I have a friend in the hospital. His favorite cookies are oatmeal raisin, so I’m baking him a batch. I write this as I wait for one pan to come out and another one to go in. I don’t even know if they allow cookies in the I.C.U., but I’m baking them anyway. I have to DO something. You know that feeling? When someone you care about is suffering and you just want to take it away but you can’t? So I bake cookies. This is my prayer for him. I mix the dough, I add the wrinkled raisins, and I pray to God that he finds healing. It is something my small self can do through God’s good grace.
I’ve been feeling this a lot lately…an aching feeling to do something in situations where I really can’t do much of anything. Sometimes it is small things, like not getting anything to grow in my vegetable garden. Sometimes it is big things, like Pulse in Orlando. People say we can at least pray, as if that’s at the bottom of the “What To Do in a Crisis” list. Isn’t it the most we can do?
Maybe we dismiss prayer because it’s so easy. It’s just a conversation with God. It doesn’t feel like enough. Maybe we dismiss it because it’s hard to see the fruits of it sometimes. Answers don’t come readily, or in the way we wish they would. Maybe prayer can feel one-sided. We talk, we wait, we wonder. Is God really out there?
But I think God puts the ache there to begin with. God starts the conversation before we even fold our hands together in prayer. God calls to us…come, please, come. God calls to us to be with God. And it is because of God’s good grace that we go to prayer. It’s why I’m making cookies. I don’t think I came up with the idea on my own. God put the “I-need-to-DO-something” feeling on my heart and I just went along with it. How else do we weather storms but to go to God in prayer? Jesus said it is the only way. Even if things don’t get better, there is healing…there is solace…there is comfort…there is company. Prayer DOES make things better when we look at it that way.
And so the last batch is now in the oven. The prayer for my friend draws to a close. My son runs up to the counter to be a taste-tester, and he pronounces the cookies good. To me, they are good in more ways than taste. God made them a prayer by God’s good grace. It says in Psalm 63 that we will hear this Sunday, “My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.” That is the aching feeling God puts in us. So let’s go to God in prayer and answer that thirst. It is the most we can do, whether it is a friend in the hospital, an empty garden or a terrorist attack. Just let God in, and pray.
I saw a bumper sticker today that said “Grace happens”. It touched my heart and made me smile. It is so good to stay with those little moments. They are what make or break a day. Because even on the worst days, graced moments happen. A friend of mine, Joyce, calls them ‘God winks’. They are simple, little encounters that move us, make us sigh, speak yes to us, bring inner goodness out.
The bumper sticker was unexpected. That particular car happened to be in front of me, and I happened to see it. I told my son Thomas to look at it too. We were on our way to a piano lesson. He was talking about his classes at school and how a boy was teasing him about a girl. I was turning off the radio so I could hear him better. Everyday stuff. Then this bumper sticker pops up. Grace happens. It was like God popping into our conversation to say hi. What a wonderful surprise. Thomas and I began to talk about the bumper sticker and what it meant to us. It morphed into a conversation about the death penalty somehow, but that is a blog for another day. My point is God surprised us, and we happily noticed.
Pope Francis says we have a God of surprises. He says, “…God is the God of surprises, that God is always new; He never denies himself, never says that what He said was wrong, never, but He always surprises us.” Do we open our hearts to them?
I think when we do, we start to see them all the time. We look for them. We hope for them. We want to make them for others. I bet that’s what the driver of that bumper sticker-ed car thought. I bet she (I say she because the words “Grace happens” were surrounded by pink flowers, but I don’t want to be accused of sexism…she could be a he.) saw God surprises in her life and wanted to join in the fun.
It’s contagious once your heart can feel the joy in God’s surprises. Maybe it’s an unsolicited hug, a pleasant comment on Facebook or a smile between strangers. They can be in nature, like geese flying under pink-tinged clouds or a single rose blooming despite the chill in the air. Sometimes they are big surprises. Sometimes they are little. Like the other day, my older son Nolan said he enjoyed the banter going on between his dad and I in the car more than anything else about that outing (God must hang out in cars a lot.). I was pleasantly surprised how much he enjoyed our company. It made all of us feel good, and it carried us through the day.
I’m sure I miss a lot of surprises. I let my mind get full of what I need to do, what isn’t getting done. I let myself get distracted. Instead, I need to be present to the possibility of God’s surprises. Notice them. It’s the good stuff of life that brings joy and peace.
A friend of mine gave me an amaryllis bulb just before Christmas. I watered it, gave it light, moved it to a new spot, talked to it…nothing. I thought I saw a little bit of green, but no. He gave me another one that was sprouting already. I have been giving it the same treatment, and it seems to be slowly growing. I don’t have a green thumb when it comes to indoor plants; yet for some reason, it feels important to me that I get one of these bulbs to bloom. I don’t want to fail them. I feel a responsibility for their floral lives.
So God is in all things, right? Where is God in these bulbs? Why does one grow and the other doesn’t?
That’s what life does. It’s like the bulbs are different aspects of my life. Sometimes I water, water, water. I give something lots of attention, try different things…nothing. You know that feeling of wanting so much for something to go right and it just doesn’t work out that way? It’s annoying. You think you’re doing everything right. Why is it not working? It makes you start to doubt yourself and your abilities. Maybe I’m not cut out to force bulbs.
