Choosing to be chosen

Prodigal Son ImageOur priest’s recent homily touched on being chosen by God. Each of us is. Not all of us know it.

Many have never heard His call. Some hear it, but turn away. For some, recognition happens all at once. For others, God’s call is revealed more slowly and in stages. Continue reading

We are all called to be saints

No, this isn’t a belated April Fool’s joke. Although when I first heard that we – all of us – can be saints…are called, in fact, to be saints, I had a similar reaction: ‘You must be kidding! Me?’

But, what I am slowly coming to appreciate more fully is that God’s most important call to each of us is to be saints – each in our own special way, each in our own individual circumstance. Our only challenge is to learn to say ‘Yes, Lord, I’m willing. Show me how.”

Maybe you won’t have as hard a time as I did hearing these words and taking them seriously, but let me share what some writers who actually know what they’re talking about have to say about our call to sainthood:

In discussing Saints, People Like Us, Henri Nouwen says,

Through baptism we become part of a family much larger than our biological family. It is a family of people “set apart” by God to be light in the darkness. These set-apart people are called saints. Although we tend to think about saints as holy and pious, and picture them with halos above their heads and ecstatic gazes, true saints are much more accessible. They are men and women like us, who live ordinary lives and struggle with ordinary problems. What makes them saints is their clear and unwavering focus on God and God’s people. Some of their lives may look quite different, but most of their lives are remarkably similar to our own. The saints are our brothers and sisters, calling us to become like them. (Nouwen, Henri J. M. (2009-03-17). Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith (p. 328-9). )

He went on to describe that:

The saints are God’s holy people. The apostle Paul speaks about all those who belong to Christ as “holy people” or “saints.” He directs his letters to “those who have been consecrated in Christ Jesus and called to be God’s holy people” (1 Corinthians 1: 2; see also Ephesians 1: 1). This sanctity is the work of the Spirit of Jesus. Paul again says, “All of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory; this is the working of the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3: 18). As saints we belong to that large network of God’s people that shines like a multitude of stars in the dark sky of the universe. (Nouwen, Henri J. M. (2009-03-17). Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith (p. 330))

Fr. James Martin S.J. in his book My Life with the Saints, quotes Thomas Merton to say,

“For me to be a saint means to be myself.”

And Merton says in his own book, The Seven Storey Mountain:

And they were saints in that most effective and telling way: sanctified by leading ordinary lives in a completely supernatural manner, sanctified by obscurity, by usual skills, by common tasks, by routine, but skills, tasks, routine which received a supernatural form from grace within, and from the habitual union of their souls with God in deep faith and charity. (Merton, Thomas (1998-10-04). The Seven Storey Mountain: Fiftieth-Anniversary Edition (p. 62))

So this is my Easter gift to you…the good and joyful news that Christ lived among us, died for us and rose again to be with the Father. He gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit to live within each of us. To be with us in times of trial and triumph. To guide and direct our hearts along our journey. To call us to walk with Him in sainthood, as He shares the truth of His love with the world.

Evangelism

Sun thru monkey treeEvangelism has been a difficult concept for me. I’ve never thought I knew enough. I can’t quote Bible verses from memory. I don’t have a complete understanding of church history or teaching. My words can sound sanctimonious and saccharin even to my own ear. In the un-churched community in which I live I fear my witness would do more to offend than to welcome.

Yet, as I have begun to know our Lord better, I’ve at times felt as though I would burst if I didn’t find some way to share His beauty and gentleness and love with others. It’s a natural outcome of His sharing His abundance with me, who has done so little to deserve it.

When we don’t know how to do something that at the same time feels so urgent, it’s often true that our understanding of our purpose is lacking. My concept of evangelism in this case has been faulty and incomplete.

This morning Henri Nouwen addressed “The Fruit of the Spirit” in his book of daily meditations, Bread for the Journey. He says,

Often we think that to witness means to speak up in defense of God. This idea can make us very self-conscious. We wonder where and how we can make God the topic of our conversations and how to convince our families, friends, neighbors, and colleagues of God’s presence in their lives.

But this explicit missionary endeavor often comes from an insecure heart and, therefore, easily creates divisions.

Talk about an arrow straight to my heart. “…an insecure heart…creates divisions.” Here’s the nut,

The way God’s Spirit manifests itself most convincingly is through its fruit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22). These fruit speak for themselves. It is, therefore, always better to raise the question “How can I grow in the Spirit?” than the question “How can I make others believe in the Spirit?”

