The Love that Saves

People in our families see us at our best and our worst.  Especially our parents.  If we are lucky, we have or had parents who never stopped loving us, even when we were at our worst.  I was lucky.  I remember one time—never mind how old I was—when I was talking to my mom on the phone and lost my temper. Vile words flew out of my mouth at high volume, most of them just angry bluster but some of them that could certainly have been hurtful to her.  A lot of people, upon hearing all that, would take offense and return fire with fire.  In the aftermath of my rant, however, even before I could apologize, my mom just paused a second and said “Who is this that I’m talking to?”

She was baffled more than hurt.  She didn’t allow my bad behavior to stop the flow of her love. She called me back to my better self.

In the prayers I lead on Sundays, we have a penitential rite during which we ask Christ for mercy.  This Lent, we have been placing incense beneath the cross at this time, and before asking for mercy, I say a prayer something like this: Lord, as we honor your death on the cross, we see your great love for us.  ON that Good Friday, we gave you the very worst of ourselves, mocking you, taunting you, and calling for your death.  And yet, even in our worst moments you loved us just the same.  This gives us confidence today to ask for your mercy as we place our lives as they are at the foot of your cross.  Forgive us, heal us, change us.  Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.

I have found the saving power of Christ in this: No matter what I do, Christ loves me.  The cross tells me this is so.

Some might say that continuing to show love in the face of the sins of their children leads parents to spoil their daughters and sons.  In matters of religion, some might likewise argue that many people of faith have become too complacent, having taken for granted God’s unconditional love.

I am not willing to let go of that part of my faith, however. I think unconditional love is the only thing that heals us and changes us for the good. My hope is that after consistent exposure to a love that never stops, we will finally grow up and realize with tears that we have been loved beyond any measure of what we deserve.  Taking this truth into our hearts, year after year, draws us deeper into the heart of God and changes us.  And we become more like those who have loved us.

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Suffering and Faith

In many Christian churches, a passage from the Book of Job was recently proclaimed.  Job, you might recall, had a lot of good reason to feel really bad.  His children, his wealth and his health were all taken from him as a result of a wager Satan made with God that Job would not remain faithful in the face of such suffering.  Satan would lose that bet, but Job certainly came close to making him a winner.  Part of what we proclaimed in church was Job, in the midst of pain, saying, “Is not our life drudgery? My days come to an end without hope…I shall not see happiness again” (Job 7:1,6-7).

It is one thing to simply hear those words, and another thing to put yourself in the writer’s place and imagine the depth of suffering out of which those words flow. Some of us might react with curiosity about Job’s experience and try to relate to it with remembrances of our own past pain.  Others of us, like those very many of us who suffer with depression or other persistent hardship, will hear an articulation of thoughts and feelings that we know all too well. 

The fact that depression, pain, and suffering are right there in the Bible tells me something.  While very unpleasant, they also can be holy experiences.  They can be holy because they are our experiences and God loves every part of us. They are also holy, when, like Job, we speak our pain to God.  Our pain becomes our prayer to the one who holds us.

I have been reading a new book by James Martin called Learning to Pray, in which he lists 10 common reasons people do not pray.  One is that when they prayed in the past for their pain to go away, it didn’t work.  God did not grant their prayer and so they figured “What’s the point of praying?” 

Others with the same experience of unanswered prayer actually grow closer to God, and have the deepest faith of any of us.  I think this happens when they look to God less to take away their pain and more to help them live in the midst of their pain. Faith for them is not an accessory but absolutely essential for them go forward in life with a sense of purpose and hope.  And even, sometimes, like Job, to go forward without a sense of purpose and hope.

Honestly, I don’t know if I can say I have a deep faith or not.  I know for sure, though, that it’s a lot deeper than it would be if I had never suffered.  I went to church consistently during my first twenty years, but, while religiously observant, my spiritual life was quite shallow.  Then, I suffered.  The beautiful Marie, with whom I was wildly infatuated, dumped me.  Body slam! I know people suffer much worse, but I had never experienced such emotional pain as that.  I don’t wish it on anyone, but I do credit it for teaching me that I can lean on God for consolation and strength when I am hurting.   

