Project Gratitude: Lenten Reflection

Hi all, 

There have been moments during this Lenten season when I felt as if a list of 40 Things I Can’t Find at the Grocery Store would have made more sense than journaling 40 Days of Gratitude.  The world has changed drastically in ways that seem more like dystopian fiction than reality.  The days of the week melt into one long collective moment of waiting.  While the Lenten season encourages a pause, few of us have ever experienced such a drastic lifestyle change based on showing love for our neighbor by isolating ourselves from them. From “the last shall be first” to “It is in giving that we receive,” this new social norm reads like so many of the paradoxes that we find in scripture — the greatest being that through death we may have eternal life.

A lot of life doesn’t make sense.  Perhaps it was never meant to. Like Jesus dying on the cross for the will of God, for the salvation of humanity, and out of merciful love for you and for me — maybe there is something greater to all of this — for all of us.  More than ever, this Lenten season has taught me how to be okay with uncertainty.  I may know less about life than I thought I did 40 days ago, but now I have more clarity about what it is I really need to know — all of which begins on the cross.  There are a great many things to be thankful for this Easter, but what could be more important than that?

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” ~ Meister Eckhart

LENT DAY 36: I am thankful for words.  They have the power to take us to far-away places and to ground us in the here and now.  Words can console and affirm. In this time of social distancing, they connect us and remind us that the most important word, love, cannot be quarantined nor can it die.  Love endures.

“It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  (1 Corinthians 13:7).

 

LENT DAY 37: I am thankful for being a mother.  Motherhood teaches us to endure beyond what we think is possible, wise, or just.  It stretches us to the edge of sleeplessness, worry, and flat out aggravation.  It rearranges priorities and for a good while household furnishings too.

But, my heavens does it teach us love! I can think of no better example of Christ’s love than the love we pour out for our children.  A love that is both sacrificial and joyful.  A love that is both boundless and bound for all time.  A love that is forgiving and yet requires no apologies.  A love with no conditions, no caveats, and no end.

It is the love that comes from God because it is the life that comes from God.  What an incredible blessing.  What an incredible God.

LENT DAY 38: I am thankful for everyday heroes.  They battle over evils of apathy, ignorance, and selfishness by doing simple acts of kindness.  They know that serving others isn’t just for warriors or royalty or storybook rescuers. True heroism is a simple willingness to love, serve, and not count the costs.  It doesn’t require a cape or a mask.  Just a big heart.

 

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Project Gratitude: Week 2

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” 

~ Meister Eckhart

LENT DAY EIGHT: I am thankful for impromptu kindness.

This article is such a stunning example of impromptu ways that we good humans show love.  The more simple an act of love is — the more beautiful it seems to be.

LENT DAY NINE: I am thankful for life’s twists and turns.  It’s never easy to deal with the unexpected, the unwanted, or what feels like the unbearable.

It’s hard to walk in faith when we can’t see the next step.  But sometimes the twisty parts of life have a miraculous way of turning into something beautiful.

Trust the twist to bring you something better.

 

 

LENT DAY TEN: I am thankful for small businesses that give back to the community.

No glossy public relations material, no recognition in the newspapers, no oversized checks or inflated sincerity – small, community-minded businesses remember their roots.  They are vested in and genuinely care about the people they serve.  Often giving in-kind, from their own products or resources, or by donating their services, they remind us that we belong to one another.

It isn’t about how much they have to give but their willingness to share when they can.  It’s not corporate responsibility, it’s just caring.

Picture of Raymond Solomon of Solomon Ventures, whose generosity to different people and organizations — particularly Catholic Charities Jacksonville Camp I Am Special, has been such a gift to this community.

LENT DAY ELEVEN: I am thankful for a heathy body.  In my early thirties, a good friend of mine had terminal brain cancer.  She was a young mother whose whole life should have been ahead of her.  But it wasn’t.

At the time I was an avid runner.  I ran for her because she couldn’t.   I didn’t always love it.  Some runs were hard, hot, and endlessly long.  Still, I remembered what a gift these hard runs were – it meant I could feel the thump of my heart, the strength of my legs, and that my breath was ever precious.

