Monday, September 30, 2013

Week of Love: Day 6

















Photo by Rodger (edited by me), used with permission.

As is so often the case, I do not know what I will write about tonight - except that it will be about Love.

My day started out on a note of deep sadness. Life slipped away from a baby while still in his/her mother's womb. A baby, awaited with much joy and anticipation and preparation, losing life only weeks before he/she was due to emerge into our world.

I wonder why this little one was was granted such a very short life span. And I wonder why his/her parents must now face this profound loss - why a mother must deliver a baby who has already died. My heart cries for them.

And yet, all day a song has been running through my mind, the words of refrain proclaiming, "How broad, how high, how deep His love...Praise Christ the Lord." These words are derived from the New Testament letter to the Ephesians (3: 14-21):
For this reason I kneel before the Father,
from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named,
that he may grant you in accord with the riches of his glory 
to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner self,
and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; 
that you, rooted and grounded in love,
may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones 
what is the breadth and length and height and depth,
and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, 
so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Now to him who is able to accomplish 
far more than all we ask or imagine, 
by the power at work within us, 
to him be glory...

As I gaze upon the image provided by my spiritual brother, Rodger, I am reminded of how broad and long and high and deep God's love is. How broad is our world and its beauty, how great is the length of the coast separating land from sea, how high is the sky and how deep the ocean. Yet these are as nothing compared to the vastness and depth of our Creator's love.

For our Creator has chosen to be called, "Father", to draw us in to family with Him...He has made Himself one of us in His son, the Christ, that He might dwell in our very hearts...He gives us strength in our suffering by rooting and grounding us in His love...a love that surpasses all human understanding and knowledge... accomplishing "far more than all we ask or imagine"...

His love is broad enough to cover a whole world's sins. His love is long enough to last for all eternity and high enough to stretch beyond our imaginings. His love is deep enough to reach into the deepest sufferings of our hearts - and to dwell there with us, holding us tenderly.

Even in the face of all of the tragedies and difficulties of this life, we must never forget His love. For if we forget, who will carry that love to the hearts now breaking? 

Let us open our hearts and allow Love to dwell deep within. As we carry His Love to others (and others carry it to us), we learn what it means to become one with God.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Week of Love: Day 5


(Walking a labyrinth, for the uninitiated, is a meditative experience where one follows a path without being able to see clearly how one gets from the point of entry to the center - the presumed destination. However, unlike with mazes, there is only one path to take and so one only has to follow...) 

One of the first experiences of my stay at the hermitage last week was to walk the labyrinth. As is often the case when I take a contemplative walk, my camera went with me to receive any images that might be given. However, it was most definitely not a picture-taking expedition but a time for heart-opening, that I might learn to see more deeply.


















When I planned this retreat, I was very conscious of beginning on the feast of St. Matthew. Matthew was a tax collector at the time that Jesus had started to publicly teach about the kingdom of God. Tax collectors were considered sinners and despised by most of the Jewish people of their day, as they enriched themselves by collecting taxes for Herod from their own people.

Here is Matthew's own account of how he came to one of the twelve closest followers of Jesus:


As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. (Matthew 9: 9-13)

A very simple account. And yet not so simple. After this, Matthew invited Jesus to dine with him which caused quite a scandal as this holy Person was associating with a sinner. Matthew's choice to follow meant that he had to leave his job, not just on that particular day but forever, and in "following" had to begin whole new way of life that many would not understand.

It is curious that Matthew tells his story as though it were obvious why he would leave everything behind to "follow" but it is not obvious to the casual reader. Matthew would certainly not make any money by following Jesus. There were no indicators that Matthew was won over by a persuasive argument or special favor by Jesus. 

Although we cannot know with any certainty, it is likely that there was something in the way that Jesus looked at him that went straight to Matthew's heart. Something that opened his heart to first know that he was loved and then to want to be close to this Jesus and learn His Way of Love. Once his heart connected with Jesus', there was no other alternative that made sense but to follow. 

After I walked the labyrinth, I wrote a few notes to myself that I would like to share with you now:

Walking the labyrinth…I follow and follow. It is such a calm and trusting experience – to follow and keep walking without being able to see where it all leads. And yet somehow knowing that it all leads to the center, the heart, even when it appears to be the opposite.

Why am I walking further from the heart of what is my destination? I trust and walk on. I notice that where I am does not really matter nor does it matter now much time it takes. I may walk slowly and I may pause. I may pick up a normal pace and then stop to receive an image.

What is most important is the following, the being present to the path.

My body notices its fatigue and little aches. The sun hides behind dark masses of clouds – only to emerge again sparkling its light off the grass and trees. A bird calls somewhere. Then a squirrel.

As I walk back out from the heart, I am still following. I am carrying something inside that will be lived and shared. I do not have a name for it, though it cannot be anything but love.

No, it cannot be anything but love. For I have felt His gaze upon me and there is nothing else I could conceivably do but get up, leave everything and follow Him in Love.

+++

(If the notion of walking a labyrinth intrigues you, you may be surprised to find labyrinths not far from you - I was surprised the first time I did a search. If you wish to locate one, this website is helpful - just enter your zip code: http://labyrinthlocator.com/locate-a-labyrinth. If walking is difficult for you, you might trace a path on the labyrinth below that I made for you from a classic labyrinth design. If you you would like to be able to view it as a larger image, right-click on the image and select "open link in a new window". Remember, it is not a puzzle to be rushed through but an experience to be savored.)





















Saturday, September 28, 2013

Week of Love: Day 4


A story

Once upon a time, there was a lovely little hibiscus plant that had shiny, dark green leaves and a bright red blossom. She lived in a single plastic pot with her brother and sister and they were all quite happy together. Their pot was covered in shiny foil paper and they knew they looked very attractive. 

One day, a nice lady came to the store where they lived and she fell in love with them. They were so bright and lovely that she swooped them up into her cart and, having paid for them, soon proudly carried them out of the store. She put them in a special place where they would get plenty of sunlight and their fiery red flowers would brighten the days of all who saw them.