Wouldn’t it be great if we could get closer to God by just eating candy?  That doesn’t seem to be how it works, though.  There is usually some suffering involved.  How it worked for me was that in my pain and great frustration that reality was not the way I wanted it to be, I asked God to help me. Though the process of healing took many months, right away I got this sense that there was more to my life than this loss.  Jesus was inviting me into a more expansive life.   It was as though Jesus were saying to me, “It’s OK not to get what you want.  It’s OK to feel bad. You can let go of all those self-centered needs, accept my love and mercy, and follow my lead.  You can judge each day not by whether you got what you wanted but by how well you followed my lead. You can even find joy in it!” I think this is what people mean when they speak of “Letting go and letting God.”

Following God’s lead is not just for the strong.  It is also for the weak, the self-doubting, and the failing. In fact, I think we do it best when we are weak because then we know that following God’s lead it not just a good idea but the only thing that will keep us afloat, the only thing that truly saves. 

God speaks to Job, 12th c.

Thirty Minutes in Bethlehem

For three months, I lived on the edge of Bethlehem.  If I walked at a good clip, I could be in Manger Square, next to the Church of the Nativity, in forty minutes. I took this walk often, and most often I would walk right past the church, through the square and down the hill until I reached the L’Arche Community. There I would spend a morning or afternoon working alongside people with and without intellectual disabilities, making Christmas crafts out of felted wool from local sheep.

After those many weeks, we sort of got to know each other.  I say “sort of” because only a couple of them could speak English and I spoke just five words of Arabic.  We communicated with gestures and words we knew the other could not understand. Mostly we communicated with kindness.  My favorite moment with them was when, after being at the work table together for an hour, one of the intellectually disabled young adults, Haddid, said something in Arabic to one of the English speakers.  He smiled and nodded.  I asked, “What did she say?”  “She said that you seem happy to be with us.” 

If I could have communicated only one thing to them, that would be it exactly.  ‘I am happy to be with you.’ To hear those words in Bethlehem, no less, where by Jesus’ birth God showed us how much he wanted to be with us, was a beautiful thing.    

You can imagine, then, that when I left them for the last time, I was sad.  After the hugs and good-byes, I walked teary-eyed into the streets of Bethlehem, back up to Manger Square with the sun now set over the western hills of Judea. City workers had just finished setting up the large artificial Christmas Tree in preparation for its ceremonial lighting a week later.  I stopped close to that tree and stared at it as I felt the holy grief of having loved and been loved and saying good-bye. Then, like a sign from above, that Christmas Tree lit up for the first time as the workers sought to confirm that all the lights were working.  The beauty of the tree confirmed the goodness, even the holiness, of the jumble of emotions I was feeling.  If I could freeze a moment in time, I might choose that one.

Then the moment was interrupted.  After witnessing the lights for less than a minute, three young teen-age boys approached me, aggressively trying to sell me Bethlehem souvenirs.  I told them “La shukran,” “No thank you,” but this did not deter them.  After asking them politely to leave me alone again and again, I finally relented and gave them five shekels for what they said cost three shekels. They refused to give me my change, and one of them tried to put his hand in my pocket to get at the other coins in there.  I was so frustrated and angry that my sacred moment had been interrupted, but when they started to paw at my clothing I felt a sudden violent urge to strike at them with my fist—an impulse I’d not felt since I was their age, probably. Thankfully, I did not follow that impulse.

My only escape was to literally run away, and so I ran the hundred yards or so to the door of the Church of the Nativity, and entered where the boys would not follow.  There are no chairs in this church, and so I leaned against one of the sixth century pillars, fifty feet away and a floor above the birthplace of Jesus. Here, with my pulse starting to calm a bit after the rush of adrenaline from fleeing, I reflected on all that had happened in those last thirty minutes.  I had felt the joy of love and communion, the sadness of loss, the awe of beauty, and then annoyance, anger, hatred and fear—the whole spectrum of human experience.   

