Reflection

beheld in the desert

camille-corot-hagar-in-the-wilderness-1835-oil-on-canvas

Camille Corot, Hagar in the Wilderness, 1835, oil on canvas.

Mental illness flung me into a desert last Lent. It wasn’t a desert I planned to enter for piety’s sake—not a safe desert and not a desert I could find my way out of when it got too hard.

I called it a desert because I wanted to find meaning in what I was suffering. I wanted to believe that the Spirit had flung me out there like he flung Jesus after his baptism, and that, after some pain and struggle, I’d come out victorious and find that the season had a purpose. I wanted to write a good story.

But I quickly realized that the metaphor wasn’t romantic. The desert was cruel and incoherent. I still can’t wrestle a narrative out of it. And I certainly came to no victory on my own.

Most of the time my thoughts were abusing me in the pit of the netherworld. On rare occasions, they’d swing me up to a height where I’d wonder why I’d ever thought anything was wrong with me. Neither world told the truth. So I couldn’t trust my thoughts. Even my therapist told me to distract myself from them. Prayer and reflection, the two things that keep me grounded in myself and God, weren’t safe anymore. I didn’t know who I was, and I couldn’t see God either.

Imagine bringing that wounded, estranged self out in public. I felt like a leper. I spread shame wherever I went. And at home, my instability brought out latent sins and magnified others till I’d never felt so dirty and so powerless to become clean.

I kicked against the meaninglessness of the desert. I fought for a story. And I came up with nothing.

I did nothing, and something changed.

God entered my imagination, toward the end of the forty days, and I saw myself in the presence of the Father. I was dirty, wounded, naked—and yet covered from head to toe in tender love. I could stand in that loving presence fully exposed, and yet fully at peace with myself. That love stilled my questions and my search for meaning. It was the Answer and the Satisfaction. And in the stillness it brought, I found the freedom to truly lament.

That Sunday, I sang the Kyrie like it was a wail—and I saw Jesus look at me. I was in the crowd watching him on the dusty road to Golgotha, and he stopped, and turned, and looked into my eyes—oh, the gaze of my Lord—and I looked into his. In that brief beholding I knew he was there in all my suffering, and he felt the pain of it too. Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.

The desert didn’t end there, but it was changed. I didn’t experience a dramatic healing; I couldn’t write a story of triumph. But I could say with Hagar that “I have seen the One who sees me.” And I have seen that he is good.

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Poem

father god

Out of the drowning depths I felt
strong arms bundle me up,
hold me close.

Was this the one I love? He too
had gone under and I
was afraid.

Into my fear, a voice: “I’m safe.”
I sensed the warmth and strength
in his embrace and knew
it was true.

But I am also safe for him,
like an infant daughter
in his arms is safe. A
tender safe.

Safe enough for him to whisper
of how he so loved me
to send his only son—
whom I love—to fetch me
from the deep.

They share the heart that beats as I
cling tightly to his breast.
Father God.

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Reflection

the last alleluia

The last alleluia came and went, quietly.† When I caught it, it startled me: a sudden loss. The moment felt heavy and solemn. I knew that I must turn my face toward Jerusalem with Jesus and not look back.

I’ve never felt a true desire to make a change for Lent before, but this time I knew that I could not do anything else.

The word faithfulness has been on my mind for the past few weeks, perhaps a gift-word whispered by the Lord himself. When I first heard the word I knew it was a deep desire of mine: Faithfulness to the kingdom of God. Faithfulness to my dear Lord Jesus.

I have little faithfulness. When I’m weary, worn, and sad, I lose it. I let hours and days slip by in aimlessness. I forget my prayers. I forget who I am.

What if I pattern my life on the faithfulness of Jesus? I remember him forty days hungry but still holding fast to the word of God and his identity. I remember him on the road to Jerusalem, each step growing heavier until he stops and turns and warns his friends that he’s going toward his death. Can you imagine the effort it took to walk for hours and days toward that? Weary, worn, sad, faithful.