It reminded me that I am alive and healthy and not everyone gets that.  It gave me pause to stop running and just be grateful.

LENT DAY TWELVE: I am thankful for Bishop Estevez.  During a newspaper interview in the quiet of an empty basilica, we talked about Jesus, immigration, and the role of the church and the individual.  Everything he said was worth quoting.  More so, it was worth living.

I could have sat there forever in the presence of the holiness he exuded.  He made me realize how badly I want to sit with Jesus someday, how much peace there would be then, and how the words we say are nothing compared to the conversation of hearts joined in God’s love.

LENT DAY THIRTEEN: I am thankful for mentors.  People who have nothing to gain that are willing to help someone who can never repay it are remarkable examples of Jesus’s selflessness.  Endless good comes from those who share their time and knowledge.  One of the most impactful ways to change the world is to give someone the tools necessary to do it.

 

LENT DAY FOURTEEN: I am thankful for transformation.  A dead tree becomes a work of art.    Hurt enables compassion.  Defeat is a catalyst for determination.  Sinners repent and become Saints.  Faith sows the bloom of a divine eternity.  Possibilities are endless and no one is without hope.

 

What are you thankful for today?

 

 

 

 

Too Small Coffee Table; Too Little Faith

I am trying to center myself so I can do what I need to do and be who I need to be.  This never seems to have anything to do with my daily tasks that are so time-consuming.  Regardless of how centered I am, I still have to scoop kitty litter and make supper.  I have to do life.  Yet often, life feels more adrift than this anchoring I seek.

The need for centering pulls at me reminds me that my busyness isn’t my primary business. I sit with it sometimes and try to make sense of what is so urgent.  It’s uncomfortable and I have to fight the urge not to get in my car and drive to the store to look for a new coffee table.  I’ve decided my coffee table is too small for my living room and even though that involved a small measure of math, it makes sense to me.  This centering that I crave – not so much.  I know it’s God by its persistence and truth be told, it makes the distraction of the coffee table seem like a welcome muse.

Then, of course, I question why I can’t sit with this God I adore and listen to what I need to do and who I need to be.  Why do I resist?  Why do I let myself succumb to distraction?  God probably doesn’t think the six-inch difference in a coffee table is paramount to his plans for me.

So, I still myself.  It chafes this stillness that God commands.  I listen to the emptiness of this space and try to discern what is so relentlessly nagging at me.  Is God in the quietness?  The busyness?  The mundane?  The despair?  The spiral?  The spaces between it all?  “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.”  (Proverbs 15:3).

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Prayer: What a Catch

Last year, a friend of mine was taken to the emergency room.  She had the flu and was in critical condition.  Before I rushed to the hospital, I prayed a rosary for her.  The memory is like a blur.  My head was racing, my rosary beads were twisting, my stomach was clenching, my hands were shaking, and my heart was aching.  Even though I sat in a chair in my living room, every part of me seemed to be in motion.  I was anxious to get to the emergency room, but from somewhere inside a voice repeated.  Pray.  Pray.  Pray.

When I finished the rosary, I went on Facebook and begged others to pray for her.  I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, but I know it included “even if you don’t pray – pray anyway.”  I’m not usually that bossy in Facebook posts so I hoped people would get the seriousness of the situation.  Even if it wasn’t their friend or their situation, even if they were estranged from God, I needed them to pray.  I needed help for my friend.  I figured if someone didn’t have their own faith, they could borrow their neighbors and throw something up to God.  He’s a great catcher.  That’s what he does over and over again – he catches us.  He doesn’t get caught up in who knows who, or the grudges someone is holding against him.  He isn’t keeping score.  He just catches.