This was the human experience God chose to enter when Jesus was born here, I thought.  He wanted to be with us.  He enjoyed being with us.  He desperately tried to show us how to love another by embracing the outsider, and showing mercy to all, even those who hurt him and stripped him of his clothing.  I renewed my desire to love like Jesus loved even as my heart continued to beat with residual fear. Sometimes love is easy.  Often, when it matters most, it is not. He taught us that, too, thirty-three years after his birth, up the road six miles from Bethlehem on a hill outside Jerusalem.  

In This Our Exile

I was sitting outside church last weekend, and I noticed two older boys bicycling around me.  They were both masked, and my eyes aren’t so strong without glasses, so I did not recognize them right off.  Then one of them stopped, put both his feet on the concrete, and said, “Hi Father, remember me from church?”  

Squinting, I could see the color of his hair under his helmet, and his eyes and forehead, and it was enough.  “Hi, Sean!” I said.  I’m pretty sure we both had big smiles under our masks as we felt the joy of renewed connection. 

But the comment made me sad.  It was a sign of the times that this young man who joined his family every week for Sunday worship up until March 15, 2020, would now wonder if his priest even knew who he was anymore.  “Remember me from church?”  I wondered how many church members could be asking this question now of their pastors or of one another. 

Because so many of our churches are now either closed for Sunday worship, or do so on a much more limited, physically distant, basis, I have been searching for an image from the Bible to help me interpret the meaning of these days in a way that will keep hope alive.  I think I found it in Israel’s experience of exile.

In biblical history, there was a significant block of time, estimated at 597 BCE to 537 BCE, when the people of Israel, after being defeated in war, were forcibly removed from Jerusalem, and exiled to Babylon.  From there, they experienced years of yearning, both for their homes, but more significantly for their Holy City, Zion (Jerusalem), where God dwelled.  Psalm 137 is written about this this time of exile: “By the waters of Babylon, we lay down and wept as we remembered Zion.”  After giving voice to this pain of separation, the psalmist urges the people never to forget the holy city, saying, “If I forget Jerusalem, may my right hand wither; may my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not exalt Jerusalem above all my delights.”  

I applaud people who have been able to find silver linings in this dark cloud of physical separation.  For some, their homes have become more spiritual places, “domestic churches,” as families and individuals make sacred space for video worship or other prayer.  Others tell me these months have been a time for deeper reflection on the meaning of life and heightened their desire to live for God.  Similarly, many scholars trace the current form of Jewish faith with synagogues and rabbis to their time of exile over 2500 years ago, when they had to keep faith alive without their temple.  Often, we grow through times of adversity.

Even with gains like these, I hope it does not get missed that there is a lot to miss. I hope we will not forget the goodness of handshakes, singing with full voice, coffee and doughnuts, and, mostly, the power of standing shoulder to shoulder with the People of God and realizing a deep mystical communion even with people we do not know. 

Will we get back to those days?  Will there come a time when faces once long-familiar become familiar again?  To paraphrase Psalm 126, when we return from our exile, will it be so good that we will think we are dreaming? As a way of keeping the dream alive, this Advent I intend to pine for those days like a Jerusalem left behind. 

A Question for Our Final Test

Fr. Charlie died on October 15, after celebrating 100 years of life two weeks before.  He taught me two classes during my seminary training, one on the 20th century German theologian Karl Rahner, and another with the impressive title, “Christian Anthropology,” which examined what human existence is like in the light of faith.  Honestly, he was not my favorite teacher.  I was unable to earn an A in either class.  But he was a character to remember, which I do as I look out my window at snow falling hard and steady, unseasonably, in mid-October.  

I remember being frustrated taking his first test. After studying what I thought were all the important facts, I failed to answer correctly a question which asked, “If a monkey sat in front of a typewriter randomly striking keys, what are the chances he would type out one of Shakespeare’s sonnets?”  Apparently he mentioned that in class once in an attempt to show us just how unlikely it is from the viewpoint of physics that human life could have formed on our earth.  He liked science.