For a short time, the little plant and her brother and sister were content with their new life. They enjoyed greeting the people who came and sat around them in what they later learned was called "the waiting room". They also noticed, however, that the nice lady seemed awfully busy and she gradually spent less and less time with them. The little hibiscus, being a sensitive sort, even wondered at times whether she still loved them. 

The little hibiscus longed for the love of the nice lady and looked forward to those occasional times when she rewarded them with a drink of water. Her roots were getting a bit cramped, as she and her brother and sister were growing just a bit too big for the original pot. The little hibiscus did not say anything though, not wanting to complain, as she didn't want to seem ungrateful to the nice lady.

One day, however, something very alarming began to happen. While resting in the afternoon sun, the little hibiscus looked down at her leaves and noticed that they had lost some of their luster. She knew that her bright red bloom would fade and die - that is the way of things - but she did not think her leaves were supposed to be changing in this way. 

She glanced over at her brother and sister and found them to be in an even more frightful state. Their leaves were starting to curl and become limp. Some had even fallen off! Now she knew for certain that there was something seriously wrong with her siblings and she was frightened for them. She hoped and prayed that the nice lady would come around soon and take care of them.

Through the night, when the waiting room was always empty, more and more leaves fell from her brother's and sister's limbs. Her own leaves seemed to be holding on but she was starting to feel weaker and she began to panic. "O nice lady," she whispered frantically into the dark night, "please get here soon and save us!"

The next morning, as light entered the waiting room, there was a small pile of leaves surrounding their pot. The little hibiscus was afraid but remained hopeful as she waited for the nice lady. Others entered and departed the waiting room but, as the day wore on, the little hibiscus realized that the nice lady wasn't among them.

She watched desperately as the last of the others prepared to shut off the lights and lock the door to the waiting room. She knew that she and her brother and sister didn't look attractive anymore but she fervently hoped that the other would notice their plight. She felt so weak that she could barely remain upright. Yet she knew that this might be the last chance for her brother and sister - and maybe even for herself - so she cried out with all her might. 

At the sound of her cry, the last of the others - the little plant now recognized her as someone who often came through the waiting room - looked over at them with compassion. She approached them, tenderly examining their soil and remaining leaves, looking gravely concerned. As once before the nice lady had swooped them up when they were beautiful, this compassionate one now drew them up gently into her arms to carry them. 

The little hibiscus was relieved but also afraid. She didn't know where the compassionate one was taking them and she watched with horror as more and more of her brother's and sister's leaves fluttered to the ground as they headed out the waiting room door.

For a while, there only a feeling of movement in darkness for the little hibiscus and her siblings. She was shaking so much from fear that she was afraid that her own leaves, which were still holding on fairly well, might start to fall just from the fright. 

Before long, however, the movement stopped and the compassionate one was lifting their pot out of the darkness and setting them in a bright sunny window. And, much to her relief, the compassionate one gently removed the three of them from their tiny pot and planted them in a larger one, surrounding their roots with rich soil and a generous amount of water. 

There was no more shiny paper around their pot nor visitors coming in and out to admire them, but the little plant did not care. She rested well that night, hopeful that they would all feel better in the morning.

However, when morning came, the situation could not have been more dire. The little hibiscus looked at her brother and sister in shock. She barely recognized them for they hardly had any leaves left at all! When she peered carefully at their limbs, she noticed what looked like tiny spider webs at most of the joints. 

While she had lost a couple of leaves herself, she couldn't see whether she too had the dreadful looking webs on her. But she knew it was only a matter of time. Whatever was attacking her siblings appeared to be attacking her too and soon she too would be like a skeleton of her old self as were they.

The compassionate one stopped by several times during that next day and treated with them with care. At first, she tried to just wipe away the webs from the ailing plants. But this was futile. Even the little hibiscus plant herself could see that the webs had reappeared on her brother and sister by the next morning. 

The following day, the little hibiscus watched the compassionate one studying their problem with great seriousness. Grateful as she was, however, she couldn't help but wonder what the nice lady was thinking. Was she worried about them? Again, she remembered how delighted the nice lady had been with them when they first came into her care. Did she not still love them, even though they were sick and not nearly so pretty as before?

Hence, it was with excitement that the little plant awaited a response when she heard the compassionate one talking about their condition with the nice lady on the phone. But the words she overheard from her beloved friend shocked her. "Why don't you just throw it out?" she heard the nice lady say about them, as though they were now but a bit of garbage. 

With these words still ringing about her, she began to droop in despair, no longer caring if she lost her leaves or even her life itself.

However, before death could descend upon her, the little hibiscus noted that the compassionate one was suddenly becoming quite active, bustling about her and her siblings as though preparing for some important effort. Soon a large soft cloth was being wrapped around their pot, leaving only their stems and few remaining leaves exposed. 

The ailing little plant did not know whether to be frightened or excited about what she saw coming next. Before her, she saw a large tub of hot, steamy water. She knew this was going to be uncomfortable - very, very uncomfortable. And yet the compassionate one was doing her best to reassure her and her siblings that this might just be their one hope...if it wasn't already too late.

The time submerged under the hot water seemed interminable. There was no coming up for air since the compassionate one kept pushing them down and even piling things on top of them to hold them under water. She apologized to them as she did this, explaining that it was necessary to destroy the spider mites that had infested them.

Spider mites? The little hibiscus recalled the hushed whispers back at the greenhouse about these dreaded demons and the power they had to destroy. But she had never thought that she or her brother or sister could fall victim. They were all so healthy and beautiful when they arrived at the store... 

A flash of pain again came upon the little hibiscus, a pain so deep that it hurt more than the suffocating sensation of being submerged under blisteringly hot water. The nice lady...it was clear that she no longer loved them, now that their beauty and health were gone...

At last, the compassionate one drew the sibling plants out of the water. What came next was very messy and sad. Despite the protective cloth, much of the rich soil that had surrounded their roots had washed away and was clinging to the cloth and not them. Patiently, the compassionate one gathered as much of the soil back as she could and, along with some new soil, carefully piled it back upon their roots.

And then the waiting began.

At first, it was just a waiting for the excess water to drain out of the pot so the little hibiscus would not drown in it. That was over in the couple of days that followed. The worst part was the waiting that came next. Day after day, week after week of waiting - to see if any new leaves would sprout on her brother and sister, now both totally barren; waiting to see if she herself could begin to grow again. 

