Message in a Bottle

Seashells on beach

A friend of mine describes Cape Cod as her “happy place.” Memories of fun and relaxing summer vacations bring her a sense of peace she can’t find anywhere else. She often remarked that a week every summer was not enough time to capture that feeling and tide her over for the remaining 51 weeks. One day at a souvenir shop, she bought a fancy glass bottle with the words “Cape Cod Air” painted on the side. When she was back home—feeling stressed, anxious, or worried—she would uncork the bottle and take a quick whiff, feeling the tension immediately leave her body. Now…my friend is not naive. She knew it was impossible to actually trap Cape Cod air in a bottle and transport it home. But the ritual of holding the bottle in her hand, taking her mind back to peaceful times, and imagining that she was there again…it worked.

I’m a firm believer in the power of symbol and ritual in our spiritual lives. Using the five senses to create a connection to the Divine can have an amazing effect on our state of mind and our emotional well being. Many church services are filled with symbols and rituals to help us experience God in our midst. A document called “People of Ritual” by the Brisbane Catholic Education Offices states, “All Catholic ritual is founded on the belief that God is present and revealed in the world and, in a particular and powerful way, through Jesus. This means that God is revealed and encountered in the real and tangible moments of everyday life.”

So many of us are still cut off from our places of worship where we normally experience the rituals that bring us close to God. But that doesn’t mean we have to live without them. Most of what I write about spirituality focuses on finding God in ordinary moments, every day experiences, and common objects. We can create our own symbols and rituals to remind us that God is present and all around us. If you learn to look for God in the everyday events of your life, you’ll realize that you can never be separated from God, no matter what might be happening in the world.

Having just spent four glorious days on Cape Cod with my family, I took my friend’s advice and decided to create my own “bottle” of peace and calm. I spent my vacation collecting shells from the beach, and on the morning we left, I scooped up a few handfuls of soft white sand into a plastic bag. When I got home, I spent a quiet afternoon, painting some of the shells and layering the sand and shells into a glass bottle. I typed up the following quote on a little piece of paper and rolled it up to place in the bottle: “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).

Message in a Bottle

I will use my “message in a bottle” to remind me that God is stronger than any of my fears. That I am not alone in my worries. That I have the peace of Christ to carry me through. The bottle now sits on my desk where it can be a constant symbol of God’s presence in my life.

I encourage you to create your own symbol or ritual to remind you of these same truths. You don’t have to be an artist. Fill a bottle or a shoe box with items that make you feel connected to God. A pressed flower. A treasured photograph. A prayer book. A piece of sea glass. Anything that helps you remember that God is present in the “real and tangible moments of everyday life.” Create a mini-chapel in a corner of your house where you can place these objects and look at them often. Turn to these symbols whenever you’re feeling “troubled” and “afraid” and be reminded of God’s overwhelming presence in our lives. We are surrounded by the Divine every day and in every way.

AMEN!

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 Watering Can

Watering can

Since the COVID-19 outbreak first came to the United States months ago, how much time have you spent caring for others? Raise your hand if you’re doing (or have done) any of the following:

  • Working through the shutdown as an essential healthcare, transportation, grocery, or sanitation worker
  • Buying groceries for an elderly parent, relative, or neighbor
  • Running errands for someone who is under quarantine
  • Helping your children navigate online learning when schools were shut down this spring
  • Putting in long hours figuring out how to provide online learning to your students
  • Cooking meals around the clock for a house full of family stuck at home
  • Volunteering for local social services such as food banks, shelters, etc.
  • Showing up to march in protest for the equal rights of your black brothers and sisters
  • Sewing masks or collecting PPE to support your local hospitals or nursing homes
  • Providing connection and care to those who are lonely and isolated in quarantine
  • Talking to friends, children, or siblings who are scared and anxious and trying to help them work through their fears

Let me take a moment to tell you that you are wonderful! You are doing God’s work in caring for others during a time of crisis, and your work is appreciated. Today I would like you to reflect on this important question: How much of yourself are you giving away? Is this constant taking care of others taking its toll on your spirit? You can’t become so busy caring for others that your spiritual life suffers. Your relationship with God is the foundation that supports everything else. You can’t be the best YOU without it!