Fr. Charlie was most famous for his annual attempt to walk through a door.  Again, with his passion for science, he tried to show his first-year students how some miracles in the Bible could have scientific explanations.  Noting that all matter is more space than substance, because atoms and molecules have all that space between electrons, he said the same is true for human bodies and for doors.  So, is it theoretically possible for all the atoms and molecules in a person’s body AND all the atoms and molecules in a wooden door to align in such a way that a person could walk right through a locked door (John 20:19).  In an attempt to prove his point, he walked right into a door!  It was funny then, but even funnier three years later when my classmates and I heard a loud thud from down the hallway of the classroom building.  We all looked up, curious, and someone said, “Fr. Charlie’s trying to walk through the door again.” Indeed.   

As I said, he was not my favorite teacher.  I didn’t know why I needed to know about monkeys randomly striking a keyboard, and trying to show how Biblical miracles can occur according to the laws of science seemed to eclipse the brighter light of their spiritual truth.  His greatest impact on me came from something that took place entirely outside the classroom.

My prize possession when I began my seminary studies was my boom box.  Yes, I am dating myself.  It had a radio and dual cassettes so that I could dub one cassette from another.  If cd’s had been invented yet, I was too invested in my many cassettes to bother with them.  Then my boom box broke.  It wouldn’t turn on, which is a problem.  One of my classmates, sensing my anguish, said, “Take it to Fr. Charlie.” 

So, I took it to Fr. Charlie’s room, walking through the dark and mysterious wing of the faculty dormitory before knocking on his door.  I wouldn’t say he was happy to see me, but as the Lord heard the prayer of Jonah (Jonah 2:3), Fr. Charlie heard me in my distress and invited me into his quarters.  There I saw all kinds of electronic gadgets.  Apparently his interest in theoretical science was accompanied by the more practical skill of actually knowing how to things work and how to make broken things work again.

He ran a few tests on my boom box and concluded that my AC power source was burned out but that he could solder the wires of my power cord to the spot where the batteries delivered DC power, and then it would work.  This was over 30 years ago, so the details are a little foggy, and I’m not sure even then I understood him.  But I knew that he was doing me a great favor, and sure enough three days later my boom box, fully operational, was sitting outside my door. He must have again failed to walk through a locked door. 

I don’t know how Fr. Charlie was eulogized at his funeral this week.  I’m sure he was praised for his life-long service to the intellectual formation of priests who went forth to serve people all over the world.  But I remember him for this one great act of kindness and generosity, doing what he could to help a hapless young man with a broken boom box. I wonder how often he did such things.  I wonder how often I will, and you will, do such things worth remembering.  That question will probably be on our final test. 

Feeling Good v. Being Good

Some years ago, I visited a man in the Dunn County Jail.  He was serving time, again, for starting a fight in a bar.  He shook his head, angry at himself and said, “It happens every time I drink too much.” 

Knowing that a pastor should probably have a better, gentler way of asking a follow up question, I nonetheless said, “Well, then why do you drink too much?”  I’ll never forget his response.  Looking me right in the eye, he said, “You know, Father, sometimes I just need to feel good.”

My first reaction was compassion. I understand that experience.  Fortunately for me, that need to feel good finds expression in less damaging ways.  It’s why I too often add a cream-filled long john to my gasoline bill at the convenience store, or why I “reward” myself by finding my way to a bag of chips after getting through a stressful day.  It’s why for years I was on-again/off-again with tobacco.  I’ve done a lot of things because feeling bad—empty, stressed, alone—seemed too much to bear in the moment. 

I’ve been remembering that conversation in the jail fairly often since our days of social separation began in March.  It seems that much of the continuing spread of our COVID pandemic is due to the fact that people are emotionally sick and tired of not having fun in their usual ways and so we see scenes of maskless crowds of people in bars, on beaches, at a giant motorcycle rally.  People want to feel good!

I understand the need to gather and be close.  I have been feeling the pain of distance.  I never knew that a simple affectionate elbow bump could feel so good! But it does, after weeks of no physical contact with anyone. 

