In the spring of the year in small towns in Kansas ladies often gather in church basements for their annual salad luncheon. This event summons forth the culinary creativity of the local community. Here you may find things done to beets and broccoli, which no respectable vegetable or fruit would ever dream of. Featured ingredients of these marvels include Jell-O, cool whip, Eagle brand condensed milk, and cherry pie filling.
The salads, spread out over several tables, accented with canning jars of lilacs, are something to behold, maybe, for some, even to kneel before. Chicken salad, cucumber salad, pasta salad, bean salad, and seven layered pea salad are served in big bowls and platters. Rainbow colored Jell-O salads hold bits of carrots, celery, fruit and nuts under layers of cream cheese and shredded cabbage.
After the meal, the women clear the tables, refill the glasses of ice tea, and settle back to listen to the guest speaker from out of town.
On one of these occasions over twenty five years ago I was that out of town guest speaker. This fact alone made me an expert on something which these women already knew plenty about: prayer.
So this is how I came to be finishing up my cranberry fluff salad, as my hostess was introducing me. I began to pray, as was my custom, “Lord, what do you want me to tell the people?” This was the prayer I often prayed as I prepared sermons and presentations. Though this prayer was part of my preparation long before my actual presentation, I would check in with God just before I began speaking in case there were any updates.
After I prayed, what I had always heard in the silence of my heart was, “Tell the people that I love them.” Okay, I would think. I can roll with this. Over the years, God was very consistent in the direction: “Here’s the word, sweetie, tell the little boogers I love em. They still need to hear it.”
So it was, that as my hostess was reading off my credentials to the ladies and I was wiping the crumbs from my mouth, I asked my question, what do you want me to tell the people?
And God said:
Tell the people that I miss them.
This post marks the one hundredth post of the Praying Life Blog. Over the past two years, I have been attempting to tell you this in various ways. This post gives it to you straight:
God misses you. God longs for you, pines for you, walks the floor at night for you. God throws himself down on the ground weeping for you. God slumps on the couch, drowning his sorrow, eating three cartons of Haagen-Dazs rocky road ice cream for you.
God misses you.
A whole lot.
This is what you must write to the angel of the church in Ephesus:
I am the one who holds the seven stars in my right hand, and I walk among the seven gold lamp stands. Listen to what I say.
I know everything you have done, including your hard work and how you have endured. I know you won’t put up with anyone who is evil. When some people pretended to be apostles, you tested them and found out that they were liars. You have endured and gone through hard times because of me, and you have not given up.
But I do have something against you!
And it is this:
You don’t have as much love as you used to. Revelation 2: 1-4
It snowed pear blossoms here in Kansas this week. Tiny white petals floated down like confetti and drifted into the corners of my patio. They festooned the back of my black lab, Elijah, and rode into my kitchen stuck to the soles of my shoes.
The pear flurries crept up on us quickly and then were over. All week I planned to stand under the tree and gaze up through that lacy veil to the branched blue sky above. When I finally went out to behold this beauty, the green shoots of leaves were already pushing off the petals and the moment was over.
Dripping with blossoms, the tree was stunning in the sun, lifting her arms like a bride to her beloved. Then, impetuously, she dropped her gown, sending her skirts floating past my windows.
Watching the petals fall on the lawn, I remembered the poem my mother read to me one spring, years ago.
The Pear Tree
In this squalid, dirty dooryard,
Where the chickens scratch and run,
White, incredible, the pear tree
Stands apart and takes the sun,
Mindful of the eyes upon it,
Vain of its new holiness,
Like the waste-man’s little daughter
In her first communion dress.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1919
Spring comes like a sudden lump in the throat, a sharp stab to the heart, a pear blossom falling too soon. Beauty does that to us. Beauty, a thing we cannot possess, or control, belongs, finally, to the Creator. The waste-man’s little daughter will outgrow her communion dress. She will move past her vanity and grow into holiness, as her girlish charm gives way to the inner radiance of the Bread of Life she takes between her lips.
Like the woman of Bethany, hastening through the streets with her perfume for the beautiful Savior, soon to die, spring spills her treasures over us, and then is gone. The pear tree blooms for a week. Too soon her splendor falls softly, grows transparent, yellows, and dries in the cracks of the sidewalk.
Last week I saw a man with a pear blossom petal caught in his eyebrow. He wore it, perched like a tiny cap, over the arch above his spectacles.
I would like to be so baptized with pear blossoms. May you each have your transcendent moment in the sun, and see yourself as the stunning beauty you are.
Ought we not always be pouring the priceless gift of our attentive love on every particle of this world? Ought we not be running recklessly through the streets and fields, smitten and ravished? We, here so briefly, so soon to be released and blown to rest in the softly greening grass, are surely born to be pierced through by such beauty and spendthrift love.
