February 8, 2017

Spiritual Direction - A Primer

Spiritual Direction - What it is and what it's not

What spiritual direction is
Spiritual direction is a relationship among God, the person seeking direction (“directee”), and the spiritual director. Together we create space for listening to God’s voice, as God speaks through the life of the directee, in hopeful expectation for the directee’s growth in relationship with God.

God
We trust in God, ever-present and immanent, as the true guide within the spiritual direction relationship.

The directee
The directee assumes responsibility for his or her own journey with God by entering freely into the spiritual direction relationship; communicating honestly with the spiritual director about those life experiences the directee chooses to share; and recognizing that spiritual direction is one part of the directee’s walk with God, which may also include private prayer, worship, confession, service, and/or other spiritual practices that may be enhanced by but are outside the particular scope of spiritual direction.

The spiritual director
The spiritual director commits to offering prayerful support both during and between spiritual direction sessions; intentional and focused listening both to God and to the directee; questions for deepening reflection, clarification, and synthesis; accountability and challenge; and unconditional acceptance. The spiritual director does not give advice, but may suggest spiritual practices or other assignments to support the growth of the directee.

What spiritual direction is not
Spiritual direction is not counseling or psychotherapy. While the spiritual direction conversation may include discussion of life issues similar to those raised in a therapuetic setting, the singular focus of spiritual direction is the directee’s spiritual life and his or her relationship with God.


Who I am as a spiritual director

I am a graduate of the two year Benedictine Spiritual Formation Program (BSFP) through the Benet Hill Monastery in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

I have worked extensively with Women’s Walk with Christ, an international, inter-denominational ministry for Christian women whose mission is “Walking with women in their healing and transformation in Christ” (www.womenswalkwithchrist.org).

I have led retreats for various church communities and blog independently at blog.LivingtheTruthinLove.org. I have also blogged as a guest contributor at LoyolaPress.com.

I am an active member of a Roman Catholic parish. I receive regular spiritual direction and have an established relationship with an experienced colleague for supervision and consultation. I adhere to the Guidelines for Ethical Conduct established by Spiritual Directors International (SDIworld.org).


Time and Fees

Spiritual direction sessions typically last one hour and are scheduled, on average, once a month, subject to the needs of the directee. To respect the time of both directee and the spiritual director, sessions begin and end as scheduled. Should you need to cancel or reschedule an appointment, twenty-four hours’ notice is kindly requested.

Because I understand spiritual direction as a gift from the Holy Spirit, the ability to pay a standardized fee is not a prerequisite for receiving spiritual direction. Payment arrangements are made on a case by case basis.

Confidentiality

The spiritual direction conversation is sacred. Everything shared within spiritual direction will be held in strict confidence by the spiritual director, excepting cases where the directee threatens harm to self or others. Additionally, the spiritual director may share some information about the spiritual direction session within the context of the spiritual director’s professional supervision relationship, making every effort to protect the anonymity of the directee and the details of his or her story. The directee is free to share the content of the spritual direction conversation at her or his discretion.


January 6, 2016

Enough

Here's a thought I had today, sparked by some words from How Not to Be Afraid...: The miracle of consciousness is that you are the only one who can ever know you from the inside. I know it seems obvious, but I've never considered it. I have worked hard at getting to know other people, as it were, from the inside. It's been sometimes out of self-interested curiosity, but, I hope, mostly out of empathy and affection.

I have also spent time getting to know myself, that's a fact. However, my self-exploration has been motivated less by either curiosity or affection and more by a determination to ferret out and fix what's wrong with me.

When I look at myself, I consistently see a problem to be solved.

I could say problems, plural. My weight? Problem. My neglect of tracking our finances consistently? Problem. The weeds I haven't pulled? Problem. It boils down to one common thread, one problem: Me.

That's how I've learned to think. When I think about myself I am ever looking for what to fix, improve, or revamp.

Recently a dear friend shared a picture on Facebook of a sign posted in her workplace.



She tagged me, and I saw the image, and I thought, "Aww, how sweet of her to say. I need to hear that." But that's not what she meant. She said in her post, "When I read this, I hear Chris saying it to me." Took my breath away. She hears these words in my voice.

I don't.

I don't know that I've ever heard me saying these words to me. Yes, I say them to other people all the time. Whoever you are reading this, whether we've ever met or not, if we were together and you expressed a fraction of the "I need fixing"material I lay on myself, I would say to you in the most sincere and heartfelt way I know how, looking you right in the eyes, "You are enough! You are so enough, it's unbelievable how enough you are," and I would mean it.

What if I could say that looking in the mirror, making sure I looked me right in the eyes? The thought makes me squirm.

devotion I read the other day says this: "Once I can see the Mystery here, and trust the Mystery even in this piece of clay that I am, then I can also see it in you." Stopped me cold. I have to see it and trust it first in me, here, in my body, looking out from my eyes, with my unique wiring and experience, the one-and-only-in-history I that I am -- I have to see Mystery, the living out of the life of the God who is Love, in me before I can see it in you.

I want to see it in you. I look for it in you. I believe that I see it in you and want to help you see it in yourself, because, well, because of Love. I want this more than anything, and now I am challenged to wonder if that means that I have to quit evading the mirror, look me right in the eyes, and see the Beloved -- Enough. So enough. Unbelievably enough.

