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.

The Voice of Truth vs. the Inner Critic

woman in woods

I’d like to introduce you to someone. Someone you’re all too familiar with because he or she is with you all the time. It’s your Inner Critic. We all have one. Some are louder than others. And some are meaner than others. The Inner Critic is that voice inside your head that only has negative things to say. That tells you that you don’t look beautiful. You’re not smart enough or talented enough. It’s the voice that constantly compares you to your friends, coworkers, and teammates, and insists that they are better than you. The Inner Critic judges your body, your intelligence, your beauty, and your talents.

I’m not talking about the voice that challenges you to work hard, set goals, and make good choices.   That’s the Inner Coach in you (otherwise known as your conscience) and she’s healthy and helpful and necessary. The Inner Critic is much more damaging and the things she says are NOT true.

The worst part is, you can’t escape the Inner Critic, because he’s inside your head. She’s loud and constant, and you can’t turn her off. He’s always there to drown out anything positive you may think or feel about yourself, or anything positive you may hear from others.

Now you might ask, what’s so harmful about an Inner Critic? Doesn’t it keep us from being arrogant or overconfident? Doesn’t it challenge us to be better or try harder? In truth, the Inner Critic does no such thing! It leads you to feel worthless, undeserving and small. If you exclusively listen to the voice of your Inner Critic you’ll withdraw and hide away. You’ll deprive the world of the wonder that is YOU!

If your friend talked about herself the way your Inner Critic talks about you, you would want to put a stop to it. You wouldn’t want your friend to believe those things about herself. So why should you believe such things about yourself?

I’d like to take you back to the moment of your creation. We know from Scripture that we are created by God in God’s image. St. Paul writes: “we are God’s masterpiece” – God’s greatest piece of work. Each of us was created by God to be a unique masterpiece. How would God look upon His own work? Would He call it names? Would He criticize it? Would He be ashamed of it?

Instead of focusing on the voice of your inner critic, I encourage you to listen for the Voice of Truth – the voice of your loving God. The voice that says you are loved and accepted exactly the way you are! You are NEVER alone. God is by your side all the time. He knows and understands you.   God notices you and cares about you, no matter how trivial you think your life might be. You are God’s Beloved Child and He loves every part of you… even the parts you think are the most unlovable.

That’s the Voice of Truth… and it’s the only voice that matters.

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!

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 Smooths Out Our Jagged Edges

smooth stone

Have you ever taken a close look at a river rock?  These flat rocks, found in riverbeds and on beaches, are unique in size, shape, and color but with one similarity.  They are smooth.  No jagged edges, sharp corners, or pointy bumps.

What makes these rocks so smooth?

Water flowing in a river is constantly moving.  A powerful force that carries along dirt, sediment, and smaller stones in its path.  These rough items bump up against the river rocks, acting like sandpaper.  They break off the pointy bumps, round out the sharp corners, and smooth the jagged edges.  This is a natural process, called weathering or erosion, and occurs over a long period of time.  The end result is a smooth and shiny stone, beautiful in its purity.

Can we compare this process to our own lives?

At times… are you the jagged rock?  Uneven and rough.  Covered in sharp edges that cause pain in your own life or the lives of those around you.  Each rough spot representing a heavy burden, a sharp tongue, a harsh response, a jealous thought, or a past pain.  Without realizing it, you become something that causes others to wince upon contact.  Something that cannot hold or be held.

And how often do you feel like that rock being tumbled around in a swirling river?  Bumped and tossed.  Crashing into those around you—or being crashed—with a force you feel you can’t control.  It can make you feel helpless… or even hopeless.  There’s no gaining your footing in such a riotous atmosphere.

I encourage you to look at this in another way.  The pain is real, but the process is powerful and profound.  The driving force is the water and it’s no random occurrence.  The water represents the Divine Source that is constantly washing over your jagged soul, breaking off those burdens and pains.  Carrying them away.  Smoothing them out.