I don’t know how many people prayed for her that day but it seemed like an awful lot.  At the hospital, I prayed with her children.  Friends texted that they were praying.  I called our church and asked them to send a priest to pray too.  He came and administered the sacrament of anointing of the sick.  The doctors were doing everything they could, her friends and family were covering her in prayer, and she was fighting like the warrior she was. Read more

Hearing God in a Noisy World

From the time the alarm clock pierces the softness of sleep, we are bombarded with noise.  The daily clamor comes not only from people in our lives, but the technology that pings incessantly and indiscriminately.  Add our inner barking voice, reminding us to do this, be there, and stop that, and it can feel like a cacophony of crazy.

In the racket of the babbling noise that cocoons the day in blasphemous sound, have we become deaf to the voice of God?  “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46) So often, we ask God for help, intercession, and mercy, but we never pause long enough in the grace of silence to let him fill the void.  It’s impossible to know his will if we can’t distinguish his voice from the commotion that commands our attention.

Jesus doesn’t strike me as a big yeller either.  He is the essence of love and love doesn’t compete in the shrill of striving.  His message is pretty succinct.  “Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mathew 22:37-39).  Our ability to give and receive love is challenged by the surmounting noise that often has little to do with our souls.

Our souls crave the quiet that is God.  Often, when it comes to problem solving and big decisions, we rely on intellect.  Reasons, facts, and logic become the trinity we turn to.  The noise in our head sputters off a list of pros and cons.  We ask friends for advice.  We read books to guide us.  We troubleshoot and play out different scenarios, alternating the variables, and exposing flaws like a crime-scene detective.  Inadvertently, we create more noise for ourselves — obscuring the voice of God with the chatter of our reasoning.  The head talks, talks, and talks.  It means nothing if the heart is pulled toward something different.  Our hearts hold the voice of God.  Without quiet, we will never hear the whisper of his wisdom, the lull of his compassion, or peace of an answered prayer.

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Dog Days of Mercy Work

Reunited and it feels so good,” are lyrics from the 1978 song by the vocal duo, Peaches & Herb.  But upon returning a stray dog, the lyrics that played to the song’s melody sounded more like, “Reunited, and it feels like crud!”

It was far from peachy.

When I found the elderly dog, he was thin, filled with fleas, and uncharacteristically aloof for his breed.  After twenty minutes of convincing him I wasn’t a serial killer, he reluctantly succumbed to my coaxing him into the backyard. Within minutes he escaped and sat stubbornly in middle of the road.  I directed cars to drive around us while begging him to follow me.  Perhaps, the dog binge-watched Criminal Minds before running away, because he clearly knew the finer points of stranger danger.  After getting him into the backyard for the second time, I  jammed logs in the passage in the gate he eluded, creating fine fence folk art that I am sure would become the envy of my neighborhood.  Then I went back inside to post his picture on lost-dog websites. Read more

Connections not Coincidence

In the ninth grade, a classmate accidentally shot himself and died.  His death was 30 years ago, more than twice my age at the time so it seems odd to notice these connections to it now.

I don’t recall much, other than feeling stunned and sad.  But I do remember leaving the funeral and seeing my Spanish teacher across the street with this pained looked of sympathy acknowledging the enormity of his loss was inexplicable, even to grown-ups. I sensed how bad she hurt for me, for all of us young people who had such little experience with death and tragedy.  The one who always had the answers had no more than her students.

Death is the great equalizer.

I haven’t thought of him in years until a friend acknowledged his birthday on Facebook.  But this isn’t about tragedy or death, but the way we are connected, albeit in ways that can easily be passed off as coincidence.

I recently returned from a trip and told my mom about deceased loved ones I lit candles for in different churches.  I lamented that there were others who I’ve known who died that I wish I lit candles for too.  She suggested that I light one candle for all those who passed.

Then she mentioned how this would include the boy from ninth grade who had died from the gunshot wound.  It had been three decades since we spoke of him.  It seemed like such odd timing: my mom thinking of him the same day I prayed for him at weekday mass and only two days after his birthday, without having any knowledge of either.  This convergence of recollection seemed like one of those God things. It had been 30 years and for all this to surface in a period of three days seemed supernatural.