The compassionate one stopped by and spent time with the little hibiscus at regular intervals, checking carefully for the appearance of any new webs that would signal the return of the enemy. She seemed content with what she saw. 

However, the little hibiscus, for her part, was very, very discouraged. It was so hard, day in and day out, to look at the empty frames of her brother and sister, without seeing a single sign of life. They appeared cold and brittle - they appeared dead. While she could see that she still had her leaves, she could see no change in herself and that made her wonder if she too was about to die.

Even though nothing seemed to change, the compassionate one continued to stop by, occasionally watering the soil around the little one. She would gently touch her leaves now and then - and the little hibiscus found that she looked forward to these visits. 

Together, she and the compassionate one would gaze out the window, watching the panorama of life on the other side of the glass. Together, they saw flocks of sparrows sparring for seed and squirrel pairs playing and romping in the grass. They watched the garden flowers bloom, with butterflies and bees paying their visits before the blossoms faded. They even saw a beautiful doe one day who simply folded up her legs and rested quietly in front of their window. 

Gradually, the little hibiscus noticed changes occurring outside the window. The time of sunlight was getting shorter and some days it was not nearly so warm and cozy to sit near the glass. She knew that the time called summer was drawing to a close. 

And she was sad - for many weeks had passed and still her brother and sister showed no signs of stirring back to life. 

One day, the compassionate one told her that it was time. The little hibiscus knew that this was true yet she did not want it to be so. Although the compassionate one tried to be gentle, the dumping over and separation of her roots from those of her brother and sister was painful beyond anything she had ever known. She had never had to try to live apart from them before.

She watched the compassionate one carefully wrap their stiff dry limbs in paper so that they could be put to rest. At one time, she would have feared that she too was about to be wrapped up and thrown away. But she discovered on this day that she had no fear. She trusted the compassionate one. She now knew that she was loved in a manner far deeper than what she had experienced with the nice lady.

Though still sad, it was with a deep peace that the little hibiscus settled alone into the pot she had once shared with her brother and sister. The compassionate one patted more new soil around her roots and gave her a lovely drink. She tied a ribbon around the pot and put a bright red bow upon it, both to memorialize the two whose lives had slipped away and to celebrate the new beginning for the little one.

It was only then that the little hibiscus noticed that she herself had changed. While she had been busy watching the comings and goings of life on the other side of the window during the summer, she had begun to change without realizing it. Her reflection in the glass now showed broader, shinier leaves - and, of all things - a new bud!

The little hibiscus was so excited that she didn't know what to do. While in her early days, this new bud would have been cause for pride, now it stirred in her a humble sense of gratitude to the compassionate one who had loved her through her good times and her bad. She wanted to tell her that she loved her but she didn't know how...

The compassionate one, sensing her struggle, silently sat down beside her. Together, they gazed out the window once again, as they had throughout the summer. 

Breaking the silence, the compassionate one spoke aloud for the first time.

"My dear little hibiscus, I have indeed loved you but it is not me that you should love in return. For I am not the One who makes the flowers to grow - or the sparrows to fly or the squirrels to romp and play. I am not the One who healed you."

The compassionate one paused, allowing this truth to sink in.

"I was sent to you by One much greater than me. It was He who directed my heart to claim you, He who instructed my hands to nurture you and free you from your demons. I was simply there to be by your side while He worked within you. He sent me to be with you - just as years ago he sent others to be with me."

She paused again, her heart a deep well of His love.

"Thank you for letting me share your journey. May we journey together through this life and on into the next. Let us praise Him without ceasing - for endless is His love and gracious mercy."

























Friday, September 27, 2013

Week of Love: Day 3


Tonight, I do not know how to write. Perhaps I have forgotten how.

All week, unseen demons have knocked upon my door, dropping off packages of brain-numbing fatigue and impending virus. I peek through the curtains and decide not to open the door.

I suspect that they do not like that I have given myself over to the Way of Love. They tend to discourage that sort of thing. They suggested I wait a bit before beginning the Week of Love and now they propose that I take a night off. "You need rest," they whisper. "It won't hurt anything."

They are not pointy-tailed creatures with pitch forks. Not at all. They are the ordinary events and experiences that life brings: a sore throat, a body that would rather burrow under the covers than encounter chilly morning air, a mind that feels foggy, a soul uninspired.

These demons are, in fact, so ordinary that one is tempted to not think of them as demons at all. After all, what is more common than the common cold? There is nothing unusual about feeling tired or uninspired after a period of deeper spiritual reflection. Why call them demons? It's just normal stuff. Rest is a good idea - why resist it?

It is so easy to slip into their clutches, to embrace the sensible excuses about why it is that tonight - just tonight, of course - I don't need to pray (or write or make a commitment). There is always tomorrow and perhaps I will feel better then.

They are demons because they make it seem perfectly reasonable to accept the detour away from Love and back to the me-first, choose-comfort and avoid-suffering world in which we live. They block the path to God while convincing me that they just know an easier route.

But they are demons. I will not open the door to them. Instead, I will proclaim Love.

(Excuse me for a moment; I'll be back shortly.)

+++

Sorry, I really didn't intend to be gone so long. I had thought it might be best to proclaim Love with a bit of color and so I went and dropped some alcohol inks on paper.

While the ink was drying (and I already had an apron on), I thought I might as well wash the stack of dishes that had been piling up all week.

And, while washing the dishes, it only made sense to put on some music...and the next thing I knew, I was dancing.

The ink has dried and, with the help of a bit of technology, I have added the words that proclaim Love in a way the world has never been able to forget.

Now, I share this proclamation with you that it might strengthen you - as it has me - in keeping the demons away.





































Many blessings and much love in the name of the One who is Love...


(Comments and contributions are most welcome during this Week of Love and throughout this series on the 7 holy pauses. You may e-mail them to me at findhope@roadrunner.com.)

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Week of Love: Day 2


As important as it is for us to learn to love, perhaps it is even more important for us to learn how to be loved. While it may seem that this should be no struggle at all, experience has taught me otherwise, especially when it comes to the love of God.

