God and Distance

From the rectory window facing the church, I saw the most red, the reddest, the max-reddest cardinal I’ve ever seen.  Sure to get a fine mate, I thought.  Sure enough, an hour later when I left the house, I saw a flash of that reddest red in the lilac hedge and slowed my pace so as to not startle it away.  Handicapped by not having my eye glasses, I squinted to discern the finer features of the bird, the black ring around its beak and the tufted crown of its head sticking up like my own cowlick often does.  I sensed movement to my right then, and there she was, presumably, his mate.  She didn’t command my attention like her chosen one did, her gray feathers blending seamlessly into the foreground and background of branches.

 

For mates, they didn’t get very close, I thought.  Despite the phrase “love birds,” maybe they are not all that romantic.  I do recall, however, a pair of speckled flickers, in a tree near La Crosse that I caught sight of in a sugar maple, rubbing their chests together and making such a straining sound that I had to avert my eyes.  In any event, these cardinals in my lilac hedge were no speckled flickers.  When the male flew over to a branch a little bit closer to the female, the female flew a little bit farther away.  Then, she would approach, and he would move away.  I guess people are like that, too, when they are getting to know one another.  Few of us are willing to go “all in” without some testing of the waters to see how much we can trust.  Will he come after me if I fly away a little bit?

 

Farther along my walk, I saw a family of three walking away from their house, a dog barking desperately nearby.  It turns out that that dog was theirs.  While the dad pushed the baby stroller, the mom craned her neck toward the house, “Be quiet, Buddy!”  In this instance, at least, Buddy was extremely disobedient.  The farther away the family walked from the house, the louder Buddy barked.  It occurred to me that it was not the raw distance between them that panicked Buddy but the fact that the distance was growing.  They were walking away, and Buddy knew it.  Clearly, he was not sure they would come back.

 

I observed the birds and Buddy and his family in these days of social distancing.  Oncoming walkers swerve away from each other on the sidewalk in a dance of politeness with a splash of fear.  A friend of mine reported on Facebook that in the grocery store line, the man behind her was too close for comfort and she asked him to move back.  He rolled his eyes and moved.  Spring break revelers on southern beaches scoff at distancing their invincible selves, and we roll our eyes at them.

 

We sometimes speak of God with the metaphor of distance.  God seems far, or God seems close.  Maybe you have heard the pious phrase, “If you feel far from God, guess who moved?” There is something I love about that question and something I hate about it.  I love that it can motivate me to take prayer and my moral duty toward God more seriously and kick start a sagging spiritual life. I hate that it can add guilt and shame to someone who, through no fault of her own, has lost confidence in God’s nearness.

 

Keeping distance from others in these days of contagion makes me aware of the pain that distance causes in people’s lives, whether between themselves and others or the perceived distance between themselves and God.  With people, if we cannot bridge the gap with a hand shake, we can certainly smile, laugh or a phone call to others.  And with God? That is more of a mystery, but it helps me today to believe that God wants to be with me even more than that female cardinal desires the redder than red male who seems to not want to get too close, and that God is as desperate as Buddy to have us home with him.

cardinals male female

Changing the Way I Pray

I made a New Year’s resolution this year that has been affecting what I ask for in prayer.  It has to do with what I expect out of life and out of God.  I decided that rather than hoping bad things will not happen and asking God to make them not happen, I would start with the assumption that bad things will happen and pray that when they do I will have the grace to respond well–faithfully and lovingly.

 

There was a time about fifteen years ago when, during my drives between Menomonie and Madison, I would stop at every frozen custard place along the way to try its “flavor of the day.”  My metabolism was faster then.  I only stopped at shops very close to the interstate; this meant about three or four single scoops on a plain cone per drive.  I have to say that this succession of stops divided the travel time very pleasantly, as I went on my merry way from one treat to the next.

 

I was remembering those glory days during a recent drive down I-94 when I passed by Mauston.  And it occurred to me that, against my better judgment, I have seen life that way.  That is, I have thought that life should be one treat after the next.  I have deeply resented times of suffering and adversity—everything from stubbing my toe to the deaths of my sister and father.  When you expect life to be a frozen custard tour through the years, well, you get disappointed often.  Slowly but surely, most of learn to adjust our expectations.