I hesitated to write about it because it sounds either trivial or mystical.  We live in a world where we want to believe only what we see, hear, touch, and has been validated by science or a positive review on Amazon.  We brush off connections as coincidences and miss opportunities to acknowledge glimpses of God, which aren’t constrained by time or logic.

A fellow classmate honoring the birthday of a deceased friend, reminding others of a joyful life and a tragic death, inspiring prayers said by someone who remembers more the face of mercy in a teacher than the details of the funeral, and a mother who has known many of her children’s peers pass away acknowledging just this particular one, reminds me of our connection to each another that is undoubtedly threaded by God’s hand.

I suppose it sounds crazy to think these connections mean something and if you are open enough to think that they could the question easily becomes what do they mean?  But I don’t have any more answers than my Spanish teacher did on that sad day.  It’s by acknowledging the connection that I feel joy, more aware how those we mourn live on, and the very real ways that God connects all of us through him.

Too often, I am unaware.  I look at the concrete, the to-dos, and the should-have done, and I miss the many ways God shows his presence in the physical world.

I was lucky to be reminded of that presence by someone who has long since stopped having a tangible existence himself.  Yet he lives on in ways that can seem as elusive as the flicker of a candle, but nonetheless burn bright.

In memory of Michael Field. 

You may also want to read a post I wrote about another connection here.

Do you notice “coincidences” in life?  Those things that make you pause or send a tingle up your spine.  They always remind me how we are connected to one another through God and they always make me feel more hopeful about all that I cannot see and understand.  What do you make of them? 

 

Stillness — the action of finding God

Be Still. God knows I heard this often as a child.  I remember one time my mom promising me a new doll if I would just sit still for ten minutes.  When you are a kid, ten minutes is an impossibility, a lifetime, a duration that exists in fairytales along with “happily ever after.”

Stillness remains a challenge for me.  By far, the hardest part of writing is getting myself to sit down.  I reheat my coffee, let the dog out, tell the cats they are pretty, stuff my face with white cheddar popcorn, nibble chocolate, check email, Facebook, scoop kitty litter, and reheat curdled coffee again.  Then, I sit, twitch, and fidget for a bit before I succumb to the stillness that begets words. It’s like an exorcism.

“Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

I am part of a group of women at my church who will be hosting a retreat this month, and we chose this as our theme.  It’s not a message we hear often, and it is certainly counter to what society encourages. Stillness is a renegade concept, a weapon that destroys the inauthentic notions of life.  I associate it more with someone like Yoda in a galaxy far, far away than I do anyone on our planet.

Our world teaches us our value is tied to busyness.  Go faster, be efficient, do more, be more, make more, and have more.  But for heaven’s sake, don’t be still.  Don’t stop and smell the roses.  Get them in the ground and check it off your list. Or better yet, pay someone to do it.  Your time is too valuable.  You need to be producing.

The message is clear, if you are still, the world will pass you by.  You will be considered slovenly.   You will miss out.  You will fail to measure up. You might as well be a concrete statue for pigeons to stoop (and poop) on.

When we believe these messages, eventually our motion spins out of control.  We lose touch with who we are called to be, the things we enjoy, and who matters most. We get lost and dizzy from all our spinning.  And tired.  So many of us are tired.

Last year for Lent, I challenged myself to spend ten minutes a day in stillness with God.  I was terrified.  I didn’t want to commit to such an endeavor and not honor it.  Usually, the things we need most are the hardest to do, the least appealing, and met by the most resistance.  But I decided to be brave and embrace the stillness that always eluded me.

And you know what?  I didn’t turn green like Yoda or get soiled by pigeons.  I didn’t even feel like demons were being dispelled from my body like I do when I sit to write.  I didn’t miss a single day of my commitment.

Contrary to what we may think about motion, the real action begins with stillness.  I was more calm, aware of myself, closer to God, and felt a genuine sense of peace.  It was so much more of an intentional way to pray.  I even read scripture before I started my timer so I felt more deliberate about my conversation with God.