Are not we here for this above all reasons:
to lift our arms like brides,
and to wear the kiss of God upon our brows?
Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Matthew 26: 6-13 (NIV)
Posted in Contemplation, prayer, faith, God, Lent
Tagged beauty, communion, Easter, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Kansas, Matthew 26: 6-13, Pear, spring
At first glance he wasn’t all that attractive, a little too rough and edgy for me. He wore a nice pair of pants, but his shoes were beat up and had a hole in one toe. He had a scruffy beard, neatly trimmed nails, and a smart fedora tilted over one eye. He staggered slightly and stumbled once, as he approached. Tall, lean, all angles and contradiction, he gave off a raw, muscular energy that seemed both sinister and alluring.
He looked in some ways like the type of kid, who back in the 50’s would wear his hair slicked back in a ducktail and carry his cigarettes rolled up in his tee shirt sleeve. The fact that he had been eyeing me for some time made me nervous in a kind of silly, excited, middle school way.
He was definitely not my type. Besides I have long passed the era of swaggering boys and dangerous glances. Yet he was coming straight toward me, with a lazy, loping walk, totally at ease with himself and his own incongruity.
His eyes seemed older than his body. Compassionate and understanding, his gaze invited me in like some grandma holding out a cup of tea and plate of cookies. I better get out of here, I thought.
But before I could slip away he was suddenly before me, leaning over, and asking, “Would you like to dance?”
I glanced around, “Me? You want to dance with me?”
“Of course,” he said, smiling now.
“Isn’t it time we became friends?”
At a recent gathering in Kansas City, I was struck by a quotation from German philosopher Rudolf Bahro shared by Margaret Wheatley, well known management consultant, who studies organizational behavior, change, and chaos theory:
When an old culture is dying,
the new culture is born from a few people
who are not afraid to be insecure.
O yikes, I thought. I spend a lot of time and energy figuring out how not to be insecure. Now I am supposed to get comfortable with it?
Who has not had a terrifying encounter with fear, which kicks all reason out of your mind and fills you with the powerful instinct to run, to hide, to attack, or to kill?
Fear is an emotional response to a perceived or suspected threat to our security and safety. It both helps to insure our survival, and may also hold us back from moving forward. Because of its primal power expressed through our biochemistry, we may be manipulated by fear into silence, passivity, numbness, or reckless action.
The reality of fear runs through the Biblical narrative, like a long steel ice pick between the shoulders of the people of God. The gift of fear as warning, and as impetus to take some saving action, is often distorted and misapplied. Fear becomes the excuse for lack of faith, and for failure of nerve. We find ourselves unwilling to trust in a power and reality greater than the lying, sniveling fear, which makes us feel we are nothing, but grasshoppers in a world full of overpowering giants with very large feet.
(But the others said, “We can’t attack those people; they’re way stronger than we are.” They spread scary rumors among the People of Israel. They said, “We scouted out the land from one end to the other—it’s a land that swallows people whole. Everybody we saw was huge. Why, we even saw the Nephilim giants (the Anak giants come from the Nephilim). Alongside them we felt like grasshoppers. And they looked down on us as if we were grasshoppers.” Numbers 13: 31-32 Message)
Not counting the frequent admonitions to fear God, that is, to offer God respect and reverence (which is not the kind of fear I am speaking of here), the Biblical admonitions to not fear pile up, filling up several columns in my concordance. God tells us not to fear. Jesus tells us not to fear. Psalmists, prophets, and angels tell us not to fear. Peter and Paul tell us not to fear.
Like most good advice. This is easier said than done.
Though love is not the opposite of fear, it does seem to be the antidote. In I John we find the familiar verses, “Perfect love casts out fear. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (I John 4: 18)
At our core, perhaps, what we fear is the separation from the love which promises us protection, care, and life itself. When the gifts of love in our lives are threatened in some way, we fear the loss of the source of these gifts, as well. Love, itself, shall surely be extinguished. We often confuse the gift with the Source. The gifts are fragmentary, finite, always shifting, changing, and inevitably imperfect. The Source, however, is unchanging, eternal, and utterly worthy of our trust. Losing that which is the core and center of all our desire is, of course, a lie, an illusion. For nothing can separate us from the Love of God as Paul assures us:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39 New International Version)
Margaret Wheatley suggests that during this time of tumultuous change and insecurity that what is needed in every organization are patience, forgiveness, compassion, generosity, and an acknowledgement that we will fail sometimes and that is okay. These virtues sound like love to me, perfect love, which casts out the fear that stifles creativity, freedom, and innovation. Perfect love breaks the chains, which bind us to a past we cannot change. Perfect love exposes the dark fiction we write about a future we cannot control. Perfect love empowers us to respond to the present, ripe with possibility and brimming over with life.
