Praying to be Disturbed

Wind sunset picmonkey

How many of you have the same basic routine for Lent, year after year? Or maybe you have the same habits that guide your spiritual life throughout the whole year. Although there’s something very comforting about these routines, they can also turn into a kind of “spiritual inertia,” and Lent can be a wonderful time to shake of that inertia and allow ourselves to be disturbed.

What does it mean…to be disturbed? It’s a word that has a pretty negative connotation, doesn’t it?  When something is disturbing, it’s usually not good.

Not necessarily.

Picture the way a strong wind disturbs the branches of a tree, moving them and shaking them a little. Now imagine that wind is the Holy Spirit blowing through your soul. How is it moving you? In what ways is it stirring up your faith? Let yourself embrace this feeling instead of avoiding it. This is called “Holy Disturbance.” It prevents us from playing it safe or phoning it in.

I read an article where the author described Jesus’s constant re-entry into our lives as a type of chaos. Jesus enters, we push him away. Just when we get back to our own sense of what’s safe and routine, Jesus enters once again. His presence is something we often resist because we don’t know where it will lead, and we’re afraid of the change it might bring.

Now maybe calling it “chaos” is a bit harsh. I’m not sure that’s exactly how I would describe it. I once heard someone refer to this feeling in way that spoke to me: “God is trying to ruffle my feathers,” she said. She knew that God was calling her to do something different. She wasn’t quite sure what it was, but she sensed she needed to be open to it.

My birthday is in December, and a few years ago it fell on a Sunday. I announced to my husband that the only thing I wanted to do for my birthday was stay in my pajamas all day, curl up on the couch, and watch the latest Avengers movie. My husband went a bit pale because unbeknownst to me, he had arranged for all of our friends to join us with their families for a massive traveling scavenger hunt, looking for various Christmas related items. (You had to find and take pictures of things like a carton of eggnog, a Santa on a rooftop, a decorated mailbox, an outdoor nativity scene, etc.)

I had to very quickly shift gears. Instead of my relaxing day on the couch, I would go on an exciting, breakneck journey through the neighboring towns, ending with a rowdy and fun lunch at a local restaurant. Not at all how I expected my day to go, but so much more fun and meaningful than what I had planned for myself.

At the post-scavenger lunch one of my dear friends asked me if I wanted to join her for an Advent candlelight labyrinth walk later that evening. Now, if she had called me when I was in the middle of watching the Avengers, I can guarantee I would have said no. I would have been firmly rooted to my couch with no desire to go anywhere. But the scavenger hunt had already “disturbed” my plans and opened my heart to this spirit of adventure. So I said “yes,” and my birthday ended with an incredibly moving, peaceful and faith-filled walk through a silent labyrinth experience.

During this last week of Lent and Holy Week, spend some time thinking about how you react to change. Do you welcome it, or do you shy away from it? What if you began to look at change as God calling you? A calling that stirs your heart and moves you to a deeper level of faith. How often do you say “yes” to those opportunities?

Before you start to feel overwhelmed, keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be a huge life-changing event. You don’t have to move to an impoverished nation to serve the poor or give up your career to pursue a certain ministry. (Although there are plenty of shining examples of saints and modern day disciples who do these kinds of things!) But we can also pay attention to the smaller holy disturbances in our daily lives.

So, if you feel like you’ve gotten into a rut this Lenten season. I offer you this old anonymous prayer to reflect on.

“Disturb me, Lord, when my dreams come true, only because I dreamed too small. Disturb me when I arrive safely, only because I sailed too close to the shore. Disturb me when the things I have gained cause me to lose my thirst for more of You. Disturb me when I have acquired success, only to lose my desire for excellence. Disturb me when I give up too soon and settle too far short of the goals you have set for my life. Amen”

Wishing you a blessed Holy Week!

What Should I Pray?

Sit With Me Prayer

Dear God,

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

AMEN.

A Prayer for Everyday Grace

ocean boulders

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. 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 and faith in you.

Lord, I bring to you my burdens. Things that I cannot control weigh me down like a heavy stone. On the days that I am tired, stressed, and weary, I know that you walk with me. I know that you are my rock—my cornerstone—and I can find rest in you.

Lord, I bring to you a heart that longs for healing. I know that when I choose to sin, I separate myself from you. Help me to remember that because of the sacrifice of your Son, Jesus Christ, there are no longer any walls between us. Grant me wisdom to make good choices and the courage to seek to be reconciled with you when I do not. Help me to forgive myself and others as you have forgiven me.

Open my heart, O Lord, to receive your gift of amazing grace!