When I’m weary, worn, and sad, I make the couch my home. I settle down and let the clutter of life rise around me. Foxes have dens, Jesus said. Birds have nests. But the son of man has nowhere to lay his head. When the last alleluia came, I knew I’d have to leave all of it behind to follow him.

But how do I get from the last alleluia to the first? I don’t know. Not by my faithfulness in the end. It’s a mystery of grace, and it’s so sweet. It’s why I call him my dear Lord Jesus: he loves me enough to invite me into his faithfulness and he gives me his faithfulness when I don’t have enough. No matter what happens in the forty days to come, I know I’ll be his, and he’ll be mine, even if he has to carry me all the way. Thank you, Jesus.

†During Lent, we do not speak the word alleluia. It’s restored to us with much joy on resurrection day.

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Reflection

a soul’s winter

Carolannie/Flickr creative commons

trees arching over creek: Carolannie/Flickr Creative Commons

Two weeks ago I visited a nearby park I’d only yet explored in winter. I knew it as a quiet path with full view of frozen streams, rocky beds, bare branches, and dry, pale plumes of grass. This time, it was new. Twisting tangles of leafy things now veiled swollen banks and birds of all colors and songs. It was a wild place, and alive.

I had been waiting and looking for spring, but spring surprised me. I hadn’t expected the world to erupt with life. I had forgotten about frogs and crickets and birds and all the noise they make. I didn’t yet know how velvety the spruce trees look in the morning sun when surrounded with the sharp green of a newly leafed forest. The texture and variety of green in spring tells me something about abundant life, about the way the Spirit calls forth glory from the dead.

My soul has been in winter for many months. I had been waiting for a change of seasons—from Lent to Eastertide—expecting that Resurrection Sunday would plunge me into a rush of resurrection joy, a swollen, bubbling stream of springtime mirth. But this year, as we passed through Holy Week into Eastertide, nothing changed. I was deeply disappointed.

I came to the cross this Holy Week a mess of unmet needs. I was exhausted and desperate and expecting God to make me whole. But I got hurt there instead—not by my beloved Jesus, but by someone presuming to hear from him. And what I actually received from the Lord was not healing but an even greater awareness of a particular need I have—it was ringing in my ears. I felt a tender sweetness bidding me (oh the dear presence), but I couldn’t linger feeling so raw. I left Holy Week wounded and empty, and winter raged on.

Week after week, I fought for spring. I felt that God would be there, if only I could find it, find him. I wore a smile and a laugh like a tree that holds on to its withered leaves for too long. What tree makes spring for itself?

Hours before I visited the park I was sitting in church, alone. I had been scheduled to serve Eucharist that morning, but I skipped out. I was too exhausted. I knew I must rest. That day in church, I admitted the futility of making spring for myself. There in the pew, I breathed in deep and let myself ache.

Jesus was there, breathing deep too. I felt him invite me into his rest. We could hibernate together for the winter, just him and me. We could breathe slow breaths together. He would be enough.

That day at the park, immersed in a green and growing world, I saw myself in the trees and I understood. If I would feel the glory of sunshine filtered through newly unfurled leaves, I must open my hands and let my withered, rattling leaves fall. I must let winter be winter. Here, in winter, I will cease my striving for abundant life. I will rest. For rest is what the Lord has been offering me all along.

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Reflection

a gentle fever

I’ve been working through a particularly difficult issue in therapy for the past few weeks, and on Saturday, I got a glimpse of my brokenness and my inadequacy to solve the problem. Seeing myself in that state was like a cold that shocks the lungs. I was disoriented and hurting and didn’t know how I could keep on.

When I’m especially tired or lost, I struggle with self-contempt, and I was struggling with it on Monday like I hadn’t ever before. I kept crying out to God, “Be gentle to me,” as if God were the one harming me rather than I. But he heard me.

Early Tuesday morning, around 3:30 a.m., I woke up suddenly in a sweat with my sinuses full and a sore throat. Sick. I prayed, as I often do when sick, for healing. But it wasn’t a humble prayer. I was exasperated, and I let God know it. My last cold was less than two weeks ago, and I was still getting over it, and I’ve been sick so much this winter that I’ve actually run out of sick days. I’m at the limit of my emotional strength, and now my body is weakened again. How would I make it through the work week?