We make an odd couple, this older woman and her shape shifter of a partner. “I don’t know the steps,” I protest.
“Trust me,” he whispers, as he guides me onto the dance floor. “We will make the steps up as we go along.”
“Your name?” I ask gazing into those eyes.
He hesitates for a moment. “People call me Uncertainty,” he says, pulling me closer.
Posted in Christianity, Contemplation, prayer, faith, God
Tagged fear, I John 4:18, Jesus, Margaret J. Wheatley, organizational change, Romans 8: 38-39, Rudolf Bahro, Uncertainty
“If yas gonna pray – then yas don haft ta worry.
If yas gonna worry, then why bother to pray?”
Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies
Though a majority of Americans claim they believe in God, most of us function in our lives as atheists. Little seems to cause us more trouble than the godless belief that the ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us. Parker Palmer calls this “functional atheism.”
This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who make it happen – a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God.
This shadow causes pathology on every level of our lives. It leads us to impose our will on others… stressing our relationships, sometimes to the point of breaking. It often eventuates in burnout, depression, and despair, as we learn the world will not bend to our will and we become embittered about that fact. Functional atheism is the shadow that drives collective frenzy as well. It explains why the average group can tolerate no more than fifteen seconds of silence: if we are not making noise, we believe, nothing good is happening and something must be dying.
~Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak
Functional atheism is not a new affliction for the believer’s soul. Remember the story of the father of the epileptic child who asked for Jesus’ help? Jesus said to the man, “If you are able! – All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9: 23-24)
The rough and tumble scramble of our daily lives reveals our hidden atheist. Our unbelief makes itself known in our worry and irritability. We see our betrayal of God in the way we clamp down on having things our way and in insisting that we are right. Such unbelief gives us heartburn, high blood pressure, sleepless nights, and anxious days. Try as we might, we will always fall short of being able to be God in our own lives. Such an enterprise only leads to misery.
So, let’s practice belief. Slowly, step by step, stumble by stumble, we can move more deeply into the conversion of our unbelief.
Here is a prayer exercise to try.
Find a quiet spot. Let yourself relax. Take five or six deep breaths in through your nose, and release each one slowly through your mouth.
Now, imagine yourself in a vast open spacious field: a mountain top, a plain, a meadow, and a lake or ocean shore. See the space on all sides stretching into the distance.
Next, put the things you are worrying about: finances, work, family, various tasks, or responsibilities — whatever has you tied in knots, into that spaciousness. Once you have spread out your concerns at some distance from yourself, simply be there, breathing.
Imagine the Holy Spirit is moving among and penetrating the many tasks, people, and issues with a vibrant, pulsating energy you cannot see, but may sense. As you remain in peace, centered in Christ, the work of God goes forth into all your concerns through your faith, your consent, and your belief that God is more powerful and effective in your life and the world, than you could ever be.
Watch. Wait. Trust. If you become anxious, ask God to help your unbelief.
After taking time to be present to God’s activity in your life concerns, ask if there are any specific responses or actions you are to take. Allow God’s response to rise up from your center of peace, rather than your anxiety or fear.
Here in the field of your life the One who knows you better than you know yourself is always healing, creating, mending, and summoning.
Relax. It is not all up to you. You are not alone. You are not even in charge.
You are just part of the field, a member of the family.
Posted in Christianity, Contemplation, prayer, faith, God
Tagged Anne Lamott, Atheism, Christianity, functional atheism, God, Holy Spirit, Jesus, Parker Palmer
Weeping before the box, she lifts out the pieces and places them on the counter. All but one or two are broken.
Two weeks before when the boxes arrived, I had carried, heartsick, this one filled with the chink and clatter of broken pottery to the basement. Then I forgot all about the box of broken dreams, until I heard her carrying it up the stairs, shards rattling like a chest of huge coins.
She moves the pieces on the counter, sorting and fitting parts together.
In a distant city another young woman also picks out the ruins of herself from the broken jar of illusion.
So much is broken – plans, relationships, jobs, dreams – and rattles around inside us. We take out the pieces, hold them to the light, and try to fit them together. This confrontation with our fallibility and that nothing earthly lasts forever brings deep suffering. Loss is always more painful than the books can say, the scriptures convey, or the prophets of prosperity preach. We need a picture.
A man at the end of his own dance with mortality, hunched over on his knees in a dark garden, tears rolling down his face. He says to his father, the Heaven Dweller, “Take this cup from me.” And to his friends, “Can you not stay with me one hour in this agony?”