 

When the mother of Jesus brought her infant child to the temple, Simeon tells her that “You yourself a sword will pierce” (Lk 2:35). From the start, Mary knew to expect hardship and suffering.  Jesus himself tells his followers that weeds will grow with the wheat (Mt 13:30), and to expect even that “They will hand you over to persecution, and they will kill you” (Mt 24:9).  Jesus, while promising a glorious ultimate end for those follow him by laying down their lives in service to the world, clearly never suggests that between now and this glory there will be one treat after the next.  He tries to steel them to expect difficult trials.  They all learned quickly enough that having faith is not a way out of hardship and suffering.

 

That’s why I’m changing what I ask for in prayer.  This does not mean that I do not pray for people to recover from illness and for things like famine and human trafficking to end. It means that my focus is more on what I can do in the midst of all the bad things that will happen.

 

The main thing I have noticed after praying this way is that it is more difficult!  I can no longer simply put out some requests and leave them in God’s hands, and then walk away.  Praying for the grace to respond faithfully and lovingly to life’s hardships places more weight on my shoulders.  Suddenly, I am a major actor in this spiritual drama, no longer just in the audience bemoaning the hard things that I see on stage.  No longer can I in good conscience just get mad when I stub my toe.  I have to make a spiritual response like thanking God that I have a toe to stub or learning to pick up my feet when I walk.  No longer can I simply pray for homelessness to end.  I have to make a spiritual response of supporting efforts to increase low income housing.  No longer can my focus be simply praying for someone’s cancer to be cured.  I have to seek the strength to make the spiritual response of showing compassion to the person suffering and to that person’s family.

 

For some blessed souls, these spiritual responses come naturally.  For those of us who have subscribed to the parade-of-frozen-custard view of life, it takes more work.  I am confident God wants to help us, however, and so I expect and rely on that help.  That’s my prayer.

 

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A Christmas Moment

For as hard as pastors often work on their sermons and homilies, sometimes we hear the best and briefest ones from our people.  That was certainly the case for me on Christmas Eve this year.

My goal each Christmas Eve is finish the message I want to preach early enough so I can go and visit a nursing home, a hospital or the jail.  This year, I was pokey, and so didn’t have time for more than a few visits to the nursing home closest to my church.  With Communion in my pocket, I arrived at the nursing home and meandered through its halls until I recognized a name next to a resident’s door.

It is nice to be a welcome surprise for others.  And for pastors, I think, it is especially happy because we sense not merely a welcome for ourselves but also a wider welcome for an experience of faith, for God.  After a little chit chat and catching up, I mention that I have Communion with me and ask if they would like to receive.  I was four for four that day, each wanting the sacrament.

Betty was one of them.  Betty is in a wheelchair.  She has very limited use of her right arm, and she is grieving the recent death of her husband of sixty-three years.  She was sitting in silence when I walked in, comfortable in her own skin and needing no distraction from whatever she was thinking or feeling.  “What are you doing here?” she asked.  These were friendly, not accusatory, words.   Betty is friendly.

When I asked if she would like to receive Communion, she said “Oh, yes!” and with her left hand placed a magazine that had been on her lap onto the dining tray next to her.  I began with the sign of the cross and a prayer that went something like this: “Dear Lord, it’s Christmas Eve in this quiet space of faith.  We thank you for coming to us in Bethlehem that first Christmas Eve, and we ask you to help Betty and all your people feel the love of your approach today.” Then we exchanged a few prayers from our ritual, and Betty took Communion in her hand and ate of the one whose birth we were celebrating that day.

Then we sat in silence.  There is no sense rushing this moment.  After about a minute, I started to formulate a prayer in my head, since Betty had had ample time to swallow and pray.  I was about to speak my prayer, but it was Betty who broke the silence.  “Aren’t we lucky?” she said, peacefully and matter-of-factly.

“Yes,” I responded.  There was no need for any further words.

christmas star

Loving Bethlehem

‘Tis the season for us to hear the word “Bethlehem” often.  From Christmas cards and stories proclaimed, we commonly imagine a quaint “little town” surrounded by moonlit shepherds’ fields. This Fall, I spent three months living right next to Bethlehem, and walked its streets many times.  I fell in love with it.  Here is a description of my last day there that might explain why.