January 4, 2016

Beyond Fear

I offer you this reflection from the Be Careful What You Wish for Department of the inner life. I am on the look-out for joy, or, maybe more accurately, the path to joy, because if I knew how to get it, I wouldn't be looking, would I. I'm on the watch for signposts, mile markers. At best I tend to scrutinizing the scratches on every tree, the position of each stone, willing it to be a blaze. I won't really know until I finally arrive. Until then I don't quite know whether I'm on the right track, or stumbling blindly through the brush. But those blazes? I really do think I know them when I see them.

Case in point: I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, you know, like you do, and I clicked over to some article written by a woman I'd never heard of (Susan Piver, so now we all know). I don't remember what attracted me in the first place, but there, at the bottom of the article, in her bio, was the title of a book she'd written: How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life. It was as if the God of the universe was saying, TURN HERE.

I couldn't have said it better. Maybe I couldn't quite have said it at all. I'm afraid of my own life, and I want to know how not to be. I immediately ordered Susan Piver's book from the library. At this point, as is always the case when God posts a neon sign for me in the middle of the wilderness, I'm not sure what to wish for. The hopeful part of me is wishing for this to be another fulfillment of the adage, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." The skeptical (and, let's face it, fearful) part of me is looking for some way to discredit this Susan Piver before inter-library loan even serves up the book.

Right away, the skeptic has ammunition. Susan Piver is a Buddhist. I'm not a Buddhist. I'm a Christian. She has another books are about relationship break-ups. That has nothing to do with me. Maybe, I think with a mixture of disappointment and relief, How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life will not have anything to say to me.

Because I hate to have to acknowledge how very, very afraid I am.

I see joy -- success, fulfillment, whole-heartedness, whatever you want to call it -- just out of my reach. I know there is something that stands between me and realizing, well, myself. How many times have I used that hackneyed strategy, Try harder. It's no good. I know it's no good, but I keep going back to that empty well anyhow, thinking that this time if I try harder to try harder, it'll work out differently. I believe joy is real and that it is available -- you can call it an act of faith -- so there's got to be a way there, a way through. I just don't know what it is.

My suspicion, my terrible, terrible suspicion, is that it has something to do with not trying so hard. Maybe not trying at all. Sure, says my inner judge, then what? The answer is, I don't know.

I got the book from the library. I was all ready to glance through it and cast it aside. It's about meditation, about giving up my project of trying harder in order to be transformed. Yes, she's taking it from the Buddhist angle, but I know very well that the Christian mystical tradition says the same thing.

I know I have to read it -- and not just read it, but to listen to what God is saying to me about fear and about joy; chapter 7 is actually called "Beyond Fear: Joy!" Here's the kicker, in the introduction, Susan Piver says, "As you undertake this process, I'll offer you a single warning: a meditation practice can have serious repercussions...All I can ask you to do is pose... [this] question to yourself...: 'Are you ready for your life to change completely?'"

Already, in the days, since I said a tremulous Yes -- I am ready for my life to change completely -- I have begun to feel the full force of my fear. I may actually be afraid of everything, including, perhaps especially, myself. Don't ask me what that even means, because I don't know, but with open hands, I am ready to find out. If joy is indeed beyond fear, that means to get there, I'm going to have to walk not around but through.

December 30, 2015

My One Word

Have you done that thing on Facebook where you type in your name and the universe tells you your special word for the coming new year? There is also this website where you can choose your own word. I don't need a website. I've chosen my word.

Joy.

Joy is tough for me, which feels oddly embarrassing to admit. Why should joy be hard? But for me, it's the very hardest thing. I do other things better, things that look harder, but, for me, aren't.

Suffering, failure, and disappointment are bound to turn up, and when they do, I'm ready. I feel safe expecting them. I've proved that I'm pretty good at suffering. Consolation, success, and the fulfillment of my wishes and dreams? I don't trust that they will manifest. So I've been ready for anything except joy.

I imagine that I was receptive to joy as a child. Aren't all children? We enter the world open to delight, expectant for wonder. Then at a juncture, earlier for some than for others, life hurts us in a way that changes us. We come to understand that we are not so safe, not so good, not so welcome.

So discovering joy must be a return. Perhaps it's what the ancient Hebrews understood when they wrote about the Garden in which the first man and the first woman were created. There they were one with God and with their own innate goodness. Until they weren't.

A couple of weeks ago, at an Advent retreat, I was led to re-read in Genesis, from the third chapter, where God encounters Adam and Eve after they have eaten the fruit. How many times have I read that passage or heard it read? Yet this time I noticed something that I had not seen before.

First, there was one and only one rule in the Garden, Don't eat from this tree. Why? Why place temptation in such easy reach? Well, I'd asked myself that question before, but what if the point is simply to signify the relationship between Creator and creature. Our good is circumscribed within the confines of our obedience to the Creator. That is the very nature of things.

The tree is said to confer knowledge, the knowledge of good and evil. I always imagined that meant  that once man ate from the tree, he or she could differentiate good from evil outside of one's self. But what I noticed that I had never seen before is that Adam and Eve, after eating from the tree -- that is, after disobeying in the one and only way that disobedience was possible -- brought evil into the Garden. The evil they now knew was their own. That's why they hid. They could not heretofore know good from evil, because there had been nothing to know. All that was, was of God, created by God. Now there was something else, something that was not-God. Good and evil. Paradise lost.

For Eve and Adam, joy and peace are replaced by toil -- thorns and thistles and death. And so for us.