I’m not sure there are words to express the relief I felt as I read this. My job is to grow myself. I’m increasingly certain I can do that.

Henri continues in the next meditation to discuss “Right Living and Right Speaking” saying that,

To be a witness for God is to be a living sign of God’s presence in the world. What we live is more important than what we say, because the right way of living always leads to the right way of speaking. When we forgive our neighbors from our hearts, our hearts will speak forgiving words. When we are grateful, we will speak grateful words, and when we are hopeful and joyful, we will speak hopeful and joyful words.

Father, I pray Your grace guides my heart and my actions and my words; that they honor You and are acceptable in Your sight; that they bless those You bring into my life.

 

And so I pray. It’s a powerful act.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a particular individual in my life. She is mostly a kind, loyal, caring, considerate, and faithful lover of God.

On the one hand.

On the other, I have had daily opportunities to observe her world over the last year. As we’ve shared our lives over Facebook and email, I find she devotes an amazing amount of her time and energy mocking, scorning, laughing at, openly ridiculing others she encounters in her community and online.

She passes along shock talk – “news” of the day, unvetted for accuracy or authenticity…think of the online equivalents of newspaper tabloids from which most of us attempt to avert our eyes while standing in the grocery line – with questions and comments like, “Have you seen this? What do you think? Do you believe this? Does she really think this looks good? What on earth was she thinking? This girl must hate herself to dye her hair that color. It just makes my heart hurt.”

I share her last sentiment.

The stories or, worse, the pictures, presumably serve to support her perspective on some issue of the day. Pick one: Race relations, immigration policy, Islamist terror threats, people who look different, people who dress different, issues of human suffering of all kinds.

As a person of words, many come to mind in immediate response. I’ve so far held my tongue/pen/keyboard. Thankfully, I have found a button at the top right of all Facebook posts that allows me to block specific types of posts that she chooses to share, allowing me to avoid the temptation of response altogether.

And before I go further, while you’re probably rolling your eyes wondering why I don’t just cut her from my list of FB friends, she’s the wife of a relative. I haven’t wanted to ruffle the calm waters of our extended family relations. Still, it sometimes feels as though I could/should do/say something….maybe?

Her vitriol is so evident some days that I have picked up the phone a couple of times to call and chat with her and learn if there’s something in particular that is making her so unhappy. These calls haven’t seemed to be especially helpful. It’s highly likely that I’m not gifted in the particular way needed in order to reach out to her verbally. It certainly never feels like a comfortable calling, but more like an unwelcome obligation.

So, I pray. Prayer’s a powerful act.

I pray for her and others like her. Unfortunately, she’s not unusual.

And yet, it seems sometimes I should do more, go further, try harder, understand better.

I talked with my husband this morning (bless him and thanks to God for speaking to me through him.) He suggested that I read verses from the book of James.

James describes our tongues this way:

…the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself.

Check!

…Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God.

Check again.

As I read these verses I realized they weren’t just describing others’ tongues, they were speaking to me, too.

I hope you’ll all consider offering your counsel on this. I appreciate hearing your thoughts and suggestions…and, if not those, your prayers.

I read on in James and he offers us some direction:

… If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom… wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others…

I always want to be this way, but there are so many times that I try and fail.

[Wisdom] is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.

I can feel myself breathing deeper and beginning to stand down metaphorically from my very high horse.

James continues:

Don’t speak evil against each other, dear brothers and sisters. If you criticize and judge each other, then you are criticizing and judging God’s law. But your job is to obey the law, not to judge whether it applies to you.  God alone, who gave the law, is the Judge. He alone has the power to save or to destroy. So what right do you have to judge your neighbor?

It’s not mine to judge. Thank heaven.

So I pray. It’s a powerful act.

I pray that His goodness touches her heart and fills her being so full that her first thoughts consider kindly those who are not like her;

I pray that her first feelings are feelings of compassion for others’ unknown and misunderstood burdens…that her first act is to pray for them.

I pray for myself and for each of us. It’s a powerful act.

I pray we learn how to see others not as foreigners in our country or in our community, our tribe, our family…that we not see others as foreign to our selves. I pray that we choose instead to open our hearts to the unity in which God created us.

I pray we each attempt to fathom, if only dimly, the brotherhood and sisterhood—the family—into which we have all been created by our One Father, our One Creator.