 

Before leaving my room, I needed to make sure I had my passport.  That’s the first thing to know about Bethlehem today.  It is in the Palestinian Territories or West Bank and is separated from Israel and nearby Jerusalem by a wall that Israel erected in 2004 to prevent terrorists from entering Israel, and to stake its claim on more land that had belonged to Palestinian people.  With my American passport, I could go in and out of Bethlehem. Most Bethlehem residents, however, cannot.

 

I enter Bethlehem through a 120-foot enclosed pathway that leads to two vertical turnstiles that extend from floor to ceiling.  Emerging into daylight I am greeted by twenty or so taxi drivers eager and sometimes desperate for business.  I love to walk, and try to find a way to refuse their offer without aggravating them.  It’s not easy to do, and sometimes they follow me on foot demanding to know where I want to go.  I learned that ignoring them is the worst thing to do, as one driver told me, “Why won’t you look at me?  You disrespect us when you will not talk to us.  You tourists come with money in your pockets and you don’t even notice the people around you.”  I responded by apologizing and saying, “I do respect you, but I’m afraid that talking will make you think I want a taxi and I really don’t want a taxi.”  After hearing me out, he said, “Thanks for talking to me; now I feel respected by you.”  After that, I always said something, “La Shukran” (“no thank you”) or “Not today,” but honestly it never got easy and I was always relieved to get past them.

 

That day my destination was the L’Arche Community, which is close to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, about another forty minutes’ walk.  At L’Arche, people with intellectual disabilities and people without those disabilities work together, making Christmas crafts out of wool from Bethlehem sheep.  The first time I walked into their building, I was just looking to buy a gift or two.  Instead, I was greeted by a worker who invited me to stay for lunch, and after lunch others invited me to stay and help make woolen nativity sets. I loved it; I went back about once a week.

 

The first stretch of the walk from the checkpoint to Manger Square and L’Arche is along the barrier wall.  The Bethlehem side of this wall is covered with rather sophisticated graffiti, some satirizing world leaders unsympathetic to Palestinians and others glorifying Palestinians who have shown courage in the face of their oppression.  On the wall are drawings of children jumping rope with barbed wire, a dove with an olive branch in its mouth and a bullet-proof vest around its torso.  One drawing after the next expresses frustration with the way things are.

 

Getting closer to the center of town, I pass a gift shop owned by a good-hearted Bedouin man named Majdi.  I bought a few things from him early on, but even when I do not he always welcomes me inside and pours me a small Dixie cup of Arabic coffee from his thermos.  If he can, he offers to drive me where I’m going.  Over the months, we became friends and I know I will miss him.

 

Leaving Majdi, I walk the “Pilgrim’s Road” to Manger Square, the path that tradition holds Mary and Joseph walked in their search for lodging, and which today thousands walk on Christmas Eve on their way to Midnight Mass.  Often, I stop at a fruit stand to a buy a few pomegranates. An icon studio where I took classes and made friends is also on this road.  Just before reaching Manger Square, I hear the sound of shopkeepers selling beautiful textiles and leather goods, and Arab treats like chicken shawarma, hummus, and desserts drenched in honey.

 

Before getting to L’Arche, I stop to visit the Church of the Nativity, where underneath the altar is a spot that marks the birthplace of Jesus.  The line to touch this spot is, as usual, very long, so I just stand near the exit and watch people as they emerge from this holy place, some clearly touched by God and others looking unimpressed, like they were just leaving McDonalds.

 

I leave the church and walk through Manger Square, down the hill to the west. In five minutes, I am at  L’Arche.  I roll up my sleeves to work at a table with about five others.  I wish so much that I had studied a little Arabic before coming so I could do more than smile and laugh and hum along to music.  Somehow over the weeks, despite my language deficit, a connection was made.  One person near me, Haddid, said something in Arabic and the assistant who knew some English told me, “She said that you seem really happy to be with us.”  I was touched, and thought the same could be said of Jesus, after being born in Bethlehem.

 

It is my last day at L’Arche. I say good-bye and tears come to my eyes and theirs.  I had loved them and been loved by them despite not being able to talk with them. Wet-cheeked, I walked back to Manger Square where they are testing the lights of the huge Christmas Tree they had set up outside the Church of the Nativity.  As I was feeling both the sadness of good-byes and the love of Christmas, taxi drivers saw me and aggressively asked me where I was going.  I was polite and tried to make it clear that I just wanted to be left alone, but they would not allow that.  Eventually, I had to walk away from that beautiful space just to get away.  The moment was gone.