I knew that God heard my complaint—I felt his kindness toward me—and I also understood then that he wasn’t going to heal me overnight. It’s not that God doesn’t hear me or doesn’t care; he has actually chosen to heal me immediately of my petty illnesses before. This has taught me that in whatever God chooses to do, I should always expect him to be there with me, somehow, in the midst of my simple hurts. I should always watch for God.

On Tuesday, despite the fever that kept me up most of the night, I was able to work, just a little slower and spacier than usual. What was more of a surprise was that all my self-contempt had gone, and I was in a good mood. God knows that I’m much more kind and patient with myself when I’m sick, and it was this sickness that was God’s way of being gentle to me, and of prodding me to be more gentle with myself in seasons of mental sickness. In this strange way, I’ve carried the warmth of God’s love in my gently sick body.

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Reflection

Gently, God Chastens the One He Loves

It started the day before our house blessing party. Eddy and I had moved to a lovely apartment in Glen Ellyn two months before, and we had been looking forward to finally breaking our home in with friendship and prayer and food. I had been scrambling all week to put some finishing touches on our walls: quotes and pictures that are meaningful to me, a shower curtain that wasn’t disgusting. And my painting of the Christ of Divine Mercy.

I’ve been working on this painting since last January. It’s been a prayerful process, and although I’ve never tried to paint on canvas before, I’ve been surprised by the beauty and power of the image. I believe that it has been a gift from God. But on this day before our house blessing, it wasn’t quite finished, and I was desperately forcing it to be. It was as if I would seize this gift for myself like the forbidden fruit of the tree—before God’s good timing—so that I could be my own god. And I heard God say, “Don’t hang the painting.” I finished a few strokes and let it dry and then hid it away in the closet. I understood why, I thought; I was too proud. But I didn’t fully understand yet. That painting was only one precious piece of a mosaic I had been crudely fashioning for my own self-glorification—a mosaic that God was about to shatter (and begin to reassemble).

The next morning, Eddy and my brother and I went to church, and I was cut to the heart by the sermon. “You can’t serve God and mammon,” Jesus said. Father Stewart explained that mammon is a worldview of acquiring for our own security, opposed to the posture of receiving life and all our needs from God. Because life is so fragile, so uncertain, we all place our faith in something for a sense of security. Father Stewart rattled off examples of the things we tend to grasp at for our own security. What took me by surprise was this: “Beauty,” he said. “I don’t simply mean being good looking or acquiring someone who is good looking. I mean it more deeply. You have a deep need for beauty. You’re trying to acquire that beauty, perhaps through a home or an apartment, through a particular way of living, through food. You’re trying to acquire beauty. You want beauty.” I saw myself precisely as in a mirror and I grew weak inside.

Father Stewart described life under the mammon faith-system—my life. “In the mammon faith-system,” he said, “your goal is to acquire, secure, on your own. You have to become good at acquiring, because—here’s the deal—everyone in the mammon faith system is trying to acquire too. . . . If you’re doing well, you’re able to develop constant and regular high praise from those around you. You have to have that in the mammon system, because when you’re living by performance and acquiring, you’re never quite sure if you’ve done enough; you never have much sense of where you are in the system. You build your life on praise received. Criticism is an utter crisis in the mammon system.”

I was headed into a crisis. We went back home and finished preparing for the house blessing party. I watched myself grasp at security through artful food and drink and a home that was beauty-full with the presence of God. I saw that I actually wanted to use the presence of God in my home as a means for my own sense of glory and transcendence. It was devastating.

And then, so few friends actually showed up. It hurt, oh it hurt, not just because I felt forgotten, but because I depended on the presence and praise of others to validate my self-glorification project. And I was so busy mentally processing everything that had happened that in the end I wasn’t present with anyone there. Although I was thankful for the prayers of our friends, my heart was not in the house blessing anymore. It was a human home, and the food turned out to be just human food; no one bowed down and worshiped me for it. I knew that God meant to show me all this about myself, but I was laid bare, and later, I was angry. Why now, God? Didn’t you want our house to be blessed?