I cannot return to the innocence of my childhood Eden. I am long past the point of denial; sin and evil, suffering and woe are real for me and for everyone I love. The cloud of death hangs over us all. But I am a Christian, and we are people of resurrection life. I know that my witness is compromised because joy eludes me. The question that cries out to me from my own life is, How might I live in joy?

In the fourth chapter of the letter to the Philippians, Paul says in no uncertain terms, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: Rejoice!" I don't know how to do that, but I'm ready to learn.

December 4, 2015

One

Shannon. Bennetta. Aurora. Isaac. Larry. Harry. Yvette. Sierra. Robert. Nicholas. Tin. Juan. Damian. Michael. Just 14 of the 12,255 Americans dead this year from gun violence. I don't know all their names. No one knows all their names, but a lot of people know one name.

Pick one. She had a family, friends. He had work he cared about or tolerated or hated. She had a toothbrush and too many pairs of shoes. He had sheets and a pillow that still smell like him. She had worries and questions. He had plans and dreams.

Just like me, just like you, each and every one.

She leaves behind something. A purse someone will have to empty. Cancel the driver's license. Keep the bag or give it to Goodwill? What will help us to remember her? What would we rather forget?

He leaves behind something. The chair he always sat in, formed to his body, which is now, already, beginning to decay. When the game comes on on Sunday, the chair will be empty. No beer bottle wearing a ring in the side table. Nothing but quiet.

Fragments, remnants, remembrances, regrets.

Every one has a story. Every story is full of little details -- her favorite dessert, his favorite novel. The leftovers from the last meal he cooked. Her unwashed clothes.

We turn the story into politics. That matters, don't misunderstand me. I want us to debate what this country should do about guns, though I doubt we have the will to do anything new. If we weren't willing to do something when, almost exactly three years ago, Kindergartners were shot in their classrooms while their Christmas presents lay wrapped under the tree, I doubt we're willing to do anything now. Is there a critical mass of dead children? 

I think the number must be one. One dead child who lived and might have lived to outgrow that jacket, those boots. Who would have played with that Barbie or truck until it was worn and then forgotten in the back of the closet, but would have kept the stuffed rabbit long past the age when he wanted his friends to know, so he would hide it when they came over, under the bed, but pulled it out at night when he needed it most.

Our hope lies not in remembering the big numbers: 309 mass shootings, 3,068 dead children, 48,428 total incidents of gun-related violence. Those numbers numb us. Our hearts are stirred by one. One woman. One man. One child.

God shows up in just that way, in the particular of the one. One young mother bearing one child. She had her quirks. Maybe it was a turn of phrase, or how she baked the bread or spun the wool. He could recognize her from behind, the way she walked. And she him. She knew what his breathing sounded like when he slept, when he was having a bad dream. She made his favorite foods and wove clothes to fit him as he grew. He felt comforted by the sound of her laugh and worried when he heard her cry.

The Son of God and the Mother of the Son, one and one. Just like you, just like me. 

God wants us to recognize Him in the One and in the one. Theologians call it the scandal of the particular. We can't love and care about humanity. We can love and care about another human, the one, our one. And when we can remember to do that, to love our one, maybe we can also remember that he's somebody's one, she's somebody's one. You are. I am.

December 3, 2015

The Sufferings of This Present Time

Facebook has been serving this headline up to me all day. God Isn't Fixing This, it says. It's talking about gun violence, and politicians -- politicians who use God-talk to sell their brand (something else God doesn't seem interested in fixing, but that's a conversation for another day). As I've seen that headline over and over, these words from 1 Peter 3 have started ringing in my ears: "Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope..."

I can't speak for others who may have prayed or advocated praying for the victims of tragedy, whether gun violence, terrorism, natural disasters, or disease. What might they be praying for? Healing and recovery? Resources for rebuilding cities and lives? Wisdom from local and world leaders? Protection for first responders? Maybe even for conversion of heart for potential perpetrators. But as the next alert of a shooting springs to the top of the news feed, it should be no surprise to people of faith that the waiting world starts concluding, God Isn't Fixing This.

We, we who call ourselves Christians, have some explaining to do. The wondering, broken world is crying out, as it always has, since the dawn of Man, Where is God in this world of suffering and sin? It is not enough for us piously to explain that God made the world good and we humans brought the evil because we chose to make ourselves gods, true as that may be. People are crying out for a word of hope, not a sermon on Original Sin.

We want to believe that, if God isn't coming to the rescue, we can simply take matters into our own hands, as if the either-or is a god who instantaneously removes all the evil and rids the world of pain, or humans who bootstap our way out of our own mess. But the experience of humanity in every generation confirms that it simply does not work like that.

My friend Brigette Weier, a woman of God who is acquainted with suffering both as a woman and as a pastor, shared these wise words yesterday: "We're deeply broken and we keep trying to fix ourselves. We try and fix ourselves with laws. We try and fix ourselves with words. We try and fix ourselves with media. We try and fix ourselves with logic. We can't fix ourselves. We can't fix this. All we have are the promises of God to wipe every tear and gather us as one. On a day like today it's hard to believe that's true or enough. Or it sounds like a cop-out. But it's not. It's our true reality. It doesn't mean complacency but calls for radical action. Calls us to proclaim and point to God's kingdom coming. God's kingdom already here. Knowing that God is making all things new, even in the wake of violence and death, how will we respond?"

