing all these things and feeling fantastic.

But there’s one resolution that I’m determined to stick to in THIS universe:

To discover—and rediscover—the beauty of God’s creation.

I’m sure you’ll agree this is not so easy to do in the winter.  Record setting rainy days in January gave us a bleak, dreary month of cloudy skies, dead grass, and bare branches.  February seems to be replacing all of that with snow, ice, and wind.  Not exactly the best conditions for taking in the splendor of God’s creation.

Unless you’re willing to look a little harder and a lot closer. A lone bluebird perched on a dead branch. Rays of sun peeking out behind the clouds. The glittering silence of a midnight snowfall. A winter sunrise, like the photo at the top of this post, taken by a dear friend on a cold January morning

After searching God’s landscape in this new way, we can turn our eyes to our brothers and sisters.  There is great beauty to be found in human actions and interactions.  The core message of Jesus was PEACE and LOVE.  Where do you see this in your daily experiences?  For me, it was recently, as I saw hundreds of faith communities across the country embody these teachings in the compassion and concern they showed for our refugee sisters and brothers.  Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:1-2)

We are all created in God’s image.  What’s more beautiful than one human treating another with compassion, dignity and love?

I invite you to join me in being on the lookout for glimpses of God’s beautiful creation in the midst of these winter months, as we move into the most holy season of Lent.

Be Now My Vision: Seeing With Eyes of Faith

blurred Easter cross

This morning while driving to work, I put on my sunglasses and quickly realized that they were smudged, making everything a bit blurry and unfocused.  I could see well enough to drive safely, but I couldn’t wait for the next red light so I could clean them.  Wouldn’t you know… for the first time in the history of my commute, I hit nothing but green lights all the way!  So I was stuck with a smudgy view for this ride.

It took an embarrassingly long time for me to realize the solution was simple – just take off my sunglasses.  Ah!  My vision cleared and everything looked crisp and bright and focused. The experience got me thinking about “vision” and how we see the world.  It reminded me of a gospel story we hear during the season of Lent.

Meet Bartimaeus, a blind beggar who lived on the streets of Jericho.  Life was difficult for Bartimaeus, but his blindness and his life on the streets made him adept at hearing and listening.  He had heard stories of a man they called Jesus who could heal people with the touch of his hand.  A man who told stories about lost sheep, a mustard seed, and a new kind of kingdom where all were welcome at God’s table.  Bartimaeus knew if he could just meet this amazing man, maybe touch his cloak, perhaps he, too, could be healed.

It was this rock-solid faith of a blind beggar that drew the attention of Jesus on the road to Jericho.  Instructing his disciples to bring the man to him, he asked Bartimaeus what it was that he wanted.

“Son of David, I want to see.”

Seven simple words and his life was changed forever.

“Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.”

Easter cross

Though he was blind, Bartimaeus did not lack vision.  He was able to “see” with eyes of faith.  He could see… and believe… that Jesus came to bring us new life and a new way of living. He believed that Jesus was here to show us the way if we only seek him.

On Palm Sunday our church sang a beautiful song called “Christ in Me Arise.”  The first verse contained the following lyrics:

Be now my vision; open these eyes,
Showing me all that I must see.

During this holiest of weeks, let us take an honest look at how we view the world.  Are there times that we see through the smudged glasses of fear, jealousy, anger, or indifference?  Are we unable to see what’s really going on because of entrenched ways of thinking?  Does ignorance make us blind to the suffering of others or the true feelings of others? When we fail to see with eyes of faith, our world is smudged, like my cloudy commute to work.  We can’t see what’s really important.

We’re aren’t blocking out the “sun” with these glasses.  We’re blocking out the Son.

Let us pray that Jesus, the healer, will open our eyes and help us let go of whatever it is that prevents us from seeing things clearly.

Be now my vision, O Lord of my heart!

Finding Purpose in the Journey

staircase MLK

How often do you find yourself asking the age-old question: What is my purpose in life? We know that God is calling us, just like Jesus called the disciples to come and follow Him, as I wrote about last week. But how do we know what God is calling us to do? Where’s the roadmap…or the specific set of instructions?

I should be honest and say I don’t really have an answer to that question. But I do have a theory. For some reason, God doesn’t choose to reveal Himself to individuals in the same way. I believe those people who hear a more distinct calling—like the 12 disciples—are quite rare.