My anger spilled over onto Eddy that week and I sunk into a kind of depression. What began my redemption, though I still ached, was spending Thanksgiving with friends who love us. I needed to humbly receive hospitality and to see what a humble offer of welcome looks like. On Sunday at church Matt Woodley’s sermon enabled me to imagine myself like a disciple who had run away and could now share a breakfast of fish on the beach with Jesus. I knew that though I had betrayed God, God was not finished with me yet, and it gave me hope. One day that week I shared hot cocoa and making paper snowflakes with my coworkers; it was cheering. I needed to create something simple and humble with my hands and to feel part of everyday friendships again. I knew that all of this was from God, and it started healing me again.

On Saturday, I told my story to a friend, and she asked good questions. It was a confession before God, and it was something good. I was truly grieved and ready to repent, but I was stuck on how I could learn again to desire God for God’s sake and not for some other selfish end.

The next morning, I went to church in the stupor of a cold, and I was too tired to pay attention. When it was time to receive the Eucharist, I zombied through it. My body remembered to cup my hands in a posture of receiving, and my mouth remembered to say “amen,” but I was not very conscious of what I was doing. When I returned to my seat, I noticed that something had changed inside of me. I realized that I felt Jesus there, embracing me. I have never felt anything better than being with him. I was exultant. The joyous love of God was bubbling up inside of me, and I was so happy, because Jesus is so good. Oh my Lord Jesus, he is so good. And that’s how I knew I could desire God again for God’s sake—as a gift to be received.

And, with thanks to God, this is not the end of the story of our home. Now, more than ever, I am confident that God greatly desires to fill our home and our hearts with the gift of God’s presence. Perhaps not climactically, but in small, humble, human ways, through friendship, shared meals and prayers, and when the time comes, a painting of our beloved Christ.

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Note

dear friends II

A few weeks ago, Eddy and I attended a prayer meeting at church called RezFast (though, I had not fasted), in which we prayed together in small groups for Holy Week. At one point, Father Stewart invited us to pray for healing: spiritual healing, emotional healing, physical healing. It fell upon me in my small group to pray for physical healing. As you may know, my body has been sort of a wreck in the past few years, and I’d often wished for healing of this sort. But physical healing was on the fringes of my worldview, so when I prayed, I only had the courage to pray for an increase of faith in our church to ask for and to receive physical healing.

That prayer worked in me over the next week, and while I was praying on Maundy Thursday, miracle of miracles, I felt an invitation from the Lord to ask for the healing of my food allergies. In the past few months, those allergies have been increasingly difficult to deal with. Food prices had gone up a lot and I had started reacting to things I had been able to eat before. I was walking around every day feeling hungry, and I was tired.

So on Maundy Thursday, I felt this invitation from the Lord to ask for healing, and when I asked, I felt this great freedom to ask, and I felt good about asking, as if I had done the right thing. Now, I had asked for healing for this issue before, but it was always like, “God, please heal me through this diet, or these pills.” I had believed in some way that God could heal me but I did not believe that he would, especially without any work on my part. This was different.

But since I was not experienced at listening to the Lord in prayer, that prayer left me bewildered and unsure. So I asked again on Good Friday, and then again on Holy Saturday, and in spite of my doubts, only grew in confidence that this was from the Lord.

But how would I know, other than by eating? When I ate wheat, my belly would swell up and get uncomfortable and I would lose my appetite for a few days. Cow’s milk was much more miserable. I had developed an aversion to dairy products.

So I decided that on Easter Sunday lunch, I would eat a dinner roll. I ate one with my lunch, and it tasted very good. I felt my stomach fill up, I felt my food digest, and then I felt hungry again! A wonderful feeling! But I still wasn’t certain. That night I ate two malted milk balls from our Easter egg hunt, all the while praying “Lordhavemercy, lordhavemercy, lordhavemercy,” and I woke up in the middle of the night and felt my sinus allergies and a little pain in my guts, and I was sad. Lord, I am such a fool, I thought. But when I woke in the morning, all was well, so I decided to try again. I ate two slices of whole wheat toast, and waited, and felt good, and felt hungry again. Later, I tried more Easter candy, and I wasn’t afraid.