We say we want God to fix things, but in our various ways, when God offers to fix us, or to fix the world through us, we take a pass. While we don't all succumb to violent hatred, which of us can say we haven't succumbed to indifference or self-righteousness? I want God to fix it, but I want God to do it in some way that doesn't involve me. I don't want to make the effort or get my hands dirty. Most of all I don't want to notice that when I look closely at the ugliness in the world, some if it has my fingerprints on it. I don't want to change. We can't fix this broken world; we can't even fix ourselves.

I hear Brigette calling us out of our false dilemma. It's not either God or us. It's God-with-us, Emmanuel. God isn't outside this mess, choosing not to swoop in and fix it. God is inside: God the helpless newborn sleeping in a borrowed feed trough. God the helpless man hanging on a convict's cross. This God is in the woman ravaged by poverty or rape; in the refugee child dead on the sand; in the bloodied body of a University of Colorado police officer; and in the man sitting in a Colorado jail cell with the officer's blood on his hands. In our helpless and suffering flesh, yours and mine.

Like Mary, we may feel awed and confused by the idea that God becomes incarnate by putting on our flesh. Hope is conceived, gestates, and is born when we say yes to God-with-us. In hope I can allow my tears to be wiped away, and I can stand with others in their tears. And that hope itself conceives and bears love, suffering love that is not afraid to speak, to act, to believe that good is overcoming evil, that all things can be made new, if I can be made new.

February 18, 2015

How about now?

"For he says: In an acceptable time I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you. Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation." - 2 Corinthians 6:2
I love new beginnings. For me, the year still starts in September, right after Labor Day, because I remember the feeling of being seven and eight and ten and eighteen, and going back to school. Too often it was hot, too hot to wear my new clothes, but there were still new teachers and classrooms. Every year September offered a clean slate.

Then comes the beginning of Advent, the new church year to start fresh. Or January 1. Or Ash Wednesday.

I always need a fresh start. No sooner do I think, I've got this, in my life of prayer, in outgrowing my childhood wounds and bad behaviors, than I find myself replacing prayer time with television, forgetting the he's the teen and I'm the grown-up, and eating what's left of the bag of M&Ms. And so it goes. I need another new year.

Ash Wednesday may be my favorite new year's day. A smear of ashes on my forehead suits the feeling of need I feel, the need to admit that I am burnt, spent. I've heard too many Ash Wednesday sermons about making myself a better person, believed too many admonitions to try harder. Ashes say all I need to hear: "From dust you came, to dust you shall return." I got nothing.

Trying harder is a lie, a trap. Get back on the hamster wheel and run faster and then you'll get somewhere. It's an empty promise. The scenery stays the same and I fall off and find myself right where I started.

What is dust supposed to do? "In an acceptable time I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you," says the Lord. This is not a call to some new do-it-yourself project. If God is listening to me, to me, what does He hear? I need help. I confess that I don't always know what that even means. I make messes I don't know how to clean up. I need help with that -- less making, help cleaning up. Some days I feel that I myself am the mess, squatting helplessly in a pile of ashes. I trusted and hoped yesterday, but today I doubt, and the future looks bleak. I need help simply to get through, to stand up and brush off the dust and walk a step in any direction.

I need a day of salvation. I need liberation from my own limited vision. Nobody sticks me on the hamster wheel; I climb right on. I scamper into the cage and lock the door behind me. I think I'll be safe there, spinning. I'm going nowhere on my own. Outside it's big and scary and the directional signs are few and obscure. But they are there when I'm willing to slow down and look and listen.

The day of salvation is not some day in an apocalyptic fairy-tale future. The day is now. Apocalypse literally means revelation or disclosure. I can receive that revelation today if I want it. Do I want it? We talk about repentance at Lent, turning around. If I turn around I'm going to see something new, maybe something I never saw before. The risk is that it will change me. Freedom demands risk.

The opportunity is here, today. 

What are we waiting for? 


December 3, 2014

If It Looks Like Work I Tend to Avoid It

I ought to have majored in home economics. Not that there was any such thing by the mid-1980's when I was a university student. What self-respecting young, urban woman growing up in the age of bringing home the bacon would opt for classes in frying it up in a pan? Not I, surely.

I grew up believing my self-actualization depended on a professional career. My talent as a student prompted the frequent query, "Are you going to go to medical school?" notwithstanding my aversions to bodily fluids, hospitals, and science classes. A lawyer, maybe? Given my affection for school, I declared I would be a teacher and got an English degree as a down-payment on my future.

But what I really wanted to be, always wanted to be, was a homemaker. I am an old-fashioned soul and I aspired to an old-fashioned life. I wanted to be a wife and a mother more than anything else. My true disposition was obvious not least in the bent of my girlhood play -- baby dolls, tea sets, Mother's Helper, and Mystery Date.

In time I married my mystery date, replaced my baby dolls with babies, and became the mother in need of some help. Nothing in my education had prepared me for my vocation.

My own mother was a model housekeeper, her skills the bitter fruit of a neglected childhood governed by two blue collar parents who spent long hours at work and left the upkeep of the home to their competent only child. My mother knew how to do everything, and the way she did everything was the right and only way to do it. She didn't delegate.

My mother's house, even in her days as a divorcee raising three little girls and working full-time, was neat as a pin and clean as a whistle. No one ever wanted for fresh underwear or a warm meal. Order was a given. I, meanwhile, left for college never having washed a load of laundry in spite of being the oldest daughter and a latch-key kid from the age of ten.