Think of yourself as a watering can. Every time you care for someone, you pour out a little bit of water to nurture them. What happens when the watering can is empty? What are you doing to refill it? Are you taking time to rest? Are you taking time to sit in the stillness and feel the presence of God all around you? Are you praying, meditating, taking long walks in nature, playing your favorite spiritual music, or finding other ways to connect with God?

Re-filling your watering can has to be a commitment. You can’t wait around for the time to present itself. With the state the world is in right now, it might not happen anytime soon. The work of caring for others never ends. There’s always one more thing you can do. Let it be a gift you give to yourself—making the conscious decision to stop and fill up your watering can in whatever way works best for you.

The good news is, you don’t have to do this alone. I’m sure you have someone in your life —a friend or family member—that you can always count on to lift your spirits. No matter how hard your day is, how tired or stressed you are, when you’re with that person, they make you feel good. That’s what God can and should be for you when your watering can is empty. Allow yourself to rest in God. To be refreshed by the peace and joy that can only come from God.

Then you will be ready to be poured out once again.

What We Have is Enough

hydrangea

All my life I’ve been in love with hydrangeas. Huge beautiful flowers in gorgeous colors that reflect the ocean and the sky. They remind me of lazy days on vacation at Cape Cod and endless summer afternoons. I always dreamed I would one day live in a house with rows of hydrangea bushes in dazzling colors. 

Well…I’ve been in my house for 20 years and I had more failed attempts at growing hydrangeas than I could count. Admittedly, I’m not the world’s best gardener, and for whatever reason they  just wouldn’t grow in my yard. I had all but given up, when five years ago my in-laws gave me a beautiful hydrangea bush for Mother’s Day. This one did well! It grew stronger and fuller every year, with healthy green leaves and bountiful blooms. Granted, it wasn’t the overflowing garden of many hydrangeas I once dreamed about, but I decided it would be enough. 

This one hydrangea bush would be enough, and I would love it fiercely.

This summer, for some reason, my beloved hydrangea bush only produced one solitary bloom. I was so disappointed! Like so many of you, I’d been stuck at home for months during the quarantine, with nothing to look at but my front yard and my back yard. I had been looking forward to seeing the hydrangea bloom in full glory this summer.  

So I had another decision to make. I could continue to focus on the lack of blooms—on what my garden was lacking—or I could decide that my one bloom was enough. And so that’s what I did. I’m loving that bloom fiercely.

Best-selling author Melanie Beattie once wrote, “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more.” It is absolutely true that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken so much from us. Time with our loved ones, moments of celebration with family and classmates, liturgies in our churches, proms, graduations, hugs. It’s completely understandable to have a hard time letting go of all that we’ve lost and are still losing. However, a constant focus on what we lack can lead us to overlook what we already have. 

“And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.”
(1 John 4:16).

With God we have more love than we could ever imagine. Abundant, overflowing, excessive, bountiful, crazy amounts of love. After that, everything else is just a bonus.

There are always going to be things we don’t have enough of. Not enough sleep. Not enough time. Not enough money. Not enough help around the house. And yes, not enough hydrangeas. But if we look within, and bask in God’s love, we’ll realize that we have enough of what truly matters.

I challenge you today to gently turn your thoughts away from all that you are lacking, and focus on one solitary thing that you do have. Whatever it may be—a delicious meal, a phone call with a friend, a restorative nap, a tomato you grew in your garden, a cuddle with your pet—treasure that experience. And love it fiercely. 

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

Near or Far

foggy morning

There are times when I see you through a thick fog.
My eyes squint and strain…but you don’t take shape.
I want to BELIEVE you are near
But you seem far away.

There are days when I hear you through a pounding rain or a crashing sea.
I lean towards you…but your voice is faint.
I must HOPE you are near
But you sound far away.

There are moments when I feel you through a crowd,
They press and pull on me from every direction.
Feeling off balance and unsteady…I don’t know how or where to reach for you.
I need to TRUST you are near
But you feel far away.

Loving God,
Emerge from the fog
Sing through the storm
Touch my heart through the chaos
I will turn my eyes and ears – my whole being – towards you. 