 

And yet that moment revealed to me something of the essence of Bethlehem today, and why I fell in love with it.  The people of Bethlehem suffer from their confinement.  It pained me each time I walked out of the city knowing that those who had befriended me could not follow me.  I felt compassion for the taxi drivers who can only drive so far, and for Majdi and the people of L’Arche whose spirits stay strong despite all the problems.  In experiencing both the pure love at L’Arche and the badgering of desperate taxi drivers, I touched both the joy and the pain of Bethlehem, much like Jesus who was born into a family of pure love before walking into a world that had largely forgotten what love is. bethlehem wall

Our Journey from Galilee to Jerusalem

It’s not every day that I get to float for as long as I want in the Sea of Galilee.  So, when that day came recently, my reaction was simple and pure gratitude.

 

After swimming about twenty-five yards from shore, I turned on my back to float, and saw the Mount of Beatitudes beyond the reeds.  I was grateful for Jesus.  I was grateful that he taught from that Mount about a loving God who invites us to share divine life by loving one another, especially our enemies.  I was grateful that, close to where I was floating or maybe right AT the spot where I was floating, Jesus spoke parables to crowds to help them understand the gracious reality of God’s presence in the world.  The healing, the exorcising of demons, the feeding…all right here on this sacred stretch of shore.

 

This gratitude for Jesus overflowed into more gratitude. I was grateful for my parents who paid for my swimming lessons, and for those who taught me how to swim.  For everyone who had a hand in the food I ate for breakfast or made it possible for me to ride a bicycle to the shore that day, I was grateful.  Really, I thought, what is there not to be grateful for?  The temperature was eighty-nine degrees, and I was floating in the Sea of Galilee with nothing else to do.  All seemed right with the world.

 

Then I recalled where I would be two days later, spending the night locked inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher that contains both the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and the empty tomb, the place of his resurrection. I recalled that Jesus voluntarily left lovely Galilee and went to Jerusalem to enter his passion and pour out his life on the cross.  That was the mission of his life.

 

I shuddered a bit as I realized that, as a follower of Jesus, I could not cling to Galilee’s comfort.  The pattern of Jesus’ life was a movement from fullness to emptying himself for the salvation of the world.  To be in communion with Christ is to share in his mission.   It might seem on a sunny day floating in the Sea of Galilee that all is right with the world, but the truth is otherwise.  Followers of Jesus share his mission to bring healing love into situations that need it so badly.  That means going to Jerusalem, putting higher value on mission than comfort, and finding ways that we can stretch ourselves to help others, often at some cost to our comfort.  Reluctantly, I concluded that it is not enough to be grateful.

 

As I floated and pondered both the importance of this mission and my own resistance to it, I remembered something about floating.  It’s easier to float on your back after taking a big, deep breath. I did so, and felt my body rise effortlessly in the water. The connection to the spiritual life came quickly to mind.  We breathe in the breath of God, full of love and blessing. We breathe out lives of service, full of mercy, patience and the struggle to be strong for those who are hurting.  Both the breath in and the breath out are essential, and they need to follow one another, again and again.

 

I’ll probably never again have a day when I can float in the Sea of Galilee for as long as I want.  But I can breathe in the breath of God and allow that to lift me, wherever I am.  With that strategy for life, I left the sacred shore and within a few hours stepped onto a bus bound for Jerusalem.

tk is sea of galilee

 

Prayer and Pain

Praying in Pain

 

I had the happy circumstance of spending a whole week in Rome recently.  I like good food and beautiful churches, and there was a lot of both to be enjoyed.  I had some rigatoni with pesto that I will never forget.  I also had a prayer experience I will never forget.

 

It became clear after just a day or two of visiting Roman churches that martyrs play a major role in forming the spirituality of that city.  Peter and Paul most famously died there because of their faith, but there were so many other martyrs with churches built in their honor.  Clement, Cecelia, Sebastian, Agnes, Lawrence, Agatha, to name a few.  Their ability to withstand suffering and death rather than compromise their integrity by denying their faith stands as a witness around every corner, it seems.

 

One special house of prayer invited people who were up for it an opportunity to share a little pain of their own.  Inside the church are the “Scala Santa” or “Holy Steps,” which Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena brought back from Jerusalem with the claim that these were steps leading to the place where Jesus encountered Pontius Pilate during his trial.  The marble steps are now covered with wood to protect them from people walking on them.  However, people do not walk up these twenty-eight steps; rather, they go up them on their knees.