For reasons beyond our understanding, God wants the rest of us to embark on our journeys without really knowing where we’re headed. In many ways, this “not knowing” becomes the greatest stretch of our faith.   There’s a plaque that used to hang in my old office with the following quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” What better way to show our trust in God than to set out on this blind journey, confident that He will reveal Himself to us when the time is right? That He will reveal our purpose when we’re ready to hear it. So for those of you who come up blank when you ask yourself, what is my purpose in life? It’s ok. Maybe you’re not supposed to know what your purpose is just yet. Maybe it’s enough to say you’ll know it when you see it.

So…what do we do in the meantime?

To quote a popular phrase, “Keep on keepin’ on!” Just because God has chosen not to reveal His plans for you just yet, that’s no reason to go running back to the security of your fishing nets. For now, let the journey become your purpose. Let the journey become your calling. Commit yourself to leaving the seashore and following Jesus, wherever He might lead you. Commit yourself to taking the next step on the staircase. To the belief that Jesus is leading you to your destiny.

The next time you see a spider web, think about—comparatively speaking—how far that spider had to travel to complete the web. If you stretched all the tiny little lines and squares of the web out into a straight line, imagine how long it would be. But a spider doesn’t travel in a straight line. I read this in a book, once, and it really stuck with me: to make a web, a spider must continually return to a center point. Like a compass that always points North, this constant return to center is what enables the spider to create that intricate and beautiful spiral shape we are so familiar with.

So a spider is really taking a series of little journeys, always coming back to center. I challenge and encourage you to do the same. Keep your relationship with God at the center, and venture out on an endless series of little journeys…with each one, learning more about yourself and more about your purpose in life. This allows you to keep moving, even when you don’t have all the answers. And I absolutely believe that’s the way God wants it. He wants us to venture out on the journey without knowing exactly where it will lead. He wants us to be open to it. He wants us to learn, to make mistakes along the way, to keep on keepin’ on. And this becomes so much easier to do when you know you can always come back to the center—to God.

The only thing that God does NOT want is for us to give up the journey entirely. For it’s what happens on this journey that will give our lives purpose.

What Makes Your Life Full?

night sky remember quote

The essence of wisdom is remembering what we already know.
So what is it that we already know?

We know that God is always with us.
But do we REMEMBER to feel His loving presence during difficult times?
We know how important it is to spend quiet time in prayer.
Do we REMEMBER to break from our hectic schedules to pray or sit in the stillness?
We know that God called us from the womb, a precious creation in His own image.
Do we REMEMBER to value ourselves as gift?
We know that Jesus died for us.
Do we REMEMBER to reflect on the enormity of that sacrifice
and what it means for us?

Life is FULL of distractions, interruptions, interferences, disruptions.
We say we’re busy, chaotic, hectic, frenzied.
Life if FULL of the unforeseen, the unpredictable, the unexpected, the unplanned.
We get pulled away, wrapped up, preoccupied, sidetracked.

REMEMBER how much God loves you.
REMEMBER that God is always waiting for you.
REMEMBER all of this…

And your life will be FULL indeed!

An Introvert’s Guide to Advent

winter branches

My sister and I have a long-standing joke that she’s my “Wake Wingman.”  I’m an introvert and so immersing myself in large crowds has never been my thing. Small talk can be draining for me. I also internalize emotions and wakes are brimming with feelings.  My sister, on the other hand, is a gregarious, extroverted, social being.  She always knows what to say, and large crowds of overflowing emotion bring out the best in her.  So whenever possible, I tag along behind her at wakes.  I mean I literally stand behind her the whole time, glued to her side.  As we work our way through the line, she says something to the neighbor or co-worker and I nod my head in agreement, offering a sympathetic look or a gentle smile if appropriate.  We’ve been doing this for years and it works for us.

My expression of sorrow is no less sincere; it just has a different delivery method.