I pray His forgiveness for forgetting our roles. He created us in love, intending that we greet one another—no matter our differences or affronts or provocations—that we reach out and greet one another in love.

He intended that we embrace one another as joint heirs of His kingdom —each of us uniquely loved by Him, each uniquely gifted by His grace, each uniquely chosen and shared with others as gifts from our perfect Benefactor.

So I pray. It’s a powerful act.

When we know that we know, we can dare to look…

Greetings to each of you. And I pray that you are experiencing God’s blessings on your day this very day, even as I write these words.

The early days and weeks of 2015 have been so filled with God’s grace and love. Even though I often only feel the full warmth of His touch after He has passed by, my life—our lives—are so continuously blessed.

I have just finished reading Henri Nouwen’s Return of the Prodigal Son in preparation for the Lenten Retreat being hosted online by Ray Glennon and Brynn Lawrence for the Henri Nouwen Society.

Oh my!

I would feel guilty for jumping the gun with our Lenten reading, except 1.) Ray and Brynn said I could (it’s ok to laugh — I sound like a child, even to my own ear); and 2.) it takes me a while to assimilate the words I read. Now that I have read it through once, I can read Return of the Prodigal Son in a more disciplined way during the retreat (well, that’s the desire anyway).

So, it was as a direct result of read Henri’s Return of the Prodigal Son, that I chanced to open The Story of Painting by Sister Wendy Beckett.

Bear with me here, I’m going to loop this back ‘round to a point here soon.

The first words I read were in the forward to the Story of Painting in which Sr Wendy says:

“…This book is my faltering attempt to offer the security of a knowledgeable background, which will help to make whatever art we see more accessible. Some people are certainly held back from a fearless gaze at painting because they fear their own ignorance. Truly to look remains one’s personal responsibility, and nobody else’s response (and certainly not my own) can be a substitute. But knowledge must come to us from outside, from reading, listening, and viewing. If we know that we know, we can perhaps dare to look. Love and knowledge go hand in hand. When we love, we always want to know, and this book will succeed if it starts the reader on the track that leads to more reading, greater knowledge, greater love, and, of course, greater happiness.”

There’s something deeply moving and inviting about Sr Wendy’s words—inviting one into her writing about painting, certainly—but also inviting and comforting in their call to some deeper place within that recognizes the universality… of these words. Listen again:

… If we know that we know, we can perhaps dare to look. Love and knowledge go hand in hand. When we love, we always want to know …

This thought frames completely and so simply my reaction to God, the God I have just recently been allowed to experience, my Father, who found my heart fully ready and fully open to Him in His loving compassion. For me as for many, I expect, I had “held back from a fearless gaze” at God…maybe ‘because of my fear of my own own ignorance,’ my own shame, my own self-denial and ‘self-rejection,’ as Henri Nouwen would call it.

When the scales fell from my eyes and my heart, I ‘knew that I knew’ His love. I understood, if only dimly, His joy for my return to Him. I knew, if only in the shadows of my being, His compassion for my heavy heart, an empty heart that was all I had left to offer to Him…yet a heart overflowing with such love for Him.

Love and knowledge go hand in hand,” counsels Sister Wendy in her forward. And I knew. With a certainty that defied all my human understanding, this knowledge of Him, this love for Him demanded passionately that I know Him more, understand Him better, experience Him more deeply, walk with Him more freely on the way He has planned for me…on the way…”on the track that leads to more reading, greater knowledge, greater love, and, of course, greater happiness.”

It was Henri Nouwen’s Return of the Prodigal Son that caused me to open Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting, in the first place. The book, a gift, has been sitting on my shelf for at least 10 years waiting for me to crack its cover. Understanding art has never been a great passion for me. (Even now, you can readily see that I have been struck more by her words, than by the art she will be describing.)

But, Henri described his own divinely inspired passion for Rembrandt’s painting, the Prodigal Son, wrapping it so lovingly and gently and painstakingly with his own experiences and understanding and insights and revelations. Henri not only made me want to explore more deeply the two sons and the father embedded in my own being, but to see for myself—to apprehend in my own consciousness—the divine depths of Rembrandt’s Prodigal.

Where words and nature have always been the most direct routes to my heart, I know others are lifted and inspired by art and music. Maybe, just maybe, spiritual art – Rembrandt’s and others – might offer me an additional glimpse, another way to understand God’s word.