I continued my habit for a while after Lent and then slowly traded the stillness for the unregulated motion that’s so much easier to fall into.  Like a child, I resist.  But I know that stillness waits for me, wants for me, and will embrace me anytime I am willing to surrender to its calm.

And the reward for stillness is far greater than a new toy.  It is a chance to sit with the knowing that is God.

Want more to help you on your Lenten journey read this.  

Prayer and a Prostitute Ministry

I was reminded of the power of prayer by some of the people who need it the most.  I often travel on a portion of highway littered with seedy motels, drug dealers, and prostitutes.  It’s been that way as long as I can remember. My oldest son knows it as the road where we have the drug talk, again.

It’s easy to witness the devastation of drugs on that stretch of highway. Women of all ages, who I could easily portray with vivid and acute adjectives, I describe with only one word: hollow. They are a shell of who they are meant to be. Their eyes are large and blank. Despite their feigned hospitality, their desperation is obvious. The essence of their existence is missing, despite the sway of their bodies. Hollow.

And it feels wrong to just drive by.

But I do, just like everybody else. Well, almost everybody. A few years ago, I wrote an article for the newspaper about an organization called Grace Ministry of Helping Hands, a non-profit that helps women in the grips of drug addiction, alcoholism, and prostitution. Every two weeks volunteers minister to these women, bringing them toiletries, offering them a way out, and if they are not quite ready to leave their brokenness behind, planting an incorruptible seed that is the redemption of Christ.

I love their mission – the grittiness of it, the discipleship, the message of hope, and, more than anything, the mere acknowledgement of these outcast women. Just their willingness to see them as children of God instead of sexual objects, addicts, and throwaways is so incredibly Christ-like and beautiful.

Not far from that highway, I recently saw a woman slouched at the entrance of the post office. She was frail as if pounds were shed along with her dignity, and there wasn’t much left of either. I walked passed her and avoided eye contact. Of course, I didn’t feel like I had much dignity for my cowardly inaction. It bothered me to walk by her and do nothing just as it does to drive by those women on the highway.

It’s hard to know what to do. If I give money, it will likely be spent on drugs. I didn’t have any food to offer her, assuming it even appealed to her in her waif-like state. I couldn’t take her home with me, because my husband would have a fit, and I really wouldn’t know what to do with her when I got her there.

I kept thinking, “What can I do? What can I do?” And then I remembered, prayer. I can always pray. So I did, all the way home.

Later that evening, I got an email that Grace Ministries was helping a former prostitute and drug addict set up her new apartment. They were looking for household items. It felt like such an answer to my prayer. I donated some towels and a gift card to a grocery store. I knew it wouldn’t specifically help the lady I saw at the post office, but it would help someone in a similar situation.  I trust that God will reach that other woman, too.

It was such a gift to be reminded that there is always hope and there are more than addicts, dealers, and prostitutes that walk that stretch of highway.   There are disciples of grace, reminding us that the constancy of God’s mercy is a path available to us all. “Come, follow me” (Mathew 4:19, NRSV).

 

Have you ever felt like you wanted to help someone, but you weren’t sure how?  What do you do when you find yourself in a similar situation?  Please share your experiences in the comment section.  These issues are complicated and there is so much we can learn from each other. This is also about an answered prayer.   To read more on prayer: http://mercymatters.net/2018/02/06/stillness-the-action-of-finding-god/

To learn more about the work of Grace Ministry of Helping Hands visit their website at http://graceministriesjax.org

Teen Parenting– and a trashed manual

My son will become a teenager on Black Friday. Could there be a more ominous sign than that? While hoards of shoppers are waking up at 3 a.m. to suffer through lines and duke it out for deals, my sweet baby, ever so dear, will be entering the darkness that often accompanies the teen years.

As if he is already rehearsing for the big day of black, my house has recently been filled with a cacophony of slamming doors, woeful sighs and whispers under the breath that I am pretty sure do not include any sweet nothings. It sounds like a coarse symphony that does nothing to evoke my sympathies.