It got me thinking about the challenge for introverts to live out the message of Jesus.  Jesus was all about relationships.  Love your neighbor, help the poor, gather in communities to pray.  For some, this comes as naturally as breathing.  Serving a meal to a hundred patrons of a soup kitchen would leave an extrovert feeling energized and ready to take on the world.  For me, I would want to crawl under the covers and turn out the lights.  Not because I don’t love my neighbor.  Or I don’t care about helping those in need.  It’s just harder for me.  Being an introvert means that you’re more energized by time spent alone rather than with people.  Social crowds can quickly sap the introvert of energy.  There’s a tendency to seek out quieter, less publicly stimulating environments.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t put your faith into action, particularly at times of the year when we’re reminded of the importance of doing so.  And so I offer you:

AN INTROVERT’S GUIDE TO ADVENT

WRITE.  Introverts need time to think about what they want to say and how they want to say it.  Writing is an ideal outlet for this kind of communication.  Use correspondence to live out Jesus’ Great Commandment.  For the remainder of Advent, send one email or note each day to someone you care about or admire.  Tell them how you feel.  Plan for bigger goals in the New Year.  Start a blog!  Join an online Bible study.

LISTEN.  Introverts are gifted at listening and their calm, gentle demeanor is the perfect balm for someone in distress.  The holiday season can tap into loneliness and sadness for a lot of people. Look for opportunities to lend a listening ear to someone who needs it.  A meaningful one-on-one connection allows you to be Jesus for that person, and to see Jesus in them.

PRAY.  Quiet prayer comes naturally to introverts and what better time of year to embrace the silence and stillness than Advent.  Seek out a moments of quiet solitude as often as you can. “For God alone, my soul waits in silence.” (Psalm 62:1) Try new forms of silent prayer like meditation or adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.  Use this holy season to deepen your relationship with God.

BE CREATIVE.  Many churches and faith communities offer opportunities for community service at this time of year.  If helping others by being in the thick of the action doesn’t work for you, find ways to help behind the scenes.  Instead of mingling at a fundraiser, volunteer to help design the flyer, or stuff envelopes.  Your contribution is no less important because you weren’t “in the spotlight.”

STRETCH.  Don’t let being an introvert become an excuse. It’s a huge temptation for introverts to hide away rather than engage with the world. Look for ways that God is gently challenging you to stretch out in faith.

Whether you’re an introvert, an extrovert, or somewhere in between—my prayer for you this Advent season is that you will seek ways to grow in your relationship with our loving God, as we await the coming of our Savior.  Come, Lord Jesus, come!

God is Waiting For You

rainbow blog

This is the time of year for high school graduations, and it’s got me thinking about my own high school years.  Some of my fondest memories are the nights I would come home after an evening out with my friends.  My mother always waited up for me, and my return home had a lovely sense of ritual to it.  I would come in, join my mother on the couch, and she would ask to hear every detail of my night out.  Sometimes my stories were filled with joy, other times heartache and teenage drama. More often than not they were probably pretty boring.  It never made any difference to my mom.  She listened with total focus and rapt attention.  How wonderful it felt to know that she cared not only about me but about every facet of my life.

I can’t help but compare this memory to a doctor I used to see years ago when I lived in Boston.  She would breeze into the examining room and spend as little time with me as she possibly could.  She was a nice woman, but it was obvious she was overbooked and had other patients waiting.  I didn’t doubt her skills as a physician, but I never really felt like she cared about me or what I had to say. It got to the point where I felt guilty asking her questions about my health…believing she had more important or sicker patients to deal with than me.

Which of these two examples matches more closely with your image of God? When you approach God in prayer, do you do so with comfort and confidence or with a sheepish sense of apology?  “I don’t mean to bother you, but…”

It’s easy to believe that God is too busy to hear us.  How many billion people live on this planet?  Why would God care about the details of one little soul?  The answer is simple.

Because God created your soul and you belong to Him.

Our relationship with God is one of constant invitation.  Like my mom sitting on that couch, God is always waiting, eager to hear from us, no matter what we have to say.  He’s strong enough to bear it all:  our complaints, our doubts, our fears, our anger, our sorrows, our joys, our moments of transformation.  Nothing is too dark or too trivial or too overwhelming for God’s loving ears.

There are many different ways to pray, but one that I love the most is just talking to God.  It brings home for me the fact that God is not a remote power, too busy or lofty to hear from us.  God is present and close, and wanting an intimate relationship with each and every one of us.

“To be present is to arrive as one is and open up to the other.
At this instant, as I arrive here, God is present waiting for me.
God always arrives before me, desiring to connect with me
even more than my most intimate friend.
I take a moment and greet my loving God.”
(From “Sacred Space” at http://www.sacredspace.ie)

My prayer for you today is that you will truly believe that God cares for you and is waiting to hear from you.

