Sunday, April 20, 2014

I didn't know...

(When a poem came forth on Ash Wednesday, I was surprised. However, the verse that emerged today in celebration of Pascha (Easter) could not have surprised me more. I do not always understand the gifts God gives - much less expect you to understand them. However, reading the brief poem for Ash Wednesday as well as my recent post for Holy Thursday may lend some context for the poem below. You may read or listen - or both... )

i didn't even know i was in hell
when You came for me.

i thought that I was alone
while they persecuted me
and treated me unfairly.
surely You could see
how wrong they were
and that i was one of Yours!

i did not understand Your silence,
why the walls closed round me
in stony darkness,
why my cries of complaint
never reached Your ears.
they ridiculed me
and You did not stop them,
they robbed me of all dignity
and You did not rebuke them.

did You not love me
more than this?
did You not love me
more than those who
sought to destroy me?

i had not known i was in hell.
or that you had left
the Prayer there for me
amidst the ashes at my feet.
yet i repeated its words,
again and again,
until they spoke themselves
deep within my heart.

Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
have mercy on me,

Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
have mercy on me,
a sinner.

Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
have mercy on me,
a sinner.

over and over, i said them
until i had become
all of the me’s in the world,
their sins were my sins,
and my sins, theirs…

and then, when i looked up,
You were there.

i had not known i was in hell,
so accustomed were my eyes
to the darkness within me,
so familiar was my heart
with its own despair.

and now, You are here…
gently, You touch my eyes –
and I see, as though for the first time!
there are no walls of stone
imprisoning me,
no menacing enemies threatening
to take my life.

i stand emptied and open,
Your glorious light ever before me.
my heart has been freed for mercy!
mercy – o endless mercy –
You surround me and fill me!
o joyous, wondrous love –
You who are my heart –
shine in me, o eternal Light!

He is risen.
alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
He is risen, indeed.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

More on disobedience...

My last post might strike some as taking too light of an approach to a grave topic. Disobedience toward God is indeed a very serious thing. Are there no consequences? What about hell?

God's love is unconditional and eternal. God is unchanging and unchangeable. He does not stop loving us when we sin nor does He dole out punishment to us for our misdeeds by sending us disease or misfortune in this life.

He has not created a fiery hell in which to cast us when we make mistakes or yield to our weaknesses. Even if we fail to repent, He does not withdraw His love from us.

This is my faith. This is Christianity.

Some of the suffering people who come to see me tell me that they believe that hell is right here on this earth, that they are in hell right now.

And they may be correct - but not for the reasons that they think. More on that later.

As I write this, it is Holy Thursday and I have just returned from celebrating the Lord's Supper. In this holy meal, Jesus gives Himself to us completely and for all time.

He first gave Himself as Eucharist to His apostles, (including Peter who would deny Him within 24 hours and Judas who would betray Him that very night). He did not limit His gift to the obedient.

He has continued giving and giving Himself in sacrament to saints and sinners alike, for generation after generation, century after century. And now to you and me. It is a grace and love beyond telling...

So if God loves me unconditionally, giving Himself to me whether or not I am obedient, what is point of being obedient?

This is where hell comes in. Hell is not a torture chamber designed by God for the next life nor is it the suffering we experience in this life - though the latter can indeed be very bad.

Hell is being in the midst of suffering, with God loving you completely, totally and unconditionally - and you don't know it. You don't know that He loves you, that He is holding you at every moment. You think that you are totally alone and that you are locked into the dungeon of that aloneness with no means of escape. You imagine either that there is no key - or that God is outside holding the key, with no intention of releasing you because you deserve to suffer.

That is hell.

And that hell is of our own creation. There is no dungeon and we are not really alone - but sometimes a belief can be stronger than reality in our corrupted awareness. The hell we experience is locked from the inside. Christ is most certainly there with us ready to show us the way out. However, if we don't know it, we experience no comfort, no hope. We experience hell.

And so to be obedient, to repent, to change my heart, to "cease doing evil and learn to do good", to love and forgive, to pray and to receive Eucharist - all of this is so that I might know Christ and unite my heart to His, by the gift of His grace.

United to Christ in obedience, am I then guaranteed freedom from the pains and sorrows of this existence? Am I promised that I will be loved by others and have the things I want and need from this world?