While many religions teach of a loving God, how can I know that God is truly loving - loving of me personally?

Love is not something that can be taught from a book. All of the biblical teachings in the world do not, in themselves, give a person the experience of being loved. The stories of God leading His chosen people to the promised land or of Jesus healing a leper are stories of things that happened to other people, not me.

Furthermore, stories are viewed as just stories for many of us these days. It is a natural human tendency for us to trust our senses - though in reality, they are not trustworthy at all. "Seeing is believing" is one of many sayings that reflect our desire to have personal experience of something before we accept its truth. Thus, a story of something that someone else says happened a couple of thousand years ago often simply cannot get past our minds to make it to our hearts.

Allowing ourselves to be loved by God is especially hard for those among us who have seldom if ever experienced a true and abiding love from anyone. "If my own mother (or father) couldn't love me," words I have heard from countless suffering people, "then there must be something wrong with me."

And thus is born one of the deepest wounds a human being can experience: the belief that I am unlovable.

For those of us who have had the good fortune to experience consistent love early in life, the dilemma may be different. We may feel able to love and even feel called to love but fill our lives so completely with work or family or acts of service that we leave no empty space for Love to enter us. Hence, we may become depleted as we drift further and further from our love-Source, relying on ourselves instead of Him.

Either way, we are a people thirsting for love and we find ourselves in a seemingly dry and barren desert. We long for the experience of being loved, but we cannot find it - or are afraid to trust what we find. What can we do?

The only thing I can think of is to jump.

No - not from a tall building (!). Rather we must leap into the darkness and fears of our unknowing, with hope that the loving One waits in the light to catch us.

To leap is to call out into the emptiness of our uncertainty and ask to experience His love.

I remember this sort of prayer from my adolescent years. It was a raw, painful prayer but an honest one. To accept His love as real and true, I had to experience it for myself. I could not simply read about it.

And I told Him so.

In the many years since I began calling out to Him, I have experienced His love so many times and in so many ways: the person I most needed to meet appeared in my life in the nick of time to help me and walk with me through great suffering; "coincidences" have led me to spiritual sustenance that I didn't even know I needed; nature has showered me in images of His unspeakable beauty.

I have, over time, learned to experience His love in the dry and dull spells as well, during those periods when I was completely unable to feel His love. I came to discover, in those moments or even years later, that His love had been moving within me. He may have been clearing away protective walls I had built in the past or He may have been readying me for future risks and challenges. But, looking back, I see abundant evidence that His love was always at work.

I was being loved, even when I didn't know it.

And the same may be true for you as well. He may be actively loving you at this very moment, without you being aware of it. (He doesn't believe the lie that any of His creatures are unlovable.)

I invite you to take a moment with me now as I share an image that I received last month when walking with my camera. Allow yourself to leap into the unknowing of the raw, honest prayer that longs for love. Then take some time to be still and open, allowing yourself to notice and experience whatever comes...




















Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Week of Love: Day 1


As I begin this Week of Love, part of a series on the seven holy pauses given to me, I find myself uncertain and a bit anxious. Although I have been looking forward to writing about love, now that the time is here, I don't feel quite up to the task. I find myself still trying to pull out of my most recent migraine which has left my body tired and my mind fuzzy.

But I also realize that I will never be "up to the task" - and I cannot let that stop me. How much love never gets lived because there were too many fears blocking its expression? Much too much, if my life is any indication. I cannot let such fears stop the Love that burns within.

Allow me to share with you an experience I had in this past week. A month or two ago, I had noticed a growing urge inside to set aside some time for God - some real time - something deeper than the routine times of prayer or church attendance. I wanted to be alone with Him, to enter more fully into His love, to allow myself to be transformed by Him. I decided to stay at a hermitage for a couple of days.

I knew going in that there were risks. (There always is with Love.) I knew that I might wake up with such a bad migraine that I wouldn't be able to go. I knew that I might arrive there, only to become anxious and want to leave. I knew that I might seek God but, rather than having a deep experience of His presence, I might find only my own dull and restless heart beating in the silence.

But I decided to go anyway. So, last Saturday, I packed up a few things and drove the 85 miles to a small log cabin that would be my home until Monday afternoon.

It was a lovely little place, far lovelier than I needed. The accommodations were simple but obviously prepared with a thoughtfulness that was touching. The shower offered open bottles of shampoo and liquid soap for those who came unprepared. Towels and linens, worn and plain (but clean and soft), were in place and ready for use. The small living space had a remarkable number of drawers and cupboards, filled with almost anything a person might want - from cooking utensils and olive oil, to scissors and pens. But there was one very special offering that I only discovered a bit later in that first day.

Back in 2007, someone had donated a journal for visitors, inviting those who stayed at the hermitage to share a reflection or prayer with those who would come after them. Such a loving gesture! Men and women, clergy and lay, good penmanship and bad :-), gave witness to the sacredness of this place and the love of God experienced there. And in the stillness, it created a sense of community of "temporary hermits" like myself that offered prayer and support without intruding on the solitude sought there.

Thankfully, the hermitage did not offer me Internet connection (lest I be tempted) but I had made a conscious choice not to leave behind all technology, as appealing as that consideration was on some levels. It had occurred to me that I might receive love-expressions for you from God while I was there. Not knowing in what format they might be given, I wanted to be prepared to accept and hold them for you.

Our God, whose being is Love, indeed had much to share. While some things were privately for me - and not all of them were pretty - one given me to share was an audio reflection on the way of Love. (You may listen by clicking on the play button below. It is very slow and meditative and lasts about 10 minutes. Caution: it may make you sleepy...)





So the Week of Love has begun, with love again triumphing over fear. At least one more time. As I learned in the journal-gift, we must pray for each other as community, even if we never see or meet each other. Only in community will we be able to walk the way of Love... Join me.

(Comments and contributions may be e-mailed to me at findhope@roadrunner.com. Many blessings...)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Week of Mercy: Day 7


I have become increasingly convinced that one aspect of God's great mercy is how "prodigal" it is. Although we are used to thinking of that term as something negative (as in The Prodigal Son), its actual definition has to do with being lavish or recklessly extravagant.