Jesus’ Last Lecture

Jesus Last Lecture

A college professor is invited to give a hypothetical “last lecture” in which they answer the question: “If this is the last lecture you would ever give to your students, what would you say?” The professor is challenged with the task of packing in decades of wisdom and life lessons into one hour. In 2007, Randy Pausch, a professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University was invited to do just that. What was uniquely moving about this lecture, was that Pausch was dying of pancreatic cancer. His talk, entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” was delivered to a packed house of over 400 colleagues and students. This lecture became the basis for the New York Times best-selling book, The Last Lecture, co-authored by Pausch and published in 2008. It became his legacy to his children before he died in that same year.

As we move into Holy Week, I invite you to spend some time reading Jesus’ “Last Lecture.” (John 13-17) It was the day before Passover and Jesus, knowing that the hour had come for him to leave this world, gathered his disciples one last time. He washed their feet, in a beautiful example of how they were to minister to one another after he was gone.

And then he began to speak.

“Dear children, how brief are these moments before I must go away and leave you!” (John 13:33) I imagine the sense of urgency Jesus must have felt as he tried one last time to impart everything he wanted his disciples to learn before he would leave them.

For four and a half chapters of John’s Gospel—often referred to as the “Last Supper Discourse” or the “Farewell Discourse” —Jesus gives his disciples instructions, life lessons, and final words of wisdom. There’s so much rich and wonderful content in his words, it could never be covered in one short blog post. (It reads like a “Greatest Hits” of Bible quotes!) So I’ve chosen 7 lines from Jesus’ Last Lecture—one for each day of Holy Week—for you to ponder and pray about

MONDAY

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35) This is it…really. The entirety of Jesus’ ministry and message summed up in one commandment. Love one another. During this holiest week of the year, how will we choose to love one another?

TUESDAY

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) One of my favorite lines in all of Scripture! Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house. Thomas replies: “Lord, we do not know where you are going; so how can we know the way to get there?” The answer is simple and profound. Jesus is the WAY. Our guide and our bridge to God and the Promised Land. All we need to do is follow Him.

WEDNESDAY

“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.” (John 14:15-17) In this passage we learn about the Holy Spirit. Jesus promises his disciples that they will never be left alone, a promise that still holds for us today. The Holy Spirit is an Advocate or Helper that dwells within us forever…to comfort, guide, and lead us.

THURSDAY

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27) Yet another beautiful gift from our Savior. Peace, not as the world gives—based on outward circumstances—but peace from within. Peace that is rooted in absolute trust in the faithfulness of God. A gift that becomes ours only in the act of receiving. How will we receive the peace of Christ this week?

FRIDAY

“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 15:5) In these beautiful words we see Jesus’ message of discipleship. We are meant to bear fruit…to spread the love of Christ like branches stretching out from a vine. But we must remain connected to the source of our creation. Our dependence on God allows us to become an instrument of His love and peace.

SATURDAY

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13) After once again repeating his central commandment, Jesus foreshadows the great act of sacrifice that is to come on Good Friday. Jesus dying on the cross is an act of profound love. One that transforms the disciples to such a degree that they passionately preach his message, even to the point of their own death in martyrdom. How will we let Jesus transform us during this Easter season? How can we “die” to our own self-absorption in order to live renewed in Christ?

SUNDAY

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) The sorrow of the crucifixion and death of Jesus give way to the victory and triumph of Easter morning. We are a Resurrection People, born to new life in Christ. Alleluia, He is Risen!

A Woman’s Lenten Journey

woman in woods

The season of Lent is a journey.

A journey to the foot of the cross at Calvary…and to the heart of Jesus.

Years of working in retreat ministry has shown me that more than anything, women long for a daily encounter with God. Whatever form that may take, the desire to connect with the Divine is a major driver in a woman’s spiritual journey. A retreat presenter recently urged, “Don’t ever be satisfied with where you are with God at this moment. Always desire something deeper.”

Reaching for that “something deeper” can be a real challenge. Today’s woman is pulled in a million different directions. Always on the go, we are doers and nurturers. This hectic pace can make if very difficult to listen for the voice of God.   Women need TIME! We need quiet. We need a safe, sacred space, free from distraction. We need to stand still long enough to be found.  Only then can we take up our cross once again and resume the journey. Continue reading