Most assuredly not. In fact, I am promised quite the opposite - at least for a time.

United to Him, I still feel pain and sorrow, grief and betrayal. But I am not alone. I am loved.

And so I choose to walk with Jesus, praying for the courage to be obedient and the humility to know that I cannot walk this path without Him...

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

What happens to the disobedient...

My backyard, graced with an old walnut tree at one end of the property, is a veritable playground for squirrels. I love my squirrels, so frisky and playful and funny are they.

And this is the season of hungry squirrels. Of course, if you have spent any time watching squirrels, you will recognize that all seasons are the season of hungry squirrels. No matter how much they are given to eat, they always seem to want more - one's layer of fat can never be too thick nor can there ever be too many nuts stowed away.

I try to look out for my squirrels. I frequently given them tasty treats outside my sliding doors on the concrete slab that passes for a patio. They gobble up everything from stale pretzels to left over peanut butter sandwich to gourmet treats like the fruit and nut mandala I made for them last year. (see below)

Yet, as much as I try to show my love for them, sometimes my squirrels are disobedient. I know. You are probably thinking that they are just wild animals and cannot know the difference between right and wrong. Well, allow me to explain.

On the other end of my property, many mulberries fall every spring from a large old tree on the other side of the chain link fence. The mulberries, of course, attract many birds whom I also love and gaze upon fondly from my kitchen window.

In fact, a couple of years ago, I hung a bird feeder from the tree outside my window so that I could watch them feed and was quite delighted with the result. I had been a bit skeptical of the claim that the feeder was "squirrel proof" but I had talked to my squirrels and they never tampered with it. If I saw them eyeing it, I reminded them where I put their food and they were obedient.

Sometimes the birds themselves would squabble among themselves. That seemed a natural outcome of there being so many of them and just the one feeder for them to share. (see below)

So, this year, when I saw a sale on bird feeders, I thought perhaps I would hang up another. This feeder made no promise of being "squirrel-proof" but I trusted my furry friends. I decided to load this feeder with sunflower seeds, making it more appealing to cardinals and songbirds, to ease the sharing process among my winged friends.

However, before I had even hung the new feeder, something very disturbing happened. I glanced out the window one morning in March and, much to my amazement, this is what I saw:

I wanted so much to believe that it was an accident, an aberration, something that would never happen again. Yet I know how it is with disobedience. It starts with a single act. Perhaps one is simply curious. Perhaps the adversary has whispered false promises that seem just too good to pass up.

Whatever the reason, once the sweet fruit of sin has been tasted, it is hard not to go back for more, despite the guilt and shame that follow.

Thus, my heart was saddened - but not surprised - when the new feeder was hung and I could see the look of disobedience on the faces of my squirrel friends as they plotted and planned how its contents could become theirs.

My first response to these transgressions was to tap loudly on my kitchen window. But, alas, they did not even look up from what they were doing. Next, I charged out the door and talked to them sternly, with words and gestures, reminding them that this food was for birds and that their food was by the door.

My immediate impulse was to withhold food from their usual feeding station, not wanting to reward their disobedience. Yet my heart soon melted. It had been a long and harsh winter. They were hungry. And not all of my squirrels were being disobedient. Some dug up last years nuts and ate contentedly. Others stopped by my door to see what I had left for them. Should I punish all because of the actions of a few?

And so I continued to leave them their treats. I even gave the squirrels their own little pile of bird seed, along with the nuts and fruit, since they seemed so fond of it.

Yet my bushy-tailed friends became even bolder in their disobedience.

I was perplexed. And then something else happened. My bird friends started showing up at the squirrel feeding station!

The birds, however, did not necessarily limit themselves to the bird seed. Some of them even tried out the walnuts and pecked at the grapes!

I wrestled with the question (after I got done laughing): what happens to the disobedient?

Reflecting on my Father in Heaven, I realized this: He makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the obedient and the disobedient alike. He gives food and drink to his disobedient children as much as He does to the obedient. He loves them all and wills for them all to return to Him in love.

I too have been disobedient and He has loved me. Who am I to judge these little ones?

And so, following in His Way, I continue to love all of the little creatures of my backyard and share with them of my bounty. Even in their errant ways, I know them to be good and beautiful. For He has made them, each cell of their bodies having been born of His love.

The same is true of you and me. Good and beautiful. Born of His love. Longed for, even in our disobedience...