God's mercy is just that. The mercy we are given is often so "over the top" (to use today's language) that it is hard for us to believe in it. Ours is a culture in which we are supposed to work for what we get and get what we deserve. God's mercy flies in the face of that value. We get far more than what we could ever deserve - and we get it for free.

This may seem to contradict what I wrote of a couple of days ago about God's mercy being "severe". Can both be true?

I believe both can be true because God knows precisely what we need and precisely when we need it. He knows when we need the utterly undeserved gift as well as when we need to be instructed (or re-formed)  in a suffering that reshapes us.

In His great mercy, He doesn't withhold tender compassion when we most need it, but neither does he withhold correction when we need that.

I know this from personal experience.

In December, 2011, I was participating in an online retreat for Advent that encouraged artistic and creative expression. Each day we were given some reflections and ideas to stimulate our spiritual and creative growth, allowing us to pursue them in the ways most suited to us as individuals.

While I enjoyed the retreat immensely, I found that I struggled with some aspects of it. I wasn't used to posting my creative output and have it commented on or "liked" (in the FaceBook sense). The retreat leaders and participants were very generous in their positive remarks, not just to me but to everyone. And I struggled with that as well.

Part of me wanted to be noticed, admired, "liked". Not only that, but part of me (a rather large part, I'm afraid) wanted to be noticed, admired and liked more than everyone else. I struggled with this because I knew that this was the ugly side of pride - not the healthy pride one takes in doing a good job, but the kind of pride that seeks to be god rather than praise Him.

It was hard for me to not keep checking back for comments after I posted something and to not feel more than a little dismayed if someone else's creative work drew more positive attention. I felt like a young child again wanting the special-ness of being my mother's first child rather than the second child that I was.

However, that was not my only tripping point. I discovered that I didn't like be led or taught very much. I'd rather be the teacher than the student. Hence, quite involuntarily, I would find myself resisting some of the suggestions for creative expression as though they were beneath me. Of course, this all went on within the unspoken silence of my own head - but inside my head it was not silent.

I will never forget one of the suggestions. Among other options, one idea offered was to write our own obituary. This was not the first time I had ever heard this idea put forth as a trigger for reflection and I was in the processing of dismissing it when...

What happened next I believe was the extravagant mercy of God. I wasn't seeking it at that moment because I was too caught up in self (what has been called "false self", to distinguish it from the healthy psychological need we have for a cohesive identity).

But before I could even complete the thought of arrogant dismissal, a poem began to form in my head. I think I can say quite honestly that I was not even considering writing a poem at that moment. It simply came. Its title, of course, was "obituary". And here it is:

obituary
i have been so many things
and now, in the end, i know
just who i am
i am nothing
no one
i lost myself somewhere
in sunshine on rippling water
in piles of brown and amber leaves
fertile mush in my back yard
i lost myself just a few weeks ago
amidst quacking ducks on a river
their orange feet paddling with joy.
i lost myself in all of the color
in the gospel beats
when i just couldn't stop dancing
over and over i lost myself
in so many sorrows
and so many joys
in every heart opened before me
aching to find You
and finding only me
ah – there is mercy
mercy o endless mercy
lost at last in You…


I must admit that I love this poem and that I re-read it rather regularly. In an irony that perhaps only God could achieve, its timing came as a correction to my arrogance, yet its content speaks of a complete and total loss of self in God. Hence, there was a severity pushing me onto the path of His self-emptying Way, but also a tender love beckoning me forward into oneness with Him...

As this Week of Mercy draws to a close, let us be mindful that His mercy is without end. Wherever we are in life and whatever we struggle with, our God knows exactly what we need and is giving it to us in an abundance beyond our knowledge and understanding. Many blessings...

(Once again, I will be taking a brief break but look forward to beginning the Week of Love. Your comments and contributions are most welcome and may be sent to me at findhope@roadrunner.com.)


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Week of Mercy: Day 6


I am so utterly helpless. As I prepare once again to write tonight, I know that I can do nothing without the grace and mercy of God.

To help myself prepare, I re-read my last few posts on mercy. Where did these things come from? I was moved nearly to tears as I read them - and yet how can this be, if I wrote them?

If even for a moment, I begin to feel a pride in what I do here, I have fallen from grace. I am not saying this to negate whatever good God has given to me or through me. Rather, I am continually being taught to recognize that it is indeed God who does the giving, not me. I could not do any of this alone.

As mentioned before, my spiritual brother, Rodger, was so kind as to send me a photo image for each of the seven holy pauses to help me along in this project. More times than not, I have asked him to share why he chose a particular image for the holy pause upon which we were reflecting.

This time was no exception. In fact, this time I was feeling a bit desperate. I wanted to post his image and was waiting...and waiting for his explanation to arrive. I couldn't even tell what it was a picture of much less what it might possibly have to do with mercy.

It was a moment of grace and mercy this evening when his e-mail appeared in my inbox. (I am not good at waiting and trusting and so I had started doubting, becoming fearful that nothing would come...)

Isn't this true of most all of us? It is so hard to wait and to trust. When I cannot see where I am going, when I feel like I am lost in the middle of the ocean, it is hard for me to trust that somehow I will be "found" again. When I don't know why something is happening or how a problem will be resolved, it feels impossibly hard to wait and believe that God is holding me, leading me safely through to a place I cannot see.

Rodger explained to me that the image below is of "Morro Rock". I learned online that it is a "volcanic plug", now considered part of California, that is is estimated to be 23 million years old. For thousands of years, it has been a sacred place for two different native tribes. Only members of those tribes are allowed to climb its rocky surface for their annual ceremonies. All others are prohibited from doing so for the sake of the birds that find sanctuary there.

Rodger shared with me two images of mercy that he associates with this immense rock. He could imagine himself being a sailor out in the vast ocean, desperately seeking a landmark and breathing a sigh of relief at spotting the familiar Morro Rock emerging from the sea. Rodger also shared that he could imagine himself being a weary bird, longing to find refuge from humans and mercifully coming upon this rocky haven.

Places become sacred when they speak to us of God. This ancient sacred place has been speaking for thousands if not millions of years.