As a new wife I knew the standard, but I had no idea how to achieve it. I was born with less than a full measure of my mother's tireless discipline. I recognized early in my married life that I could neglect the weekly cleaning I had assigned to myself and nothing happened. Yes, the mess continued to accumulate, but the authorities did not come to my house to inspect and find me unworthy. This was a problem.

My housekeeping style developed into a pattern of obsessive fits and failed starts. Not unlike my other attempts at establishing self-discipline -- around eating and exercise, for instance -- my efforts at keeping a clean and tidy house were characterized by enthusiastic bursts of perfectionistic excess which flamed out into the ashes of martyred defeat. No one was impressed with my sparkling toilet bowls or homemade vegetarian goulash. If I wanted accolades, I realized, I should have gone to medical school.

I had not learned to appreciate work for its own sake.

I'm naturally inclined to sloth. If it looks like work, I tend to avoid it. On this basis, I had clearly chosen the wrong career. My education lacked as much in inculcating the value of hard and thankless labor as it did in cooking, cleaning, and sewing instruction.

I would like to say that the recent accumulation of dirt in my house is the result of my four months of incapacitation. That would not be true. Rather, I had allowed a not-insignificant layer of grime and clutter to take hold while I was fully able-bodied.

It is also true that when I reclaimed my kitchen, I saw that I am a better housekeeper than I had realized. There are many little things I do in tandem with cooking and dish washing that had not been done. At all. In a long time. I was simultaneously horrified and gratified. My kitchen still needed me.

Working around the house has taken on a new luster. Sitting immobilized in a chair watching others do one's work focuses one's attention. I wanted to clean my own bathrooms. I longed to chop a carrot or wash my own dishes.

Yesterday, for the first time in months, I cleaned my own shower. I am able once again to get on my hands and knees and get back up as many times as I want. My shower is clean. I dusted and moved clutter from place to place and swept and whatnot for several hours. A little voice inside of me said what I have been reluctant to concede, You like this.

I do?

You do.

This little truth had sneaked in when I wasn't looking. Hard work is satisfying, dare I say fun? There's not a lot to think about, so I can pray or allow my mind to wander or tune in to endless Fresh Air podcasts through the Bluetooth. I'm doing my duty in accord with my vocation; washing a dish or sweeping a floor is always in keeping with God's will for me. True, the work is never done, and that does rile my perfectionism, but if I can accept the inherent pleasure in it, its undoneness can become a feature.

The next time I face a task that looks like work, I expect that the spirit of avoidance will loom before me. I know its voice: You don't want to do that. It's going to take forever. You're too smart to be doing something so menial. But I plan to roll up my sleeves, queue up Terry Gross, and remember that this work is God's Yes to my girlhood prayers.

November 29, 2014

Clean Slate

As the sun went down today, the season of Advent began. An hour before I went to confession. I admit to an almost superstitious desire to start the new church year with an unsullied soul. I want a clean slate on which to write new stories. Yesterday's news is always at least a little bit bad.

Daily I can examine my conscience, and daily I will encounter my own sin. What I recount in the presence of God is distressingly familiar. It's the same old song, and its tune is guilt. Why did I eat that? I want what she has. How much time did I waste?

It's unfashionable to believe in sin. Sin and judgment are relegated to the reliquary of the past. Patriarchy and hierarchy and thearchy have kept us down. Freedom means doing as I like as long as everybody consents and nobody gets hurt.

Unfortunately my own soul isn't sure she consents. What I want or don't want isn't clear. I want to lay on the couch scrolling through Facebook, and I want my basement cleaned. I want money to pay my kids' college tuition and to feed the poor, and I want another $5 latte.

 If I'm not careful, before I am fully aware, it is not a day but a week and a month and a year and a season and a lifetime and where am I? Sliding into a crevasse of my own making.Those daily sins, the drip, drip, drip of envy and covetousness, of sloth and gluttony, start to wear ruts  and gullies in the solid rock of my good intentions.

I sure don't feel free.

So I slink back to the confessional, not as often as feel I ought to, because in 47 years I've still only availed myself of this sacrament a couple of handfuls of times. I feel awkward. I'm not sure what to say. Is it enough? Is it too much? I am uncomfortably self-conscious as I confess my self-absorption. But I still go, because I want to feel free.

My eleven year old joined me in the confessional queue today. He said afterwards, "Mom, when I'm done with confession, I can't stop smiling." He's happy, because he's free.

I am, perhaps, too aware that before the day is over, I will have sinned again in some of those same old ways. I will speak before I think. I will open a catalog and want things I do not have and do not need. I will let a dirty bathroom sit unattended while I watch Netflix. But in those precious moments as I exit the little room with the kneeler and the chair and the lamp and walk into the sanctuary to pray three Our Father's for those who have fallen away from the faith I can't stop smiling, because I am free.

October 10, 2014

Like a Handful of Sand

Why does life have to feel like a handful of sand, something so hard to hold onto, always slipping through my fingers. Another day gone.

A week ago tomorrow a young man who graduated high school with my daughter last year was killed in a hiking accident. Nineteen years, now a life story is complete. He was charming, talented, well-loved. I barely knew him, but I am not ready for his story to be over.

Or mine. Are we ever? When I was sick and could better imagine my own death, I was as peaceful as you please. That was a great surprise to me. I sat and sat and I never felt worried or scared. I could imagine a world without me and I knew all would be well. Yet this world without this young man, so recently vibrant with life, now dead -- I am struggling to imagine the world without him. Mostly I saw this young man on stage. He was a scene-stealer, funny, unforgettable. The memories aren't enough. I want more.