We believe in a loving God that shapes us in this way.  We are first introduced to this Living Water at our Baptism.  An outward sign of an inward grace.  A never ending flow of mercy, love, compassion, and forgiveness. The process isn’t always easy.  Weathering can be painful!  Life tosses us around whether we like it or not.  God uses these “tossed” experiences to shape us.  God uses our trials to smooth us out until we are transformed.  “See, I am doing a new thing!”  (Isaiah 43:19)

Does this sound good to you?  Are you asking: How can I get in on this deal?  It’s simple.  All you have to do is let it happen.  God is always working in you, whether you realize it or not.  Let the healing water of God’s love rush past you and surround you, making you smooth, shiny, and new.  If you’d like to become more tuned in to the ways in which God is working in you… try prayer, Reconciliation, meditation, or reading and reflecting on the Word of God.  You’ll find yourself gaining in awareness of God’s constant and overflowing presence in your life.

Take a look at the stone in the picture above. As you gaze at the surface, use God’s eyes to search for your shining reflection. What do you see?  Do you see the grace-filled moments of your life reflected back at you?  Can you see the unfolding of your purpose?  Can you see God’s promise and His deep love for you?

May God bless our journey and continue to polish us into shining reflections of His love.

A Prayer for Today

fall foliage

Dear God, I thank you for making me wonderfully unique. You knit together my talents, my flaws, my moods, and my dreams. At the moment of my creation you were there, loving me beyond measure. You know what it is that I need for this day and for this season. You provide me with abundant blessings and gifts to meet each challenge with love and patience.

On the days when I can’t seem to get anything right…You are there, holding me gently.

On the days when I can’t stop comparing myself to those who are smarter, better, thinner, or just MORE… You are there, reminding me that I am your Beloved Daughter.

On the days when stress, fear, doubt, and worry threaten to stop me in my tracks… You are there, gently nudging me forward.

On the days when words don’t seem adequate to thank you, to praise you, to glorify Your name… You are there, understanding the prayers that spill from my heart.

Dear Lord, help me to listen to what it is that you ask of me today and in this season. Let me live and act with compassion and kindness. Help me to love boldly. Guide me in following the example of your Son, Jesus Christ, in all that I do and say.

AMEN.

Finding God in the Construction Zone

construction zone
For the past few months, I’ve had to pass through a major construction zone on my way to work in the morning. The road is being torn up, sidewalks are temporarily gone, and the two lane road is funneled down to one. It’s a huge hassle that has the potential to start my day with stress and irritation.

Each morning, as my car is inching its way past this road work, I see a woman bravely walking through the mess. Wearing a bright pink track suit and a big smile, she weaves her way past bulldozers, police cars, traffic cones, and broken chunks of asphalt. I can see that this morning walk is part of her daily routine, and she’s not going to let a little construction stop her. I admire her. If it were me, I would immediately use this as an excuse to stop walking for the 8-10 months it might take to finish the road!

Does your life ever resemble a chaotic “construction zone”—filled with mess and upheaval? What happens to your faith life during this time? Do you find it difficult to pray, to find quiet time to be alone with God? Or maybe you’re so focused on the problem at hand that you forget about God’s presence in your life.

Last year I was scheduled to go on a weekend retreat with some women from my parish. Some unexpected things came up at home and I felt I couldn’t “afford” the time away. At the last minute I cancelled my reservation in order to stay home and take care of things. In doing this, I was failing to take care of myself. It resulted in my feeling more stressed and overwhelmed. I often wonder if I had gone on the retreat, would my approach to solving those problems been clearer and more effective?

Unlike the determined woman I see each morning, I think I would be quick to put off my morning walks until the construction was finished. How often do we set aside our faith until a time when conditions are more ideal for prayer and communion with God? Once things have calmed down in my life, I’ll get back to praying. Right now I just have to get through this.

What a silly, backward approach to life! It is precisely our faith that will sustain us through those “under construction” times. A few minutes of quiet prayer can make all the difference. Inching your way through the chaos with Jesus by your side can make the journey less burdensome and arduous.

God is here for us, waiting to guide us safely through to the other side. We only need to lean on Him.

I think of Jesus, facing the sick, hungry, and needy…believers numbering in the thousands. He would often slip away from the crowds, to retreat into the wilderness to pray. But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” (Luke 5:15-16)

Jesus knew that he needed time to be alone with God. I imagine he would come back from those moments of stolen prayer refreshed, with a renewed sense of purpose, confident that he walked this journey with his Father. It was vital to the continuation of his ministry. We can and should follow his example. Keep on walking. Bring Jesus with you. Let God guide you.

Eventually they’re going to finish repairing the road I travel to work each day. I look forward to seeing this woman walking on a smoother path. It gives me hope that she persevered through the muddle and will now have an easier road to travel.