Tonight it speaks to us. It reminds us there there is One who is ever watching and waiting to guide us in our lostness. It assures us that He will always protect us and give us sanctuary in His endless mercy.

Let us take up our rest there, tonight and always.


















Photo by Rodger, reprinted with permission (editing and text by me).


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Week of Mercy: Day 5


One of my favorite books of all time is Sheldon Vanauken's A Severe Mercy. I was in my 20's when a friend casually slipped the book to me, knowing that I was hurting but being discrete enough to not call direct attention to it.

I only had to see the title of the book to be simultaneously drawn to and frightened by it. I had heard the word "mercy" all of my life in the context of religious practice, but I had never heard anyone call it severe before. I imagine, like many people, I wanted mercy to be something soft, gentle and easy.

The book tells a life story that was riveting in both its beauty and its pathos. A young love, so idealized, begins to stumble but is saved from one sort of tragedy by another. The book includes letters by C. S. Lewis to the author and it is in one of these letters that the title phrase was coined.

Those many years ago, I had never heard of C. S. Lewis and that book opened many doors for me. I have especially loved his fiction, re-reading many times the Chronicles of Narnia and his Space Trilogy. For any who have not read the seven books about Narnia, I heartily recommend them. Though written for children, adults could find no clearer understanding of Lewis's profound insights into God and people.

Part of the brilliance of Lewis's story-telling has much to do with mercy. In his various stories, the characters are imperfect, sometimes displaying small acts of selfishness, other times great acts of treachery. Mercy is always offered but Lewis makes it clear that it is not easy and that these acts are not without consequence.

Sometimes a child in the story is met with a growl (a Lion's expression of disapproval), but other times great suffering must be endured to make things right. Yet, the suffering is never portrayed as punishment.

If my actions have resulted in me becoming a dragon, the process of being un-dragoned necessarily involves considerable work and discomfort. Yet once un-dragoned, I emerge from the process a changed person - no, a new person.

Dying to my old self, no matter how discontented I am with it, is certainly no easier than the death of the body. And birth into new life can be no less painful than coming forth from my mother's womb.

God is not content to leave us in the misery we have created for ourselves. But neither is He content to just pass out "get-out-of-jail-free" cards that do not free us from our jail-seeking ways.

God's mercy is not severe because He does not love us - but because He does. May we so long for it that we do not flee the suffering that will make us new, that will make us His...


Monday, September 16, 2013

Week of Mercy: Day 4


This past Sunday was an amazing day on several levels. I have already shared with you the story that was given to me the night before, the meditation that came that afternoon and one of the images of the sunset that I received that evening. However, my amazement began earlier in the day...

I had stayed up rather late on Saturday night, once again violating my promise to myself to start going to bed earlier. Once I had started writing the story, I simply had to find out how it was going to end. As a result, I was tired Sunday morning and slept a bit later than usual. I decided to go to a different church that would accommodate my sleepy time schedule - and, I must admit, I had already been feeling an inner urge to go to this church rather than my usual one.

(I love my usual church but I enjoy this other church too. The priests preach well but there is something else that is special. It is a newer building and is carpeted. In the back, there is an area where I discovered I can sit on the floor in a yoga position during Mass. No one else does this but, since people don't know me there, I feel rather anonymous and boldly do it. It is wonderful!)

Anyway, I arrived at the church without a minute to spare - which worked well for my plan to stay in the back. As the opening song began, I was surprised to find out that it was about mercy. (It is called "Hosea" and is based on verses from that book of the Bible. The first line is, "Come back to Me, with all your heart. Don't let fear keep us apart...")

Each of the biblical readings for the day carried the theme of mercy. First, Moses begs God to not destroy His people for being so "stiff-necked" (they had made a calf out of gold and were worshiping it while he was busy talking to God.) God listens to the prayer of Moses.  

Then, from Psalm 51, I heard these words:

Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.

Next, the words of St. Paul were read aloud , relating how he had been a blasphemer and arrogant persecutor of the church, but was mercifully treated. He wrote: 

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. 
Of these I am the foremost. 
But for that reason I was mercifully treated,
so that in me, as the foremost,
Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example
for those who would come to believe in him...

Finally, we heard the story of the Prodigal Son. It is one of the most famous of the parables told by Jesus: the younger son demands his inheritance from his father, squanders it foolishly and eventually comes home, asking to be treated only as well as his father's servants. And his father welcomes him, rejoicing that his son has come home safely.

All of these passages about mercy were set on the church calendar long ago but I hadn't known that when I started this Week of Mercy. A divine coincidence?

The priest spoke movingly of the mercy and love of God - I could not do justice to his words if I were to try to summarize them. But he emphasized a painting by Rembrandt portraying the merciful father of the parable. He encouraged us to look up the image online (or come to his confessional where there is a print of it hanging.). 

Here is the image:



Allow yourself to enter this image. See how the merciful father is holding his prodigal son's head to his heart... Allow yourself to be the son, receiving a loving welcome that you know you don't deserve. Hear your father's heart beating with excitement that you are home and let your tears mingle with his, as you are reunited at last. 

This is our loving God, waiting for us, longing to welcome us back into His heart. His heart which is our true home...

(Special thanks to Fr. Kevin whose homily inspired this post. Comments and contributions to this Week of Mercy are welcome and may be e-mailed to me at findhope@roadrunner.com)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Week of Mercy: Day 3



Yesterday evening, my camera and I went to the shores of Lake Erie (Edgewater Park) to watch the sun set. I was not disappointed. I had already decided to write yesterday's story about the ocean of mercy and this image was one of many I received. (Yes, that is a little boat out on the water.)

The late day sun had been brilliant, so bright I could hardly see to drive, even with sun glasses on. As the sun slowly slipped downward toward the horizon, the sky was painted with more and more swirls of light and glorious color. 

Tonight, with this image, I am posting an audio meditation, continuing the theme of the ocean of God's mercy. (To listen, click the play button on the player below.) It is intended to be restful and slow-moving, lasting just over 22 minutes. Caution: listening to this meditation may make you sleepy. :-) 

Many blessings as you rest in His mercy.