I called a friend a few weeks ago and in a prayerful plea, asked in the name of all that is holy, all that is sane, and all that is merciful, to lend me every parenting book she owns.

She brought me five.

The small stack of books sat in my office and my younger son asked me why I had so many teenager books. Before I could even formulate a response, he answered his own question — obviously remembering his brother’s upcoming birthday.   “Oh yeah, it’s going to be a long seven years…,” he said prophetically.

Seven years? Why do the terrible twos get all the notoriety? That’s one measly year and they are still small enough to be restrained.

As I read, I began strategizing, thinking of systems to implement and solutions to employ. I realized that, if necessary, doors could be unhinged. He would inevitably realize that not loading the dishwasher would be to his disadvantage.   And, I felt hopeful that discussions could be facilitated without anyone actually dying.

Ah, I was going to be the most brilliant teen mother ever.

I started writing a sort of manifesto for the teen years. I clicked away at the computer thinking to myself that I was doing the holy work of writing the instruction manual for parenting that I always wished I had.

Although my business interests have never evolved passed retail and at that, only on the paying side of the cash register, I had ultimately written my first business plan.

It read like a contract, with caveats and consequences included for clarity. It featured equations for various if/then scenarios and it clearly proved that my naiveté is boundless.

I actually believed that what I had written would be embraced – that is until I proudly emailed a trusted friend with the teen manual, which I intended to present to my son. She is tactful to a fault, so when she suggested that my glorious parenting plan would evoke a middle finger response I was stunned.

Really?

I reread my work. It was so beautiful. It had italics and bullet points and fancy words like parameters, privileges, outlined and occasionally.

I guess I could see where it was kind of bossy pants-ish, but it did include a smiley emoticon and an I love you.

I signed it not with the slang, Yo mama, but with the sincere, sweet, your mama that was so obviously me.

Later that night, with my two-page, single-spaced manifesto by my side I sat down and spoke with my son. Maybe it was because I was lulled by the soothing sound of the dishwasher that my tween ran without my mention, but I was uncannily calm. We talked about grades, basketball and ways he could earn extra money.

We didn’t hold hands, or hug or do anything that would invoke Norman Rockwell to paint us, but we talked. I didn’t boss or dictate either, yet I didn’t digress from making my expectations clear.

When we finished talking, he kissed me goodnight and there I sat – the manifesto, a mostly-read parenting book and myself.

I thought about ripping up my beautiful plan I had written about how the teen years would unfold in our home, but I didn’t have the energy to be so dramatic.   I simply folded it into a little square to put in the trash.

I guess what I realized is that maybe the reason children don’t come with instructions is because parenting isn’t meant to be precise. It might be insightful to read some books, or even to write your own plan about how you intend to parent, but often intentions and plans don’t really have much to do with raising children.

Like the rest of us, children are unique and, like it or not, have plans of their own. They will make their own path in the world and it’s our job to guide them as they do. It is a delicate balance between letting go and holding on. Sometimes it’s letting pieces fall where they may, and sometimes it means picking up the pieces and starting over again.

Maybe parenthood could best be described as prayer – a combination of something we hope for, ask of, praise, repent, and offer thanks. It is an active petition that is said every time we discipline, praise, share affection, or just sit and talk. The prayer does not end, like love, it endures time, tantrums and even teenagers. It is an offering of the best of ourselves so that someone we love can become the best of their selves. It is sacrifice, surrender, forgiveness, and humility.

Parenting may be described as more gut-wrenching than glorious, but it is no doubt the most Holy work we can do.

While my son may turn 13 on a day dubbed Black Friday, it’s no coincidence this falls the day after Thanksgiving. After all, he has been a blessing everyday of his life. He is a prayer and a gift.

Of course, I know the teen years won’t be easy, but I can’t help but feel excited about all that awaits.  The spectrum of joy, discovery and promise that lies ahead is sure to be anything but black.

 

Want more on parenting, you might like: http://mercymatters.net/2014/10/20/5-things-i-learn…ooler-about-life/