The fog still surrounds me, the waves crash, and the crowd presses.
But I am safe and strong – with YOU.
I can sweep the fog away. I can swallow the rain. I can embrace the crowd.

You are near… you are HERE, always.

AMEN.

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

Lost and Found

compass

Loving God, bless the times when I am a seeker. Forever seeking to know You more deeply. Traveling to all places and all times to discover You in our midst. I seek those thin places where the veil between heaven and earth is lifted and I can gaze upon Your face.

Loving God, bless the times when I grow weary of seeking. When I simply want to be found. Come and seek me wherever I am, whatever I may be doing. When You are part of the ordinary moments of my day…then I am home.

Loving God, whether I am seeking or sought, lost or found…I praise You in all things. Your love is mighty and good. Your power is everlasting.

AMEN.

Fully Known By God

god is faithful week 3.jpg

Background photo by Aaron Lee on Unsplash

Who is the person in your life that knows you best?

Most of us reveal ourselves to others in bits and pieces. Depending on the setting, the circumstances, or the nature of the relationship, we let people see only parts of us. We hold back things that we don’t want others to see, for any number of reasons. For most of us, it is a rare few individuals that truly know us. And even then, there might be things we still keep to ourselves, even from those we are closest to.

In Psalm 139 we encounter a God who knows everything about us. When we sit and stand. A God who knows our every thought and where we are at every moment. A God we cannot hide from…who is always there. “How can I get away from your Spirit? Where can I go to escape from you? If I go up to the heavens, you are there. If I lie down in the deepest parts of the earth, you are also there.” (Psalm 139:7-8)

When I was young, the idea that God knew everything about me made me nervous and uncomfortable. It felt like someone reading my diary. With my immature understanding of sin, I felt like God was watching me, waiting for me to do something wrong or make a mistake. I wondered if God was listening in on my unkind or jealous thoughts. I could pretend to be this perfect person to those around me, but God knew the truth.

I didn’t like that feeling.

Maybe there are some of you who still feel that way. Catholic guilt is very real! Our images of God from childhood (as a stern judge or a scolding parent) stay with us through the years.

As I matured in my faith, I no longer saw God as an administer of shame but as a source of mercy and forgiveness. Like the line from the Pretenders song, “Nothing you confess, could make me love you less.”  That’s how I began to see God…and gradually the idea of being fully known by God was something that I welcomed. Now it gives me incredible comfort. The act of surrendering all that I am to God feels like the strongest safety net. The firmest foundation.

I encourage you to challenge the view you may hold of God as “law enforcement,” who only makes an appearance in our lives when we do something wrong. A picture of God waiting to dole out punishment. A God who is trying to “catch us” in moments of sin. Challenge this view and spend some time with the God who created you, chose you, blesses you, and calls you.

What does it mean to be known by God?  

“God, your thoughts about me are priceless. No one can possibly add them all up. If I could count them, they would be more than the grains of sand. If I were to fall asleep counting and then wake up, you would still be there with me.” (Psalm 139:17-18)

You were created to be loved by God. When you are feeling alone, and hopeless, God is there…loving you still. Nothing you confess could make God love you any less. God offers us prodigal mercy and radical grace. More than we deserve or could ever earn. When you struggle with doubt or fear, bring those feelings to God, who will not flinch from your angriest thoughts or your most desperate questions.

Christian author Kelly Minter writes: “To be known more wholly than we can know ourselves. To be known more deeply than others can know us. This is the knowing with which God knows us. But do not be afraid…for He loves us wholly still.”

To be fully known and still fully loved is an incredible gift. You don’t have to earn it. It’s not like getting picked for a fraternity, being chosen for a job, or having someone choose you on an online dating site. God wants to know each and every one of us. We are His beloved children. His chosen ones. Our names are written on the palm of His hand.

Your name is written on the palm of God’s hand.

As you ponder this amazing thought, my prayer for you is that you will surrender to God, who knows you and loves you unconditionally. A love that is beyond measure. A love that is faithful and unshakable. Live in that love. Wake up each morning telling yourself: “I was created to be loved by God.” Amen!