Monday, April 7, 2014

Even under its burden...

So often we feel burdened. Our bodies, our minds, our circumstances - sometimes they all just seem too difficult to bear.

Yet it was not meant to be this way.

We are made of love; indeed we are made to be love. All of the dimensions of our unique individual selves are meant to come together like the many instruments of an orchestra. Disordered as they often are in this world, they may seem discordant, more noise than music. However, when well-directed, they blend into a perfect symphony.

Likewise, our selves are made to be part of each each other, with our lives flowing together into a flawlessly choreographed dance. Yet, looking at our world, one might think that the choreographer has gone missing. We human beings are ever bumping into each other, sometimes violently, often painfully.

Within ourselves, we do not know who we are. Between ourselves, we do not understand how we were made to be. Because we do not know how to love ourselves, our efforts to love each other too often leave us feeling hurt and empty, longing for something that ever eludes us.

I encountered a gift today in my e-mail inbasket - a gift that will surely help our burdened souls to sing. And in the singing, to begin the journey to knowing and loving our true selves.

"Even under its burden / the soul awakes and sings." (Listen below)


(Thanks to Christine Valters Paintner, whose newsletter for Abbey of the Arts, alerted me to this wonderful video of the song, Soul Awakes and Sings, by Trish Bruxvoort Colligan. If this is a rehearsal, I cannot wait to hear the album upon its release!)

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

the winter that was...

This past winter in northeast Ohio is one that few people will miss. Many say that it was a "bad" winter, one of the "worst" we have had in a long time.

I, however, am simply referring to it as a harsh winter.

Certainly there is no denying that it was more consistently cold and that the temperatures were considerably colder than average. We also had more snow than usual. All of this has caused hassles and hardships to many people. And we don't like hassles and hardships, so we label it a "bad" winter.

However, it was also a very beautiful winter. There were days when the trees were "abloom with snow". At other moments, the sight of the sun sparkling off the pristine white was dazzling. Lake Erie was nearly frozen over, its once crashing waves stilled and silent, leading the soul to the shores of contemplative awe.

The air was fresh and crisp as my camera and I braved the winter woods this year. It was exhilarating, despite numb fingers and toes. Birds chirped in the trees and squirrels hopped designs in the snow between the wintry storms. We befriended our warm blankets and sipped hot tea. It was glorious.

I'm sure many would think that I have lost my mind.

Yet it seems to me that we spend far too much energy hating not just the weather, but unpleasant experience in general. While it certainly seems natural to hate what makes us uncomfortable, a closer look may suggest that this is not always the wisest path to take through life.

Some of my most profound discomforts have also been my best teachers. As I have mentioned before, having panic attacks and obsessive compulsive disorder earlier in life taught me a great deal about compassion for emotional suffering. Have I thanked God for allowing this wonderful teacher to come to me?

Of course, illness is not something God wants for us but He allows it. Often we cannot understand why - and I am not least among the questioners. And yet illness, both physical and mental, can teach - as can almost any tragedy or unwanted experience.

Even the moods of my soul may be my unwelcome instructors - and fruitful ones at that. I am readily pleased and grateful for the days of delight, when my soul seems to move toward God effortlessly and joyfully. But, when the very next day all prayer feels forced and the existence of God suddenly seems illogical to me, my fickle heart is not so quick to give thanks.

However, when I learn to thank God for even the unwelcome experiences of life, I open my heart to discover the mysteries hidden deep within each moment.

My energies shift from resisting the moment to being aware of it and living it fully, trusting that God is somehow present even when I cannot see Him.

And so I thank you, God, for the cold and snow and ice. I thank you for showing me Yourself in their beauty and for reminding me that they will melt and prepare the earth for new growth. I thank you too for showing me Yourself in my oft frozen heart, for bestowing Your love when I least expect it. May my heart's hardness melt and soften in Your light, that it may be ready to receive the seeds You planted during my dark nights. May Your life ever grow within me and may I never forget to thank you for this wondrous gift. Amen.

(To view the images in my winter photo album, click on the image above. Note also that I have updated my public photo albums after realizing that I had forgotten to make some of them public. After you click the link in the panel to the left, you will see the "cover" of each album which you can open by clicking on it. As always, you are welcome to download any of my images for your personal or nonprofit use.)