 

*Adapted from the closing prayer for Creating Space for Grace: A Retreat For Busy Women © Sheri Dursin, 2016

Live Like You Were Living

skydive-woman-1437056

I have a confession to make. I am not a fan of the songs, inspirational quotes, and Facebook posts that tell us to “live like you were dying.” I get the point. Time is short. You have to make the most of every moment. You never know when your number may be called. My reaction to this: It’s a terribly nerve-wracking way to live your life. This pressure to do everything we think we might ever want to do for every moment of the day. To tell everyone exactly how much they mean to us every single time we interact with them. I think if I tried to live this way I would fall asleep each night convinced I had fallen woefully short of the demands of this “live like you were dying” philosophy. For example, here are some things I did today: I cleaned my bathroom. I wrote a few emails. I made a grocery list. I stared into space for a few minutes while trying to focus on work. I spent a few minutes trading dumb jokes and harmless gossip with my sister. I watched TV.

Not exactly skydiving and poetry.

The fact is, most of us live a life marked by the ordinary. It’s how we choose to frame that ordinary, that matters. And we don’t need a death knell to achieve it. We just need a simple reminder that God loves us. That God is good. And that God chooses us and blesses us. The process of becoming who we’re meant to be is often gradual. We are each a work in progress. We look back on the ordinary moments and realize that our life is about something or it is not yet. But there’s still time. For the vast majority of us, there’s still time to make changes.

I’m not rejecting bold action in living out our faith. There will be those times when God calls us to take risks. To abruptly change course. To follow Him in a direction we never dreamed we could go. But most days we’re just chugging along the tracks of life. Doing our best. Imagine if every time you did something, a voice shouted at you: “But you could DIE tomorrow! Is that really what you want to be doing on your last day on earth?!?” My goodness. Who could hold up under that pressure? Imagine instead, that you heard a voice whispering to you:

“You are loved. You are called to love.”

This gentle reminder would reshape the way we see the world. The way we interact with others. The way we live.

There are many ways to live life to the fullest. And it’s true that some of our loved ones have been taken from this earth far too soon, while still others face very serious medical struggles. Our heart breaks with the unfairness of it all. We may never understand the reasons for it, and we wish we could take their place. But we must remember that God has given us our time here on earth for living. It’s ok to have regrets… as long as we share those regrets with God, release them, and keep moving forward, through each ordinary moment, listening for God’s voice teaching us and reminding us that love matters most of all.

It just might be a feeling even better than skydiving.

A Sinking Heart

bleeding-hearts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allegory of Five Gardens (Part Four)

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

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

“How does your garden fare, my child?”

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

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

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

REFLECTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Look Beneath the Surface

flowering tree

The window in my office looks out over a pretty little tree that blooms with beautiful pink flowers in the spring time.  It brightens my day all season to look out on this splash of color.  Last week I happened to look up from my computer to the shocking sight of this tree slowly and quietly falling to the ground.  Huh?!?  What happened?!?  It wasn’t stormy or even windy out.  What knocked this tree over?

I went out for a closer look and realized that half of the tree was badly diseased.  Some kind of white fungus or mold had killed off the leaves and weakened the branches.  I was heartbroken to realize that the tree had been slowly dying and I never even noticed.  I walk by that tree every single day on my way into work, but only appreciated it for what it could give me, a pretty view during the spring season.

How often do we do that with the people in our lives—look only at the surface?  The brave face they are presenting to the world.  But if we looked a little deeper, we would see sadness, pain, or worry.  Obvious sorrow is easy to see and respond to.  But quiet suffering takes place under the surface.  The only way to discover it is by taking a closer look.  Paying attention to those around us.  Shifting the focus from our own lives for a little while to listen and be present to others.

Jesus was good at noticing those who were lost, dejected, and silently suffering.

In Luke’s Gospel we learn of a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years and could not be healed.  When Jesus passed by, she came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak.  Jesus asked his disciples who had touched him and they shrugged it off, assuming it was just the crowd pressing in on him.  Not satisfied with that explanation, Jesus took the time for a closer look.  As he searched the crowd, the woman came up to him and fell at his feet.  By her faith she was immediately healed. (Luke 8:43-48) The Gospels are full of stories like this. Jesus was all about connection and healing.  He wanted to reach everyone.

I’ll never know if there’s anything that might have saved that tree.  But if I had been paying better attention, I could have called the groundskeeper.  He would have diagnosed the tree and possibly even healed it.  It was a sad lesson to learn and one that has inspired me to be more present to those around me.  To focus less on me and more on others.  A reminder that everyone I meet is a child of God.  Everyone is worth a closer look.  I pray to follow the example of Jesus as I strive to look beneath the surface.  To listen and really hear.  And to serve.

Allegory of Five Gardens (Part Three)

weeds

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

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

“How does your garden fare, my child?”

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

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

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

REFLECTION:

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

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

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

Allegory of Five Gardens (Part Two)

crowded garden

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

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

“How does your garden fare, my child?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

REFLECTION:

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

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

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

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

Some points to consider:

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

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

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

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

*Read Part One of Allegory of Five Gardens here.

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!