Years and years ago a dear friend's father died from AIDS. She said, after he died, "I can't imagine a world without my father in it." When, half a decade on, my mother died, I knew what she meant. When my mother was sick I would lie in bed and make-believe that she was sitting on her couch watching T.V. instead of lying in a hospital bed. It helped, even though it was a flagrant denial of reality.

I want to be able both to face reality and get through the day without crawling back under the covers or eating myself sick. How is that possible on a day when we gather to mourn the death of a nineteen year old?

The kids who knew him have organized a vigil at a neighborhood park. They want balloons and music and turquoise and mint-green and rhinestones. They want to celebrate life. I have to go. I need their hope. I want my 11 year old to see how a community can come together in the face of tragedy and sorrow and weep and mourn and hope. I want to see it myself. This grief is isolating. It needs the balm of company.

I have tried to find comfort in acknowledging how many, many communities have buried their nineteen year old sons, their lives surrendered to violence or sickness or ill fate. But it is exactly the particularity of knowing this One that makes the loss so heart-rending. This face, this voice, the expectations that attached to this life.

And so, as all roads of truth do, this one leads inexorably back to love. I knew this young man just enough to love him. I know many people who knew him better and loved him better. Heartbreak is the price we pay for loving, and the price is steep.

What else can we do? Stop loving? No. We might as well stop living. That is, I think, the choice. Choose death or life. To choose life we have to keep loving and risk all the suffering that is bound to attend the love. Does Brittany Maynard really want to die, or are she and her family just so afraid of all the suffering that comes with loving even as she's dying?

The truth is we're all loving and suffering and dying all the time, every day. We can choose to pick a date and find a doctor to prescribe a pill and make an end of it. But we may very well miss the balloons and the music and the rhinestones.

[Note: If you have not read this piece by Kara Tippetts, do. She is a 36 year old mother of four from Colorado Springs who is dying of cancer. Her blog is a heartbreaking account of what it looks like to live -- and die -- with great love.]

October 1, 2014

Afterthoughts

Note: I shared the following thoughts when asked to give a spiritual teaching to a group of women in the women's ministry within which I serve. A friend wanted to see them here on the blog, so here they are.

“We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.” – 2 Corinthians 4:8-10

I was afflicted with symptoms, first pain, for months, yielding no diagnosis in spite of visits to specialists and more blood tests than I can count, all of which were normal.

I was perplexed. What is wrong with me? What is God doing? But more than anything I wondered, Who is this God? Who am I? Nothing that I knew, or thought I knew, of God or of myself was adequate to help me understand what was happening to me.

I was persecuted by symptoms and by tests and by doctors who all but dismissed me – How about an anti-depressant? one offered. I was persecuted by my own feverish imagination and by my relentless Google-searching of symptoms and possible diagnoses.

Finally, I was struck down. What had started on November 5th of last year as pain in my hands had, by the middle of April, evolved into pervasive weakness. I could not drive or even get in or out of a car without help. I could not rise from a chair or climb stairs. I was walking with the aid of a walker. I could not lift my arms, not at the elbow and certainly not at the shoulder. I could not get in or out of bed or dress myself or shower alone or use the toilet without help. I could not raise a spoon to my own mouth or swallow solid food.

I carried in my body the dying of Jesus.

I wish I could explain to you what happened then, but I can’t explain it. I don’t understand it.

I could not move my body, literally, could not move my limbs, but I was not constrained. In fact, I felt free in a way I have never felt, even as other people drove me and dressed me and washed me and fed me.

I was not driven to despair even as I was completely mystified about what God was doing in my life. I did not feel like giving up. I felt fully possessed of my own life. I was at peace.

I was far from abandoned. My husband washed my hair. My daughter dressed me and decorated my walker with ribbons. My family were provided meals for weeks into months. People came. They drove me to appointments. They swept my floors and scoured my bathrooms. They sent cards and brought flowers and sat on my couch. I was overcome with gratitude for the love that was being poured out on me, me.

I was not destroyed – and not because I finally got a diagnosis and medication. Not because I’m getting better. I was not destroyed even when I didn’t know if I would get better. I had arrived at a deep and inexplicable joy.

At the point, when I was most disabled, I knew, for the first time in my life, that I could live or I could die and all would be well. All would be well with me and with my family and with the world. I was able to embrace my death, so I was able to embrace my life. I know that the death I carry in my body is the dying of Jesus. My life must be the life, the resurrection life of Jesus. Whether I got better or not, I could be a sign of hope.

These questions are for every one of us:

When have you been afflicted, but not constrained?

In what ways have you been perplexed, but not driven to despair?

When have you felt persecuted, but known you had not been abandoned?

How have you been struck down, but not destroyed?


How do you carry in your body the dying of Jesus? How is the life of Jesus manifested in your body?


We ended with this song by Jason Gray, The End of Me.


June 26, 2014

Suffering Innocence

"For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him." - 2 Corinthians 5:21 
I awoke this morning still praying that I might learn to look on the face of God revealed in his suffering servant without revulsion, and I started thinking about sin.  Paul says, "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23), and I think that there is something in that to which we, I, can acquiesce.  It satisfies my sense of justice.

This is the way I expect things to work.  The guilty are punished; the innocent go free.  I like this calculation so much that I regularly run it in reverse -- if there is punishment, there must be guilt.  "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:2).