It gives me courage to keep on walking.

God Picks Us Up When We Fall

girl on bike
For three years my office window looked out over a church parking lot. People used it for all kinds of things. A practice course for school bus drivers in training, a path for neighborhood walkers, an unofficial commuter lot, a place for truckers to park and eat lunch. But my favorite thing to see was parents using the parking lot to teach their children how to ride a bike. What a sweet distraction from my day’s work. I could see the fearful looks on the faces of the young riders. I could hear the parents’ promises floating up through my office window.

“I won’t let you fall!”
“I promise you won’t get hurt.”

I remember my husband and I saying these exact words to our boys when they first learned to ride, and I’m very sure my dad made the same promises to me. It’s what you have to say to get past the fear in your child so they can take that leap.

If we’re being honest… these promises are not exactly iron-clad. It’s likely our would-be cyclists WILL fall. There’s a chance they COULD get hurt. Not too badly, you hope, but anything could happen.   What you might more honestly say is this:

“If you fall, I’ll be there to pick you up.”
“If you get hurt, I’ll be there to soothe your pain and dry your tears.”
“I will ALWAYS be there, no matter what.”

For me, there’s no better way to describe God’s role in our lives. But it took me some time to come to that realization. I used to pray exactly like those scared kids teetering on a bike for the first time. “Please, dear God, don’t let anything bad happen to me… EVER!” I was so afraid of getting hurt that I held myself back from new experiences and new challenges.

Life has taught me that it doesn’t work that way. We all fall. We all get hurt. It’s part of engaging in the world around us. Living up to our potential involves a certain amount of risk. This knowledge could easily leave us paralyzed with fear. Afraid to lift our feet from their firmly-rooted spots on the ground and peddle like mad.

But the beauty of our faith is that God is ALWAYS there for us. To offer comfort. To dry our tears. To ease our pain. To pick us up no matter how many times we fall.

This knowledge is what frees us to get on that bike and go. To fly. To take a leap of faith. To push ourselves toward our sacred destiny. It’s what God wants for us.

One beautiful spring day my son took his brand new bike out for a ride. A run-in with a nasty pothole landed him in the emergency room with a broken wrist, a mild concussion, and many cuts and scrapes. I smothered him with love for weeks after that, giving him all the comfort and gentleness a mother could give (which is a LOT!) His wrist healed, his bruises faded, and his headaches went away.  His worst fears (and mine) about getting hurt had been realized…and overcome. And so, too, we heal from the potholes and pitfalls of life. And we do so with the strength of an amazing God who will never let us fall so far or so deep that we can’t get up again… and keep on riding.

Living Water

 

Sand heart
Have you ever watched a small child try to build a castle out of dry sand? She painstakingly fills her pail with scoop after scoop of powdery white sand. With all her might, she lifts the heavy pail and quickly dumps it over. You cringe a bit, knowing what’s about to happen. With hope in her eyes, she lifts up the pail to reveal her creation. Tears of frustration flow as the sand collapses around her and the castle is leveled to the ground.

She doesn’t understand what went wrong. You know the secret and you want to rush over and tell her. She needs to add water! Wet sand is sturdy and strong. It will hold her castle together so it can stand tall. Without water, she’ll never succeed.

The dry sand in this story depicts a life lived apart from God. Dry, dusty, with no strong surface to gain a foothold through the trials of life. This kind of barren life is one we fall into because we choose to distance ourselves from God. It’s not something God “does” to us or wants for us. In fact, quite the opposite. In Isaiah 44:3, God promises: “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring.” Jesus repeats this promise to the worshipers in the temple in John 7:37-38: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”

If we’re thirsty, it’s not because of an absence of water, it’s because we choose not to drink. Or maybe someone needs to help us find the water source.

Jesus describes the gift of the Holy Spirit as water because of its life giving properties. It sustains us, nourishes us, helps us to grow. It washes us clean and makes us new. God provided a limitless ocean for this little girl who longed to build a sturdy sand castle. It was right there for the taking. In the same way, all we need to do is receive the incredible gift of God’s grace.

The next time you feel like things are collapsing in around you, remember the strength that can be found in the “Living Water” of the Holy Spirit. It is the secret to a life filled with deep meaning and abundant blessings.

And it’s right there for the taking.