 

I don’t think that God wants me to feel pain, and I think that I can pray anywhere in the world and be heard just as well as any other place.  So, I was not prone to perform this act of piety.  Yet, I had two thoughts that urged me onward:  I am a pilgrim and pilgrims go to strange places and do strange things, and I remembered the cliché, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”  So, down on my knees I went.

 

The pain wasn’t as bad, I’m sure, as what Sebastian felt from the arrows that pierced his side, but I have to say it hurt a lot.  My intention was to say a prayer for someone on each of the twenty-eight steps, stating the intention to God and then saying an “Our Father” or a “Hail, Mary.”  About eight steps up, I didn’t know if I could go on.  But at that point there were not only six or so people in front of me but about that number behind me as well. I took strength from their company. I also found that the pain was more tolerable if I distributed my weight across the tendon below my knee cap and not just on the top knobby part of my shin.  Finding no shortage of people to pray for also seemed to ease the pain.  A final strategy to endure was looking at the large scene of Jesus’ crucifixion at the top of the stairs. After my twenty-eighth prayer, I rose, with a cold sweat and knees a bit wobbly, affected.

 

Unpacking that experience, I wrote in my journal that night, “I almost hate to admit it, but that was an important prayer experience that I will not forget.  The pain and effort created an intensity that opened me to feel deeper compassion for the suffering of others, gratitude for having a God who suffered on the cross, and my own desire to be consoled by this crucified God.”

 

I don’t plan on making this a regular habit on my stairs at home, and I really don’t encourage anyone to inflict pain on themselves for any reason. Still, this experience leads me to the conviction that in this culture of ours that is so skilled at avoiding pain, we should also be aware of the positive role that pain and struggle can have in our lives.  I advise this: When you are hurting, pray for an end to your own pain and the pain that exists everywhere in the world.  Pray that people who have the power to end the pain of others do so.  Pray for your family, your friends, and for all who need your prayers, those you like and those you don’t, especially those who are hurting.  Pray for yourself, that you will grow in freedom to serve the world generously, even when it hurts. And, if you are Christian, pray that your pain will draw you more deeply into the life of the Crucified and Risen One.

scala santa

Road Rage v. Mysticism

One of the funniest, and cleverest, observations I ever heard was from George Carlin.  He said, “Did you ever notice when you’re driving, that everyone who is driving faster than you is a maniac and everyone who is driving slower than you is an idiot?” It was so funny to me because it is so true—and so ridiculous of anyone to think that way!  Carlin exposes the truth that we judge others from a radically isolated and self-centered perspective.

 

I think I’m a typical driver.  I get irritated fairly often by others on the road, mostly when I’m in a hurry.  I’m not proud of it, but I’ll even utter a few choice words when I lose my cool.  A couple times I did that just after calling my mom on my Bluetooth phone connection, and so instead of hearing “Hi, Mom,” she heard those few choice words.  That was embarrassing.

 

But in early August I had a long overdue revelation.  I saw that there are two basic ways of seeing myself and others on the road.  I can see myself as an individual with my own task at hand and everyone else as an obstacle to me.  Or, I can see myself in communion with everyone else trying to make my way home.  And isn’t that latter attitude a central truth that so many of the world’s great religions have tried to teach us?  Starting with the attitude that I am in communion with everyone else makes traffic seem beautiful, actually.

 

I read an article recently about the psychology of road rage.  The author said that road rage happens because we feel powerful with a gas pedal under our feet, and, more significant, we are physically cut off from other drivers by the steel of our cars.  This physical separation decreases our inhibitions that would usually prevent us from verbally assaulting someone we were standing next to, for example.  That’s where spirituality comes to the rescue.  From a spiritual perspective, even though we are physically separated, we are aware of our deeper communion and shared existence as God’s children.

 

The monk Thomas Merton expressed this insight after an experience of “people watching” in downtown Louisville, Kentucky in 1958: In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being a man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. …If only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.  Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed….”

Driving can be an occasion for anger or an opportunity to be a mystic. It’s a lot more enjoyable to be a mystic. It starts with knowing that everyone behind the wheel of a car has their own story, their own limitations, and our own places to go.  Just like you, and me.