God has a way, even if I can’t see it

My first spiritual reading for 2021 is William A. Meninger’s The Loving Search for God.

This book consists of bite sized reflections on contemplative prayer. For the past half dozen chapters, he has been reflecting on Jesus reciting Ps. 22 on the cross. Grappling with the collision of despair and trust in God contained in that psalm.

How do these two conflicting realities coexist? Meninger points to 12-step programs. People often have to hit bottom before they can start going up. And when you’re in that “bottom,” like Jesus on the cross, your faith in God’s salvation has no form. It’s just trust that God has a way through this muckfest, even if you can’t see what it is.

“Misery was so great he was not able even to imagine what that salvation would consist in,” Meninger says.

When I read these words, I literally caught my breath for a moment. Because that is precisely what I’ve been feeling for the past few months, as the world seems to burn around me. Where is salvation in this situation? Where is the way forward, when anger and division are so great that we can’t even agree on what constitutes “truth” and “lie”?

And oddly (or perhaps not so oddly), there is comfort in knowing that this is when God really shows power through our weakness. Because God can make a way where there isn’t one. There’s comfort in the reassurance that God can use the worst failures of humanity to awaken the collective conscience and bring us, well… closer, anyway, to on track.

Come, Lord Jesus.

A new word for the year

Every year around mid-December, I begin praying over what God wants me to focus on as a spiritual goal for the new year. This year, more than ever before, I was aware that the word cloud of “words of the year” from the last several years all point in a single direction; they are different facets of a single reality I continue to struggle with.

Discovering enneagrams last year shed a lot of light on myself. To be a #1—a crusader—is by definition to be dissatisfied, to be always striving, and always focused on what stands in need of betterment.

I thought, first, “Maybe it’s time to cycle back through the last several years’ words.”

Then I thought, “Maybe it’s time to turn my attention elsewhere. Maybe ‘love’ would be an appropriate new focus.

But then my husband took my hand when we got in bed the other night and said, “Are you happy with your life?”

And as I looked inward I saw the restless discontent inside, and I knew my first instinct had been the right one.

Only it turns out there’s another facet to explore, another way to approach this long-standing spiritual goal of mine, and so that’s where I will focus this year: #contentment.

Do you set yourself a focus for each year? If so, share here so we can pray for each other!

Be Still

I am overwhelmed with busy work right now and as I was praying this morning, I came to the realization that something has to give right now. Killing myself to write posts about how to be faithful and enter into Advent is kind of silly. So I will “show” instead of “tell,” as we say in fiction world, and take one thing off my plate for the duration of Advent. See you after the first of the year.

Background Image by Andreas Lischka from Pixabay

Fear and Faith, Part 1

An exchange earlier this week on Instagram got me thinking about the relationship between fear and faith. Over the years I’ve pondered this quite a bit, so rather than try to write it again, it makes more sense simply to re-share things I’ve written before on the topic.

The first reflection was originally written in August of 2011.

Photo by Alexander Krivitskiy on Pexels.com

My freshman year of high school, a non-denominational organization called Youth For Christ rocketed into prominence. I thought that meant it was for all Christians, and indeed, it seemed to cross boundaries. The most popular kids in school and plenty of the invisible majority walked the hallways wearing snappy black T shirts that proclaimed, “Jesus loves U2. Jesus: if you still haven’t found what you’re looking for.”

One night they brought in a high-powered speaker. They filled up a large room with teenagers: in folding chairs, standing at the edges and the back. I don’t remember much about the talk itself, except that it scared me. It was about “almosters,” people who are almost good enough for Heaven, but not quite, and who thus will burn in fiery damnation for all eternity.

I started thinking of my faults, of the sacrament of Reconciliation, and what would happen if I forgot to confess something. I got more and more scared…but alongside the terror grew another, quieter sense of discomfort, one I couldn’t put words to.

Then came The Altar Call. You know: “If you want to profess Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior, get up and go to the back, where we have people waiting to speak with you.” And suddenly, the shuffling chairs, the whispers and sniffles and scraping sneakers all around me, made me realize something that cut the legs from beneath the fear.

We were being manipulated. Manipulated, in the name of religion.

That moment of clarity changed everything. I sat in my hard folding chair with my eyes closed, my arms folded, and prayed. Prayed that I wasn’t imposing my will on God’s. That if this was truly from God, that I would be open to it, even if it felt wrong. I kept praying as the speaker backed off his altar call: if you feel like you want to make the profession, but you need help to do it…if you feel moved, but need more information…if you simply want to ask questions…

At this point, I felt a stab of disgust. I realized he wasn’t going to be satisfied until the room was empty, until every person had gone to get “saved.” And I knew, with absolute certainty, that this wasn’t how God worked.

I sneaked a peek. The holdouts were me and one other girl—also Catholic. At this last, shameless call, she gave in.

I did not.

When it was all over, the last holdout and I went to the leaders to express our displeasure with how non-inclusive this experience was, and asked if we could bring in somebody to offer another perspective on being not quite good enough for Heaven. Oh, no, they said, we’re not going to get into doctrines of individual denominations. That’s how you tear groups like this apart. I hadn’t really expected a Protestant to buy in to the idea of Purgatory, but still, it irked. It wasn’t until hours later that I realized why: their entire presentation represented a sliver of Christianity, and not the whole.

I never went back.

It’s tempting to impose the more mature faith of my thirties on my fourteen-year-old self. Of course I didn’t have it worked out then like I do now, just as I’ll have it worked out better when I’m sixty than I do today. But I do believe that experience sensitized me to emotional manipulation in the name of God. Maybe that’s why my TEC (Teens Encounter Christ) two years later fell so flat, and made me so suspicious of retreats in general: that entire weekend felt like a giant emotional manipulation.