And so, I continue on my way searching for “more reading, greater knowledge, greater love, and, of course, greater happiness” and the love that passes all understanding.

I encourage you to join me this Lent. I’ll be retreating online with the Henri Nouwen Society as they read and discuss Henri’s Return of the Prodigal Son. I have been so wonderfully blessed by Henri Nouwen’s writing and by the Society’s online retreats that focus on his writing. Their Lenten retreat starts February 18th. It promises to be awesome.

Are you shy? Or an introvert?

Introvert. Leonard Pitts writes this in a recent column in the Miami Herald:

The word is not a synonym for “shy,” though as a boy, I was that, too. But where shyness is an outsized fear of other people’s disapproval or of social embarrassment, to be an introvert is to be inward turning, more at home in small, intimate groups than large, boisterous ones. It is to prefer the quiet to the loud, reflection to exhortation, solitude to socializing.

For years, I struggled with that, wondered why I prefer the rainy afternoon spent watching old movies or reading a book to the sunny afternoon at a backyard barbecue watching people do the electric slide. Then, last year, I chanced upon a book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. It was the first time anyone had ever explained me to me. Turns out I’m not the only one. Turns out introversion is perfectly normal.

I think it fits me. How ’bout you?

Thomas Merton’s continuing relevance for today’s youth

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M. writes recently of the continuing relevance of Trappist monk and prolific spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, in America, a Catholic magazine. I’d recommend the entire article to you, here, but was particularly struck by this paragraph mid-way through:

There is much that can be said about the still timely insights Merton presents to us about engaging other religious traditions. Perhaps the most pertinent is the need to live honestly in the tension between maintaining one’s own faith commitments and humbly learning from the experiences of others, all the while holding onto the belief that we are indeed, somehow, “already one.”

How simple and how challenging for so many in today’s world, but how important if we’re all to get through this world together.

Waiting and Watching for God

In the past I have often become agitated and grumpy with congested driving, slow lines and waiting. Thankfully, these times have diminished somewhat in recent decades, due to two main reasons I think – one mundane, the other somewhat more enlightened.

On the mundane level, my family moved to an Island from which many commute by ferry to work and play in the city. Alternatively we can drive off the ‘backside’ of the Island over a two-lane bridge to communities even more rural than ours.

It can be a bucolic life, but it has its challenges. Getting where one wants to go can at times be congested, interrupted, or completely blocked (if the ferry runs into the dock, for example, shutting down all service, or an earthquake shakes our world). Islanders necessarily grow accustomed to waiting and eventually find productive ways to spend what would otherwise be wasted downtime. I learned early on to always have something in my purse that I could read or write on (praise God for electronic devices that have replaced notepads and heavy books).

More recently, as I have learned to allow God into my life more fully and more often, I have begun to (almost) look forward to those times when circumstances require I stop my activity. It’s now in those times that I often notice our Lord sitting next to me in the car or waiting next to me in line. His presence — or more accurately, my acknowledgement of His presence — immediately alters my outlook.

What I initially perceived to be an imposition caused by some idiot driver up the road or the forces of evil thwarting my schedule, suddenly dissolves and I find my Lord there. Often He’s grinning and looking like He’s thinking, “I wondered what it would take to get you to notice me….Nice you could join me today.”

Now, imposition, waiting, longing, frustration, irritation all seem to be His call for me to join Him…or better, to realize He’s already with me just waiting for me to acknowledge His presence.

I pray that this season of Advent–this watchful waiting for our Lord–is blessing you in just the ways you need to carry you on your journey into His loving presence.

Therefore, I’m Joyful

Last Sunday was the 3rd Sunday of Advent. It is known as Gaudete Sunday, or Joy Sunday, a day of rejoicing in the Lord’s coming.

In his “A Spirituality of HomecomingHenri Nouwen says, “How do we live out the joy Christ offers us? Celebration!

He goes on to say that, “But beyond these … celebrations, we are invited to develop an ongoing awareness that every moment is special and deserves to be recognized as a gift from the God with whom we share a home.

In his homily tonight our priest reflected on Joy. As I listened I recalled a prayer I wrote last fall. Just as Henri suggests in The Genessee Diary, “real joy wants to share.” I was overjoyed to have an appropriate occasion to share my prayer with all of you this Sunday. It’s called, Therefore, I’m Joyful:

You have given me this new day, Father,
Today, it is filled with sunshine and promise and potential.