In the morning, I resolved to end the experiment by eating something that should have truly hurt me, Greek yogurt, full of milk protein.  I felt like the Lord was telling me, “Eat! Eat! Enjoy!” So I brought out Eddy’s tub of Greek yogurt and I got myself a big ol’ scoop, and I ate. I waited, and waited, and paced the apartment, and waited, and nothing happened! So I ate half a pizza that night, and when I woke up in the morning, my stomach was my own, less bloated than on most mornings, and I gave thanks to God, and started calling my family. I have truly been healed from nearly seven years of food allergies, frustrating mishaps and a limited diet, and I am so free to enjoy the good world God has made. (Ricotta cheese! Milkshakes! French bread!) And praise God, I have not been hungry  and I have felt a new sense of well being and energy!

I have tasted a tiny, tiny, but glorious bit of resurrection life. What a beautiful, delightful gift this Easter! Give thanks to God with me!

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Reflection

thoughts on holy saturday

I walked away from the Good Friday service last night with a goofy grin on my face. It was the same kind of goofy grin I wore on the day after my wedding. The privilege of intimacy brings an uncontainable joy. This Good Friday, I received what I had been dreaming of all year, and maybe, in some way, all my life. I received the privilege of bowing before the cross.

The cross is the symbol God chose out of all things in the world to display his glory. I have fallen so short of the glory of God. These past few days, I have realized, predictably, that I am so much less like the woman who anointed Jesus than the disciples who fell away when things got tough. Holy Week is only a microcosm of the whole year, and of all of life; how can I be that dear woman now, when I have been those disciples all along? And on these, most holy of all days, I’ve felt the grumpiness of my soul, and my selfishness. When I arrived at church, on Thursday, and on Friday, I knew that I had nothing to give. No costly perfume, no tears. I’ve fallen so short of even a faithful human being, let alone the glory of the Faithful Human Being. But this is the very power of the cross.

It is God’s power in the cross by which that gap was bridged, is being bridged, and will (amen) finally be bridged. In the cross I find God’s power to restore me to himself. Only by his death on the cross, and my death there, will we finally be united in new, glorious life. So the cross is the very power of God.  At the cross, his blood and water anoint me, and I am accepted, called beautiful.

I understood this last night, and could hardly bear the wait for my turn to embrace the wood of the cross. I cried in my seat, just imagining it, yearning for it. And finally, after watching hundreds and hundreds kneel before the cross, they released my row. I ran down the steps, beaming, and joined the line, and I sang the songs a little too loudly. I made it to the cross, and I knelt there, and I took up too much room, because I pressed my face against it rather than just a hand, and I knelt there, and felt the presence of God. No words, no tears, no costly perfume, just me and the glory of God that I’ve so longed to meet again—his love, his joy, his peace—anointing me. The only, the best place on earth. And I kissed the wood at the foot of the cross, and walked back to my seat, overjoyed and triumphant. Yes, by his cross, I can be the dear woman who kissed his feet.

All my life, I thought that the day my knees would bow before Christ and confess him as Lord would come at some eschatological moment. But I did not dream that Christ is present, even now, and that I may bow before him, here. A real, physical bow before the living Christ. The cross is the window through which I behold the crucified God, and the place at which I kneel before him. I know that I must make it my practice to daily kneel before the cross, the glory of God. How else will I attain it?

And now, it’s Saturday, a day to rest, a day to reflect. Today we wait. But this waiting is unlike the first. We’ve already read the end of story, and we know how it ends (or, begins). We do not huddle together in a closed room out of fear. We wash our faces, and don clean clothes. We enjoy the sunshine and the warmth of this spring day. Our waiting is in anticipation, even joy, because we heard his words: It is finished. And we know, a new thing will begin.

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