I know that many people have found their faith bolstered by such experiences. No doubt true conversions have happened off of altar calls employing fear tactics. God can use any circumstance to achieve His purposes.

But mostly, I think it harms Christianity. Because when you get back out into the real world, that amazing little thing called intellect kicks in, and you start to see the flaws. You realize that you’ve been manipulated. And then what? What saves a fledgling faith when it realizes it is based on manipulation?

Something Different

Like all of us, I would imagine, I had a very busy summer planned–virtually all of which has been canceled. One thing that was not canceled, but instead moved online, is the national convention for pastoral musicians (NPM). This was to be my first time presenting, and all the presentations are going forward, albeit in a different format.

For the past several weeks, I have been working with fellow Catholic composers Janèt Sullivan Whitaker (“In Every Age”) and Sarah Kroger (“In the Silence”)to prepare a women’s retreat. While the retreat was originally intended as an in-person, one-day event for convention-goers, moving it online has given us the chance to open up participation to women of many interests from across the country. How cool is that?

The Women’s Retreat has a $40 fee and will meet for one hour each on May 21 & 22 (4-5 p.m. Eastern) and two hours May 23rd (1-3 p.m. Eastern) over–what else?–Zoom!

Sarah , Janèt and I, along with the amazing Berta Sabrio, will be breaking open the topics of “Encounter; Named and beloved; Call/Mission.” I hope you can join us!

Please feel free to share. We’d love to have as many Catholic women participate as possible. This link takes you to registration–it is the link for registration for the NPM convention, so to register only for the women’s retreat, click “not a current member” and go to the second page, where the last option at the bottom of the page is “register for pre-convention events in May and June only.” From there you’ll be able to choose the women’s retreat.

It’s going to be a great event. Hope to see many of you there!

Adoration and blessing with Pope Francis

No doubt most of us experienced this already, but just in case, I wanted to make sure I shared it. I wasn’t able to watch live, but I used it as my morning prayer this morning and it was a very emotional and beautiful experience.

How Glorious

It is peak color where I live. Every year at this time, I go crazy with my DSLR. Today seems like a good time to share the beauty that is God’s creation–the glimpse of God’s goodness and beauty and creativity that comes as the world is preparing to settle into its long winter rest. How can we see such glory and not feel, in our bones, the responsibility that comes with being the crowning of creation?

Yay God!

(Note: as I noted late last week, I am celebrating my 20th anniversary this week with a trip with my husband. As you can imagine, a work-at-home mother of 4 trying to pull off an anniversary trip means a LOT of logistical planning, so this week I’m sharing, with minor edits, a post originally published on my personal blog in 2009. To understand it, you need to know that my daughter Julianna has Down syndrome. At the time this was written, she was a toddler. This is one of my all-time favorite spiritual lessons learned from my children.)

It happened for the first time over the Fourth of July weekend. We were staying with my in-laws, and Julianna’s cousins sat on the floor with her and played “Pat-a-Cake.” They showed her the motions and chanted the little ditty in unison, and about the time they reached “put it in the oven for…” Julianna would erupt in a long, loud yell and clap her hands, showing every one of her teeth. The girls did the rhyme over and over, and Julianna never let them down. Every single time, she overlapped the last line with a shout of joy. (I can’t call it a squeal, because that word connotes something much higher-pitched, and Julianna’s is a dusky alto voice.)

In the last six weeks, that fresh, unsophisticated reaction has become one of our favorite things about life with our daughter. It makes us laugh, but not for the reason you think. Yes, it’s funny and cute, but there’s a pure, unadulterated joy in that reaction that never fails to evoke a sympathetic resonance in our own souls. All children find joy in simple things, but it’s more pronounced in Julianna, because of the unevenness of her development. Her body’s skill level is, oh, let’s call it fourteen months; her speech is even farther behind than that—but her emotional level, her understanding, is much closer to her true age of 2 ½. So the things she reacts to are far ahead of her ability to express.

We had pizza one night, and she yelled and clapped to show how excited she was.  My husband caught on quickly. He began to encourage her, saying, “Yay for the pizza!” Julianna learned her cue so well that her daddy progressed to “Yay for the ice cream!”

She’s unbearably cute about it. She grins so hard, her eyes squint; she yells, claps her hands, and looks around to make sure everybody is taking as much pleasure in the moment as they ought to be.

One morning last week, as I was out running and soaking in the wonder of a beautiful sunrise, I found myself smiling and saying, “Yay, God!” And it hit me: this is the meaning of praise. The psalms are full of “praise God!” Somewhere along the line I remember learning that prayer should be first praise, then thanks, and only after that petition. I have always been confused by the difference between praise and thanks. Aren’t they one and the same? What words do you use to praise God? Eventually I came to the conclusion that “praise” is one of those “effective” words—a word that has no meaning except its own utterance—a word that accomplishes its meaning simply by the act of being spoken, like “I baptize you” or “I forgive you.”

But Julianna has taught me a deeper truth: that praise is not about words at all. It’s about opening yourself up to the moment, delighting in what you experience, and allowing the knowledge of the One Who made it possible to intensify the joy.

Stuff ≠ Joy

EG-blunted conscience

Sometimes it feels like railing against consumerism has become downright cliché. But things become cliché for a reason. Here’s another cliché: when we spend hours picking out a host of presents for a kid, spend a ton of money on it, and what they find most interesting is the box. We all recognize the truth of that one! It’s happened to all of us, right?–your kids are given gifts and they’re like, “Yeah, whatever, what’s next?” As a parent, it makes you writhe with shame. Too bad we aren’t so aware when we do that ourselves….

#joy #evangeliigaudium #intentionalcatholic #realfaithrealworld #faithinaction #catholic