Therefore, I’m joyful.

You paint my world with vibrant colors in every season.
You send me constantly the gifts of Your beauty, Your bounty, and Your love.

Therefore, I’m joyful.

You have given me my loving husband and children and friends.

Therefore, I’m joyful.

You have taken me to be Your child.

Therefore, I’m joyful.

You constantly assure me of Your presence here with me.

Therefore, I’m joyful.

You constantly show me Your love for me.

Therefore, I’m joyful.

You send me Your gifts of heartache and loss,
And with them, You remind me to lean on You,
To be lifted up again and again by Your strength.

Therefore, I’m joyful.

You send me Your gifts of challenge and frustration,
And with Your added grace, You help me to forgive.

Therefore, I’m joyful.

You have allowed me to feel overwhelmed by my love for You,

Therefore, I’m joyful.

You, my heavenly Father, sent me Your Son, my brother, my Lord,
And You infused me with Your Holy Spirit
And blessed me with the “Yes” of my holy mother, Mary.

Therefore, I am filled full to the top and overflowing with the joy of Your creation.

I pray this 3rd Sunday and all of Advent that He blesses all of you with the love and joy that passes all understanding. I pray that your holy ministries of sharing His good news blossom and bless you as we all watch and wait for the coming of our Lord.

 

It’s simple. Just say ‘yes’ to God

Thank you, Lord, for guiding me (at last!) to the answer I’ve been searching for now for so many years.

For decades (all those years before my children and husband), I’ve wondered why I jumped from relationship to relationship. I would start out delighting in showering someone with all my energy and affections, only to tire of them after a year or two. They weren’t the real problem. I always knew there was something missing in me.

Even though, I was told repeatedly in many different settings that God loves me (“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so…”), the meaning of the message – how it all works on the ground – for some reason just didn’t connect.

But, praise God, I finally got it.

It was in a Bible study I attended (nearly 25 years ago now). In it, we focused for nearly eight weeks on the lesson, ‘We love, we are loved by others, we are Beloved (loved unconditionally) of God.’ That class was an important turning point for me. In fact, my angel put in a brief appearance during one particular meditation to rejoice with me and invite me to continue my search. I sensed at the time, even as it was happening, that I’d graduated to a deeper level of understanding.

I’m loved by Him unconditionally and, because I am (we are), I am not only able to love others without the expectation of reciprocity, but I’m able to accept what they offer as gifts from Him through them…without wanting more…or less.

Henri Nowren in The Inner Voice of Love, describes it this way:

…Only when you know yourself as unconditionally loved—that is, fully received—by God can you give gratuitously [without need]. Giving without wanting anything in return is trusting that all your needs will be provided for by the One who loves you unconditionally…

…The danger is in pouring yourself out to others in the hope that they will fully receive you…

…A lot of giving and receiving has a violent quality, because the givers and receivers act more out of need than out of trust. What looks like generosity is actually manipulation, and what looks like love is really a cry for affection or support.

Well, this morning, in passing this book on to a young friend of mine (with whom I have always felt a sense of déjà vu, as her life challenges seem so familiar), I finally realized I’ve received the answer to my long-standing question – “where the hell did all this come from!?” Hell, indeed!

My family studied a host of books on religious thought – everything from the Bible to Buddhism, the Hindu Vedas and Upanishads, and Islam. Along the way, I ended up with a very fuzzy sense of God and no real understanding of His love.

But what I didn’t realize until this morning was the cause-and-effect connection between my lack of understanding of God’s love and the failure of my early relationships.

I not only had a very limited sense of His love for me, but I had a strong sense that I could figure it all out on my own – outside church teaching, outside community … outside … period. The road less traveled, maybe…probably because it’s so circuitous and rough and rocky. What a sad, unnecessary waste of time.

Who knew there is a more direct route?

I guess, for me, it always seemed too simple. (Editor angel: You even used to joke back then that you wouldn’t want to simplify anything you could over-complicate!) What I wanted most in my youth was to be seen as capable, adult, self-sufficient.

Sure enough, one of my big life lessons was formed: I got to learn that caring for oneself is not ‘all that,’ as my kids would say. I was ‘outside’ going it on my own all that time, while I could have simply given into God’s love – believed I was loved fully and unconditionally by Him – and skipped all the intervening pain and hardship.

It’s that simple. And that tough for some of us.