So, what do we do with the need to feel good, when often what makes us feel good puts others and ourselves at risk?  It’s a question for our time, but it’s also a question for all times.  Too often, what makes us feel good is harmful—satisfying our greed, our lust, our cravings generally provide us with short-term good feelings but long-term wounds and addictions. 

A spiritual counselor once told me, “Everyone needs to experience pleasure, and so everyone will find a way to feel good.  But we can choose whether to do it in a wholesome or an unwholesome way.” 

One time I was driving to the home of a family who had kindly invited me for dinner.  I was running a few minutes late and was almost there when one of my favorite radio shows began.  I was conflicted! I really really wanted to hear the host’s monologue which often touched on spiritual topics with insight and humor.  I knew it would make me feel good to drive around for another ten minutes soak in his words instead of pulling into the driveway.  God’s grace held sway with me that night, however, and I was able to do the right thing by putting aside my need to feel good.  While I felt the sting of loss when I turned my radio off, I was also surprised at how quickly that feeling of loss was replaced by wholesome joy.  I knocked on the door with a light heart, lifted, I think, by the knowledge that I was acting in a way that made God proud of me.  Overcoming selfishness can be a pretty good feeling, it turns out.

Sometimes spiritually-oriented people can convince ourselves that a selfish action is OK with God because God loves us and wants us to feel good.  I would qualify that, however, by saying that God wants us to feel joy (John 15:11).  What I learned that night in the driveway, and countless times since, is that joy comes not from doing something to make myself feel good; it comes with the effort of actually being good.  Being good is harder than grabbing a beer or a bag of chips, but it gladdens the hearts of many, including our own. 

God Made You to Be You

I thought I was clipping along pretty well on my bicycle, probably about 17 mph heading home on Lowes Creek Road with the sun close to setting to my left.  Perhaps because of the virus, I have done more bicycling this year than ever before, and now, nearing the end of summer, I was feeling really quite strong.  I even had the passing thought during this ride that I’m actually getting stronger as I get older—defying the laws of nature.

 

Not long after having this thought I heard a sound behind me.  At first I thought it might be a car approaching, so I moved closer to the right edge of the road.  Then the sound became louder but less like a car.  I thought it sounded like, perhaps, a flock of low-flying, very low-flying, geese.  Could geese be following me?  I had to look, and as I turned my head, I saw not fowl but human bicyclers coming upon me very quickly.  I nodded to the lead man, who only said “There are eight of us,” as he whizzed by.  Sure enough one by one, all eight with nary a foot between each of them passed me at a speed I myself could only attain going downhill with a tailwind.  I would say they were going at least 25 mph, probably a little more, based on the fact that they were out of sight in less than a minute.

 

I’d like to say they were angels, not men like me, because then it would have been easy not to compare myself to them.  But alas, they were men, fast men who made me feel bad because, compared to them, I was less than I should be.  I was slow.

 

There is a cardinal rule in the spiritual life that few of us live out very well:  Don’t compare yourself to others!  Yes, we can learn from the good example of others, but when all is said and done, God didn’t make you to be like someone else; God made you to be you.

 

The Jesuit author James Martin tells a beautiful story about a friend of his, Rick, who was born without a right arm. When he was in first grade, his teacher heard that a relic of St. Francis Xavier—actually the saint’s right arm—was “on tour” so to speak, and many of the area’s faithful were going to see it and touch the case that held it, in hopes of being healed.  Rick’s teacher told his mother who showed up at school and took Rick out of class to take him to see the relic.  While he was gone, his classmates all prayed for a miracle, a new arm for Rick.  When he returned to class the same as before, they were all disappointed, and Rick, who wasn’t really expecting any miracle, caught their feeling of disappointment. But someone else had a different reaction.  When he got home, his older sister was hiding behind the window drapes and when she peeked out and saw him, she jumped out at him delighted.  “Oh great!” she said.  “I’m so happy nothing happened, because I like you the way you are.”  It was a healing moment Rick always remembered.

 

It is always good, and important, to remember that God likes us as we are.  Yes, we are called to deeper conversion every day, but this is not so that God will like us.  Rather, realizing that God likes us helps us be better—more joyful, more generous, more comfortable in our own skin.

