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!

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.

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.

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.

Unanswered Prayers

piano
Please, dear God, don’t let him make any mistakes.

This was my hastily whispered prayer three years ago when my eleven-year-old son sat down at the piano to perform in the spring recital.  He was playing a difficult piece – one that he had been working on for months.  I knew he was nervous.  I held my breath as he began to play.

Despite my plea to God, there were several noticeable mistakes in his performance, including one heart-stopping moment where he seemed to lose his place in the music before picking it back up again.  My heart fell.  My son is a deeply sensitive boy and a perfectionist.  I knew he would be devastated by these mistakes.  And he was.  No matter how many times my husband and I told him he did a great job and we were so proud of him, he would not hear it.  With choked back sobs and tears of frustration, he could not get past it.

He wasn’t the only one who was frustrated. I had a bone to pick with God.  “Come on!!  It was a simple request!  You can move mountains and part seas!  Was it really so impossible to help a boy get through one piano piece?!?”  I felt rejected and a little bit betrayed.  I couldn’t understand why God refused to say “yes” to this simple prayer.

Fast forward two years.  We were back at the same music studio for another piano concert.  My son had chosen an even more challenging piece to perform.  He knew it by heart and he was ready. Before he began to play, his teacher got up to say the following words about my son: “When he chose this piece to learn, as his teacher my first instinct was to talk him out of it, because I thought it would be too difficult for him. But he was determined and he worked hard. And he taught me a valuable lesson. Never again will I tell a student what they can’t do.”

The lights dimmed as my son began to play. He did a beautiful job…his fingers flying over the keys as the melody filled the room and my heart. His performance wasn’t perfect. There were some wrong notes and another prolonged pause as he tried to find his place again. I sighed deeply. So close! I guess we’re in for another rough afternoon.

When the recital was over I rushed over to my son to give him a hug. He hugged me back, smiled, and shrugged his shoulders. “Did you notice I lost my place for a few seconds there?” To my surprise, he wasn’t upset. He was ok with it. What a difference from the wrecked little boy of two years ago! My mind jumped back to that moment when I believed that God had denied my prayer. With sudden clarity, I realized how wrong I was. This was God’s answer. This year, this moment, this beautiful evidence of growth in my son. God had been holding him and shaping him and working in him all this time.

I understood. God didn’t say “yes” to my prayer that day. But he didn’t say “no” either. Instead, his answer was “grow.” A lesson in faith to be learned not just by my child, but by me.

God is always loving us and working in our lives, even if we can’t always see it in obvious ways. Think back to the “unanswered” prayers in your own life. Was God really saying no? Or was there a greater plan He had in mind for you?