(I am also posting this audio file at my podcast site which you may access by clicking the "Listen to night prayer" link to the left. I hope to eventually have a small collection of restful audio reflections for you there.)

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Week of Mercy: Day 2


A story

I begin this story, realizing that it may, at first, seen alarming and not the sort of thing you would expect to find in a place like this. Yet it seems important to me that I begin from where I am. If I am scared, I must begin from the place of my fear. If I feel alone, then I begin from the point of my isolation. If I am despairing, I must begin from the center of my hopelessness. I cannot begin from a place where I am not.

My story starts with me finding myself in a little boat in the middle of the ocean. It is a tiny boat really and I am alone in it. My boat has no motor or sail; it does not even have oars. It is night time. When last there was light, I could see no land nor were there any other boats in sight in this part of the sea.

And now, a storm has arisen. The overcast sky leaves me without stars or moon to guide me and my only light is the occasional flash of lightening. The wind is gusting and the waves are growing. My little boat is rocking uncontrollably on the rough waters of the sea.

Do not ask how I came to be in this tiny boat in the middle of the ocean. I do not really know. All I know is that this is where I am now.




Between the sharp slivers of rain and the salty spray, I find myself growing cold and wet with no way to protect myself. The boat lists to one side as a huge wave pounds against it, almost capsizing my tiny vessel. I am frightened - no, I am terrified. I hear my heart pounding and the wind seems to have pulled the air from my lungs so that I can hardly breathe. My body trembles with cold and fear. I am alone.

"How could I have allowed this to happen to me?" I moan to myself. "Surely I must have done many things wrong to end up in such a predicament. I must be a fool." The despair in these words to myself turn to anger. "I am indeed a fool and I deserve to die! And surely I will out here in the ocean all alone."

Then, a Voice speaks.

"My frightened one," it says. "Don't be scared. I am here with you."

The Voice startles and confuses me. I do not recognize the Voice nor can I tell where it is coming from. I cannot see anyone. Could there be another boat out here?

"Who are you?" I hear myself croak, my voice hardly more than a whisper. "I cannot see anyone or anything."

"I am the One who made the earth and the sea and all that is in them," the Voice replied. "Don't be afraid. I'm here with you."

I look about, hoping to see a light in the inky darkness but there is none. I feel around with my hands. There is no one in the boat with me.

"How can I not be afraid?" I think to myself. "I am alone in a boat in the middle of the ocean. A terrible storm is surging around me and I haven't even got an oar! How can He tell me not to be afraid?"

As though hearing my thoughts, the Voice begins again.

"My frightened one. Fear not. Close your eyes and rest. For what you think is your boat is not really a boat at all. It is my hand. Trust me. I am holding you and you are safe."

As crazy as this sounds, I begin to feel it. What before felt like cold, damp wood beneath me begins feeling more like a soft, warm hand - a very large and gentle hand in which I begin to rest...I feel my heart slow down for the first time in hours and my breathing comes naturally once more.

I have almost drifted off to sleep and am startled back into wakefulness by a sharp bolt of lightening and a booming clap of thunder. I still feel His hand beneath me but the fear returns.

"How long can He hold me like this?" I wonder. "How long will He hold me and protect me? Perhaps He will grow tired and drop me in the sea - where I deserve to be. I am such a fool!"

Again, as though hearing my thoughts, the Voice speaks.

"Remember, my dear frightened one," it begins. "This is my sea, my ocean. I am the One who made it. My ocean is not a bad ocean. No, it is vast and wondrous beyond your imagining. It has no beginning and it has no end."

As I ponder these words, I find myself unable to comprehend how this ocean could be anything but terrible. Though resting in the hand, I still hear and feel its roaring and raging about me.

"If the ocean is not bad," I ask, becoming more accustomed to speaking into the darkness, "why does it rage at me so? Why can it not be a calm and tranquil sea upon which my boat can glide?"

Already, though resting in the hand, I have begun to doubt the part about my boat not really being a boat at all. I keep thinking that I will soon wake up and discover that the hand was just a dream and I am still alone in a cold, wet boat in the middle of the ocean.

"It is important for you to know how powerful my ocean is," the Voice replies. "If you did not know this, you might think that you were stronger than it is. You might think that you could create oars and sails and motors to conquer it and set your own direction in the sea."

"So it is no accident that I have no oars?!" I cry out without thinking. Again, I am wondering if I dare to truly trust this One who says He holds me. Why would He not want me to have at least a couple of oars, if not a sail or a motor?

"I think you want me out here without any oars because You plan to leave me here," I say accusingly. "I think You are just trying to win my trust and then You will remind me of how bad and stupid I am. And then You will leave," I conclude breathlessly.

"You really do not know where you are, do you?" the Voice asks gently. He waits, allowing His question to have its impact.

"This ocean," the Voice begins again. "This ocean is the ocean of My Mercy. It is vast, without beginning or end. It is more powerful than anything you have yet imagined, more powerful than anything you have done or could ever do. You can do no wrong that it cannot forgive, you can have no disease that it cannot heal."

Stunned, I consider these words. Something inside of me wants so much for this to be true. Could it be?

"How did I come to be here?" I ask Him. "I don't remember what I did to get here - but I figured it must have been something pretty bad for me to end up in such an awful place." I speak honestly, hoping He is not offended that I had considered His ocean an awful place.

"You have always been here," the Voice replies, using a softer tone. "You have always been here, in My hand, floating in the ocean of My Mercy."

He seems a bit sad as He continues, "You did not understand and so you became frightened and fought My gift to you. I have been trying to speak to you, to tell you not to be afraid. It was only today that at last you heard Me."

Gift? I look around. I have been so absorbed in what the Voice was saying that I have not noticed that the sea has stopped its roaring and the wind is but a gentle breeze. The darkness too no longer looks so very dark and the thunder and lightening have stopped.

Puzzled, I turn to Him, perceiving Him in the light growing on the horizon, "You made the ocean roar and rage and storm so that I would know its power. And now You have made it calm. I do not understand."

He waits before responding, His light glowing softly upon His ocean. "It was your storm that roared and raged, not mine. It was the storm of your doubt and anger and pain that overcame you with fear. It was only when you could let go of your storm and rest in Me that you were ready for the gentle power of My Mercy."