 

There is a new fountain on the campus of UW—Eau Claire. It is round, about twenty feet in diameter, with wide and gentle springs of water emerging from what look like river rocks. Toward evening, blue and white light colors the waters.  I often bicycle past it on my way home, at sunset.  Typically, no one is there.  I think of God as like that fountain, beautiful, flowing with life, often with no one noticing but living, and loving, nonetheless.

 

That night when I felt old and slow in comparison to the others, I stopped at that fountain.  I needed to be close to these waters to remind myself that I am, to quote the psalmist, wonderfully made, that these living waters live also in me, not because of anything I’ve done or might do in days ahead, but because of who I am in God: Treasured, gifted and invited into these waters.    uwec fountain

Sustain Us that We May Live

Lots of inspiring things happen inside churches.  One of the most inspiring that I’ve witnessed was the renewal of vows by the Benedictine sisters living at St. Bede’s in Eau Claire, where I was their chaplain for seven years.  Each year on the feast of St. Benedict, July 11, the jubilarian sisters celebrating 25 or 50 years of professed life would come forward to the altar.  There, they would kneel with their arms stretched out wide, side to side.  Then they would chant: “Sustain me, O God, according to your promise, and I shall live.  Do not disappoint me in my hope” (Psalm 119:116).

 

I was so moved at this time of recommitment there was no muscular resolve to keep going by their own strength.  Rather, they asked for the only thing that could sustain them to sustain them:  the hand of God.

 

In them I saw utter humility, trust and vulnerability.   Their posture was one of unrestrained offering—try striking that pose yourself and feel it.  Their words were at once both confident and vulnerable, showing both the remembrance of God’s life-giving promises, and the honest fear that they could be disappointed.  That’s why we call it faith.

 

Those are two things, confidence and vulnerability, are so needed for our times.  Clearly we are vulnerable.  Any sense that we might have had before March 2020 that we are in control of our world has been shattered.  As infection rates climb and we discern things like how safe is it to come to church or how safely we can educate our children in our classroom, we feel vulnerable.

 

What of confidence?  In the midst of such uncertainty, is there anything certain to which we can cling?  Are we aware of God’s promises?  What are they?  It seems to me that the main promise God makes in the Old Testament is that he will not leave us; I will be your God, and you will be my people.  In the New Testament, this presence continues but intensifies.  Jesus’ promise is unprecedented.  To paraphrase, “If you believe in me, you will never die, and I will raise you up on the last day” (John 6:54; John 11:26).

 

Of course we know that people die, of the corona-virus and many other causes.  And yet, we the Baptized believe that we don’t die—our lives have been joined to Christ who died and rose, and so within us we have the Spirit of Christ who has conquered death, and is Risen and Eternal.  On our best days at least, we can live from the strength of our Risen identity, knowing we are here not to fearfully secure our lives but to generously give them away.  Our security is in God who never leaves us. The eternal life of God within us is the one certain thing to which we can cling.  Our response is to love one another; God takes care of the rest.

 

Today, throughout the world, loving one another means taking care to not harm each other and taking precautions so to keep the virus from spreading.  Earthly life isn’t our ultimate value, but it’s a pretty big one!  Loving one another also means praying for each other and supporting each other however we can—a phone call, a note, financial and moral support.  As it says in the funeral rite, “One day, the love of Christ, which conquers all things will destroy even death itself.”  Truly, one day all this difficulty will be over and we will look back and appreciate all those who kept hope alive and sustained our faith.

 

I pray that these difficult days of separation do not diminish your faith or your felt connection to God and to one another.  There is truly a lot we are missing now.  I miss casual affectionate touch. I miss joyful celebrations in a full church.  Truly the most joyful part of my priesthood is gone now, temporarily.  And I know there is a lot you miss, too.  If you’re looking for a little inspiration, you might consider getting on your knees and chanting, “Sustain me, O God, according to your promise, and I shall live.  Do not disappoint me in my hope.” IMG_5001[1]

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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