There may be something harder than watching one’s children suffer, but on this day I do not know what it is. The hardest thing I do in this work of ministry, prayer, and listening to souls in their journey to God is staying awake with others in their pain. This is to say, that the hardest thing is staying awake with Jesus as he suffers in others.
Some days I fail. I numb out. I fall asleep. I deny the suffering, blame the sufferer, quibble and become annoyed and irritated with how the person expresses her pain. The other day I thought of one family, “Always lots of drama in this family system.” I suppose, applying the same cynical criteria, one would have to say that Jesus was the all time drama queen.
Can’t you just stay with me in this torment? Can we just be there, trusting God and the soul to figure things out? Respecting the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in the awesome autonomy of an individual life, while lifting up the candles of faith, hope, and love seem to be my task.
I fidget. I want to fix things, pass out band aids. Leaning over her shattered treasures, she tries to wire one sculpture back together, fashioning a frame of cardboard.
“We need some glue. I’ll get some glue,” I say. “Let’s go to the store and get some good glue.”
Finally I stop.
Several days later I ask about the box of jumbled shards on the porch. “Oh, I don’t care what you do with it,” she tells me, as she heads off with her eyes on new heights.
To love, to know passion, and bliss is also to have our hearts broken. I know of no way to get around this and anyone who tries to tell you different is a liar. To live, we must die. To touch transcendence and eternity is also to gaze upon and weep over the box of our own finitude, our broken handiwork, our illusions, and limited understanding. “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in,” sings Leonard Cohen.
The man in the dark garden gets up. It is time, he says, to be broken.
It is time
for us to be made whole.
The birds they sang
at the break of day
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Dear Hearts: Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up. For fun – A couple of video versions of Cohen’s Anthem.
Posted in faith, God, Prayer, Spiritual Practices, spirituality
Tagged crucifixion, hope, Leonard Cohen, letting go, Loss, love, Mark 14: 32-41, sin, suffering
The dog is gnawing his bone, snorting and snuffling. I am curled on the couch at the end of a long day. The furnace fan shuts off. The house is quiet. I am tired. My throat is scratchy. I feel like I am coming down with a cold.
I think of you – your life, your sorrows and burdens. I wonder what you had to deal with today, and if you are at peace. When I write, I want more than anything that what I say is true, is real. This means that I want to be trued, made straight, conformed to Truth. I don’t mean that what I write has to be perfect or factually correct (though I want to do my best on that score). I just want it to be aligned with a larger true Reality I know as God. I want what I write to have integrity in that sense.
Do I have a Word for you? Is there a Word from on high for us this evening?
The dog rests his muzzle against my foot, then plops down beside me. He sighs. Then we grow silent and still. I stop grasping for words and thoughts. I wait.
“Tell them that I love them.”
Oh rats. This fills me with a kind of frustration and sadness. The phrase God loves you has become so clichéd. I could just as well write, You are in good hands with Allstate. Ok I will try anyway. Do you get that, really know, that the Creator and Sustainer of the deepest Truth and Reality loves and cares about you? Do I?
Then: “Stop living your life as though I did not exist. Stop behaving as if I am not real.”
Ah, here is the being true part. Does your life, as you live it, reflect your prayer, as you pray it? How about today, Loretta, and this weary stressed out self you are bringing to God? How much of what you did and said and thought and felt denied the reality of Christ and cut you off from the source of life and strength?
I grin, recalling something that came to me a few weeks ago while I was praying with John 14: 1-9. In this passage Jesus tells his disciples not to worry, but to trust in God and in himself. He tells them in his Father’s house there are many rooms, and he wouldn’t be telling them this, if it wasn’t true. He promises that he is going to his Father’s house and will prepare a place for them. And he will come back and take them with him to his Father. Then he says that they know the way to where he is going.
But Thomas responds, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
Then Philip pipes up with, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
And Jesus, shaking his head, maybe even rolling his eyes, says, “Philip, have I been with you this long and you still do not understand?”
Good grief – how many miracles, healings, parables, and sermons on the mount is it going to take?
As I pondered this text, what I heard was, “Quit acting like you are confused. You know the Father. You know me.”
I laughed out loud. It was a call to grow up, to maturity. Stop the confusion act, sweetie. Get congruent. Be true. Line up what you believe and know in your heart with how you live your life. Stop fussing around worrying and fretting like you do not know me and do not have a home on high. Have I been with you this long and you still do not get it?
It makes me sad, carrying on like Jesus is not here, like God didn’t love us so much that he died and rose for us. Me – like some self indulgent, disingenuous little twit saying with Philip, “Just show us the Father, then we will all believe. Meanwhile we’ll put our trust in Allstate.”
Oh, long suffering Savior, have mercy on us sinners, one and all.
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