When I see the ugliness of suffering, I want someone to blame.  I want a reason and I want it to seem fair to me.  I want the punishment to fit some crime.  If it does -- cause and effect -- I know how to control it.  I don't commit that crime, and I avoid that punishment.  I'm innocent.  I won't suffer.

Only it doesn't work that way.  People who never smoke get lung cancer.  Faithful, diligent parents have children who go astray.  Runners have heart attacks.  And so on.

These simple facts remain somehow unconvincing.  I continue to order my life around the calculus of control.  I tiptoe.  I manipulate.  I lie to myself.  Anything, anything to maintain an illusion of my own innocence so that I can be spared the suffering I so fear.  I want to game the system.  I want there to be punishment for crime, as long as it's not my crime and my punishment.

It's a story as old as humanity.  The first five books of the Bible detail how the ancient Hebrews, as all ancient peoples, developed an elaborate system of expiation.  They knew that things weren't right.  People did things that led to suffering, their own and others'.  And it wasn't just individual.  The community might rise or fall.  Food might become scarce.  Other tribes might invade.  Once we were slaves in Egypt.  They needed a calculus of control.

Blood sacrifice was the norm for the ancients.  Take a lamb or a goat, unblemished, that is, innocent.  Spill it's blood.  Give its life in atonement, an exchange, innocence for guilt.  Lay on the innocent one the guilt of the many.  Life offered unto death.

Then in the sixteenth chapter of Leviticus, we also get this, the scapegoat:
"Laying both hands on its head, he shall confess over it all the iniquities of the Israelites and their trespasses, including all their sins, and so put them on the goat's head.  He shall then have it led into the wilderness by an attendant.  The goat will carry off all their iniquities to an isolated region." (21-22)
That's right.  Take the sin and the suffering away where I cannot see it.

This is what I say I want, until I remember that I want the truth, and this picture is simply not true.

When I first started to get sick, I had moments when I wondered what I'd done.  Maybe this was me receiving wages due.  I didn't eat right or exercise enough, and now I was going to pay for that with the degeneration of my body.  That seemed sad, but fair somehow.

I have likewise looked back on the progress of my illness and its diagnosis and wondered what I could have done but didn't do.  It was months between the first time someone offered me a referral to a neurologist and my first appointment with one.  The neurologist is the doctor who diagnosed me.  Why didn't I go sooner?  The answer is that I didn't want my problem to be neurological (it's not), and I was engaging in the magical thinking that if I didn't go to a neurologist, it wouldn't be.  In the meantime, I continued to get worse.  How much disability might I have avoided?  How much trouble might I have saved the small army of people who have been taking care of me?

Do you see?  I still want to tally it all up on a tidy balance sheet with sin on one side and consequences on the other.

It is so difficult to look on the face of God's suffering servant without turning away in revulsion, because to look on him we have to embrace the dissonance of suffering innocence.  And once we see it in him, we start to see it everywhere.

Jesus is the scapegoat in the wilderness, but he is also the hideous public display of suffering innocence.  Crucifixions were meant to be seen in all their horror.  They were a warning to any who would threaten the order, the balance sheet.  Break the rules, suffer the punishment.  Except this One didn't break the rules and suffered the punishment just the same.

So it is.  It is not only the guilty who suffer, but the innocent, and it is terrible to look upon suffering innocence.  I cannot control it, so I want to hate and reject it.  But this only serves to put me in league with the forces of death.  I heap onto suffering innocence more suffering when I accuse and blame.

I have to learn to do otherwise.  This is something only God can teach me.  Only God can teach me to embrace with open hands and open heart suffering innocence.  It is beyond what my unassisted humanity can do.  It is the work not of flesh but of Spirit.  I have to learn to love.

And I become what I love.


June 25, 2014

The Face of God

"...men turn away in revulsion from the face of God revealed in his suffering servant." - Ruth Burrows, OCD, in To Believe in Jesus
I had a hard time moving past that sentence.  Revulsion is a strong word.

I discovered Ruth Burrows a couple of weeks ago when I happened upon this blog post.  I felt surprised that I had never heard of her before.  I did, after all, just complete a two year program studying prayer and spiritual direction.  But it didn't feel accidental that I should encounter her now.  I was compelled and ordered two of her books.

They are slim volumes.  I am reading this first one slowly, one short chapter at a time.  I can see why I hadn't stumbled on Ruth Burrows before.  Ruth Burrows takes Jesus very seriously.

Her first point in To Believe in Jesus is that most of us don't.  She's not talking about the average person.  She's talking about the professing Christian.  She unapologetically and frankly states that belief in Jesus crucified as the revelation of God's own face is something that most of us are unwilling or unable to accept.

I like to think I take Jesus very seriously.  I want to take Jesus very seriously.  I want to believe I love the face of God revealed in his suffering servant.  I want to think of myself as one of the women at the foot of the cross, not revolted by the blood and the nakedness and the agony.  At the same time, I have matured enough to recognize that I am not so above-average as I'd like to think I am, so I had to stop and consider that sentence and wonder how it is true of me.  How do I turn away in revulsion from the face of God revealed in his suffering servant?

I sat and thought about other people I have known in their suffering.  I thought about people and situations that I have not turned away from.  I could have stopped there and felt smug, but, this time, I didn't.