"Come," He says. "rest in My Mercy. You are safe now. You will always be safe and I will never let you go..."




(Comments and contributions for this Week of Mercy may be e-mailed to me at findhope@roadrunner.com) 


Friday, September 13, 2013

Week of Mercy: Day 1


Tonight begins the "Day of Atonement" (Yom Kippur) for our Jewish brothers and sisters. 

It strikes me as a very beautiful testimony that the day the children of Israel consider the holiest on their calendar is also the day on which they are called to repent and atone for sin. It speaks of their deep trust in God's love for His people, their deep trust in His mercy.

I had been considering that tonight I might begin the Week of Mercy (part of a series on the 7 holy pauses). When I remembered that this was the beginning of Yom Kippur, I knew that I must begin.

We are all called to change our hearts, to open them to Divine mercy, so that we might experience the fullness of the Love to which we are called.

It is hard to admit that we have done wrong. It is hard to ask for forgiveness with true humility and trust. It is hard to forgive ourselves - to allow ourselves the gift of mercy.

But think how much more beautiful, hopeful and peaceful our world would be if everyone everywhere tonight decided to devote the whole next day to the transformation of their hearts, to learning to forgive and be forgiven. It is a grace too wonderful to imagine. And yet we can...

I am also sharing with you this evening a beautiful painting sent by my friend Joy who explains for us its symbolism. She writes to us of mercy in the light of Christ. Yet it also fascinates me to see within her image a Star of David, as we reflect with our Jewish friends on their holy night.

 Wherever, whenever you read this, please join us on the path to Mercy...






























(Painting and reflections below by Joy Wiederkehr, reprinted with permission.)

"...the "Icon" symbolizes and describes my understanding of "mercy". It is Christ's love, His mercy upon the world that transforms His human existence completely into the basis of life: the Chalice and the Bread of Life.
His heart is a vivid flame of love, a love that surrounds his light-filled presence and ascends to heaven  (triangle pointing upwards). On the other hand "forces" Christ's humanity God's mercy and love down to earth (triangle pointing down)."


Saturday, September 7, 2013

Week of Grace: Day 7


After working much of the day at my office today, I decided to attend the 5:00 PM Mass at a nearby church. I was a bit taken aback when the opening hymn was "Amazing Grace". How striking that it was there to greet me on the final evening of this Week of Grace.

As happens with so many things that become overly-familiar with time, the powerful words of this hymn may not stir our notice anymore. However, a fresh meaning emerges from this verse when we consider the life story of John Newton, its author.

John's early life was not an easy one. His father was a shipping merchant and often away at sea. His mother died when he was 6, resulting first in a stepmother who was not interested in him and then a boarding school where he was mistreated. After an apprenticeship on his father's ship at age 11, he was pressed into service with the Royal Navy.

John was known as a rebellious and disobedient young man. He quite publicly renounced God as "myth" and became known for his extremely profane language. After deserting the Navy, he began working on slave trading ships, continuing his outlandish behaviors by mocking his captain and antagonizing his mates.

It was not until one very long and turbulent storm at sea, during which he witnessed another sailor washed overboard, that John found himself crying out to God for mercy.

He did not change his life immediately. It was still a few years before he left the slave trade and began his study of Christianity. Although the moment of his plea to God remained in his heart, he struggled with whether he could possibly be worthy of His mercy.

Once accepting that mercy, however, he proceeded to be ordained to ministry in the Church of England. Though not the most polished of speakers, he involved himself in the lives of the poor people he served and preached to them from his own experience as one who struggled with sin.

Let us now experience anew the hymn that shares with us how amazing God's grace truly is - from someone whose life was transformed by it...

(You may read the words below or, by clicking on the play button beneath the text, listen to me read the words to you in a meditative fashion.)

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

T'was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
'Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

When we've been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we've first begun.




(May you be blessed with this amazing grace, now and always, as we draw this special week to a close. Once again, I will take a brief break and then begin the Week of Mercy. Your comments and contributions are most welcome and may be e-mailed to me at findhope@roadrunner.com.)


Friday, September 6, 2013

Week of Grace: Day 6


"I may be too tired to write tonight," I thought, "I don't know if I can even think anymore."

My body and mind were both limp with exhaustion from a busy work day on top of post-migraine fatigue. Yet there was something in me that still wanted to try. Grace is not only a gift - it is a call.

Rodger, my spiritual brother, had sent me an image for this Week of Grace, and some words to inspire me. "Perhaps I could start there..." I considered. I asked God's blessings and began.

The picture Rodger sent was of a sand dollar lying on the beach, a common sight along the coast, but never seen here in the Midwest. I realized that I didn't even really know what a sand dollar is - and so I read a bit online.

I learned that what is found on the shore is the hard outer shell (or "test") of the once-living sea urchin that feeds on plankton on the ocean floor.

The sand dollar's life develops from the union of egg and sperm floating in the sea, resulting in a larva that swims on its own and may be carried for miles by ocean tides. No care is received from the parents who provide only their seed. The larva undergoes a series of metamorphoses before it develops its test. Some varieties of sand dollars apparently live for 8-10 years or more.

Reflecting on the lives of these creatures, it struck me how remarkable it is that they survive, given their perilous start. And yet they do - and each one grows and changes into a round, flat durable adult that bears no resemblance to its early larval life. And on the test of each sand dollar is a beautiful design that resembles the petals of a flower.

As I write this, I cannot help but think of how, in a very different way, we humans often experience perilous starts in life, are carried away by tides and even grow hard shells. And yet, compared to the sand dollar, a much more profound metamorphosis is offered to each of us - and that indeed is great grace.

Below is Rodger's sand dollar image and a short poem I wrote this evening, while reflecting on its life...


















(photo by Rodger, used with permission; editing and text by me)


it is time to let go –
to allow the turbulent sea
to take away the old self
and cast it on the shore.

it is time to be free –
to be washed of all that was
to be baptized into new life
by the ocean of His Love.

it is time to rise from darkness –
to leave the depths behind
to find a home in His great light
where grace and hope abound.