How willing am I, really, to watch, to remain, to love what is revolting?  For instance.  I have this sympathy card sitting in my desk.  I bought it many months ago.  I bought it for a woman in my wider circle, an acquaintance, someone I know but not terribly well.  Her young adult child died suddenly.  I bought the card because I'm that kind of person, I told myself, someone who could face that sort of suffering with love.  I had a prior commitment on the day of the memorial service, so I hadn't planned to go.  But then my prior commitment was cancelled, and I still didn't go.  And I never sent the card.

I turned away in revulsion from the face of God in his suffering servant.

Here's where else I turn away -- when I see that face, gaunt held up by a neck whose muscles were too weak to keep it straight, sitting on wasted shoulders, in the mirror.  I claim to be willing to put on Christ, to be the healing hands and feet of Jesus for God's kingdom.  I claim that I am willing to suffer to serve.  But I realize I am not willing to be the face of the suffering servant.  That fills me with revulsion.

What I see in that face is need, and I don't want to be needy.  I have a deep unwillingness to reveal to the world the face that needs to have the blood and tears and sweat wiped away.  I am unwilling to see in myself the weakness, the frailty, or the vulnerability.  I look away in revulsion.

Isaiah 53:2-3 says,
He grew up like a sapling before him,
like a shoot from the parched earth;
He had no majestic bearing to catch our eye,
no beauty to draw us to him. 
He was spurned and avoided by men,
a man of suffering, knowing pain,
Like one from whom you turn your face,
spurned, and we held him in no esteem. 
It's time, at least for me, to get honest about this Jesus I claim to love, whose life I claim to want to allow to be lived through me.  It's time to learn to love the unlovable, what is ugly and broken and dirty, even grotesque -- and not by pretending that it's not.  It's not about putting over the ugliness a lovely shroud of holiness and thereby declaring what is revolting to be beautiful.  That's not Christianity, it's Orwell or Huxley.
To look with love on the revolting face of the Crucified is something God, and only God, can teach me how to do.  I'm starting by looking in the mirror.



June 19, 2014

Straining Forward

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.  Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do:  forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 
- Philippians 3:10-14
"Forgetting what lies behind..."  I endeavor to do that, to forget what lies behind.  Most days I succeed.  Some days I don't.

As someone on the spiritual path, I have heard endlessly about the so-called power of now.  Remain in the present moment.  That's the wise admonition.  Just be.  I'm not denying the truth of it, but I have to confess that on the inside, whenever I hear it, I do some serious eye rolling.  Yeah, yeah.  But some of us live in the real world where there are kids and dirty dishes and ringing telephones and endless tasks and distractions.

Except now I can't drive the kids or wash the dishes or jump up to grab the phone.  I'm doing a lot of being.  Too much.

When I forget to forget what lies behind, the able-bodied me, I want to do more doing.  I think about what I used to do, and I want not only to do it, but to go back to taking the doing for granted.  Who thinks about hopping out of bed or tying her own shoes or being able to reach the light switch or the kitchen faucet?  We just do it.  Did it.

I get tempted to live in the not-so-distant past that seemed so permanent.  The last time I needed help washing my hair, dressing myself, getting myself a meal, I was a preschooler.  That was a long time ago.

The intervening years were all present, day after day of practice until those tasks and so many others became invisible to my awareness.  They were not the background, but the very fabric of my days.  Get up, go, do.  Repeat.

What would it mean or matter to bring my attention to them?  In rush the Wise Spiritual Teachers to tell me to taste each bite or pause to feel the water on my skin or smell the proverbial flowers.  Become present to the present.  It seemed to eye-rolling me like an exercise in either navel-gazing or futility.  And maybe it was.

But now the now is all about being and noticing, whether I like it or not.  No more taking for granted, because everything, everything requires an effort, an act of will.  Get up from the chair?  Where's the walker?  Are my feet in the right spot?  Have I sat somewhere I can expect to rise from on my own?  I am painfully aware of what it takes to get up from a chair.  Hips too weak.  Quads and  forearms just strong enough to compensate from the right upright chair.

It's not all that interesting, and the days are filled with these moments.  What can I do?  What do I need help with?  I carried the cushion and the pillow today from the upright chair at the dining table to the upright chair in the living room next to the computer.  It took two trips and ten minutes.  And lots and lots of attention to how I might hold the pillow, carry it while I dragged the walker, prop it up on the chair.  I did that.  But I could not find a way to reach the bathroom cabinet to open it to reach for the toothpaste.  Not today.

I claim I want resurrection.  I say I want to be like Paul, knowing "Christ and the power of his resurrection."  But I am avoiding the fine print, the "sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death."  Why does something always have to die?

I've thought a good deal about how God says (for instance, in the Beatitudes) that in order to get the good stuff He wants to give us, we have to need it.  The hungry get fed.  The mournful get comforted.  The need then its fulfillment.  Resurrection doesn't even make sense if I'm not dead.

I don't like having needs.  I liked taking for granted that I could take care of myself, thank you very much.  I liked sleepwalking through the busyness of days and doing and feeling a little smug and Spiritual when I chose to pause to pay attention and Be.

Now I can't not pay attention.  Every thing I do is a "straining forward to what lies ahead," to the day when I can get that toothpaste out of the cabinet.  Or not, because I don't really know what lies ahead, not in practical terms.  Thinking I do is just another variation on looking behind.  That's what was.  I don't know, can't know what will be.

I only know what is.  I can know or figure out what I can do -- move the pillow, get out of the chair -- today.