But then there’s bulb #2. I did not have high expectations. Here we go again. Let’s see how many of these bulbs I can kill. I half-heartedly watered, put it next to a window and tried to ignore my hopes that it would grow. It is a trooper! The green leaves are slowly fighting their way out of layers of root ball. I am amazed. It still hasn’t flowered yet, but it’s alive and kicking. I don’t even feel like I have tried very hard with this one.
My life can be like this too. Some things just come naturally. Sometimes things just feel right without the expectation of needing them to be. Maybe it is work but it doesn’t feel hard, because I am drawn to doing it (as opposed to being driven). Or sometimes life unexpectedly turns a different direction, but it feels okay. Maybe I can grow plants after all.
I think God is in both of the bulbs. Many times I hear that everything happens for a reason. I disagree. I don’t think we are God’s robots. God gave us free will. We are bulbs. Sometimes we make life-giving choices and we grow from them, sometimes we don’t and we still grow from them. Or not. Whatever the choices we make, we can see the meaning in them if we look through the eyes of faith. When we look back at our life choices, we can see how God is working in us from what grows and what doesn’t.
And do you know what? Yesterday, the first bulb finally started to sprout too! So there is no clear-cut answer for what works in life and what doesn’t. But I’m convinced God is in all of it anyway. Wherever there is life and love, God can’t help but be a part of it.
Before beginning, I want to apologize that yes, you are hearing from ME again. I would love to have more writers for this blog. If you are feeling called to write about spiritual thoughts that YOU have, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 518-370-3136 X-239. This is our parish blog, and it would be so lovely to hear lots of voices here!
Silos are tall, cylindrical structures that store goods. They are usually for a particular farm’s use only. They stand alone. They have no other use other than their own purpose. Once they have been emptied, their purpose is obsolete until they are filled again. They have no needs other than maintenance and storage. They do not live very exciting lives.
This contrasts significantly with community supported agriculture (CSA). In CSAs, people pay for a share of the farm. In a sense, the community owns the farm entity. In gratitude for their share, the farm disperses a portion of their harvest. There is equality. There is risk. The portion is a mystery, of whatever is in season. There may be an abundance of one good and a shortage of another, You get what you get and must accept that. But there is always equality and portions across. So, there is plenty and gratitude in the sharing. You have to participate in order to be a part of that plenty and gratitude. CSAs exist for the win-win. Both giver and receiver benefit.
I’d like to think this is how we can exist more peacefully in the world – as CSAs not silos. Be sharers. We cannot exist on our own. Well, we CAN but not fruitfully (intentional pun). We are meant to be in relationship with one another. As we go about our days, we aren’t supposed to just get through our own agendas…are we? Is that living a well-led life? To that end, will we be happy simply checking off our own to-do lists? Life is better when we exist together. When we share together. When we help each other. Maybe things get messy in relationships (Some of my relationships are an absolute disaster!), but better to get messy in the sharing than to be a silo. Only gratitude and plenty will result.
Think outside the silo. Let us be a CSA. Not just in our parish but in our lives. It is a win-win, and God seems to be always in the win-win. When goodness helps others, it helps ourselves. God is that goodness! Take the risk and put in your share. See what happens. It could be an unexpected life. Be a part of the abundant harvest!
I was outside yesterday, eating an apple and listening to a bird’s evening song. The apple tasted so good to me as I crunched into it, and I was amazed at how the bird could make so many different sounds in such a little body. I felt a deep sense of gratitude and God’s presence in that small moment. And it struck me how important physical presence is to all of us. I was enjoying all of my senses…the taste of the apple, the sound of the bird, the warmth and beauty of the sun (finally-sun!!), and the smells of summer approaching. We like our senses to be involved in the meaning of things. It’s a reality check. Yes. I am here on this planet and I have the senses to prove it. I am earthed. There is a security in that.
In that moment of gratitude, I felt God with me in it. So God became real to me too. There’s no hocus pocus, no vision, no supernatural encounter. God just came to mind and was present with me. It made me think about how important it is that Jesus came to us. We read in John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” God in a body. It’s a reality check. Jesus was here on this planet and had the senses to prove it. He was earthed. God incarnate.
We need that. We need to know and feel that physical presence. The realness comforts us. It bring us together. It’s why we gather at Eucharist. It reminds us again that Jesus was here. He is here. We walk up to the altar, we eat the bread, we hold the cup and drink the wine, we hear the music, we smell the smells. All of the senses activated so that it becomes real to us. Jesus is real, earthed. Eucharist is a reality check, like our other God moments. And we are physically part of it. Wow, all of this because I was eating an apple outside.
Do you ever feel like you have too many expectations? Maybe there are too many balls in the air? Forgot to take a juggling class? Sometimes either we expect too much from ourselves, or others expect too much from us. It can be maddening at times. Too much to do and not enough time to do it. Sometimes it feels like we can’t give anything our complete attention.
Now, I’m not talking about shirking responsibility. It is good to work hard and see the fruit of your effort. A little stress is healthy. It keeps you moving forward. I’m talking about a weight of stuff. A to-do list gone crazy. Like one more thing might put you over the edge. We’ve all been there, right? What are we to do with all these expectations?
Learn from St. Paul! Paul said, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective, ” (I Corinthians 15:10). I always think of Popeye when I read this. “I yam what I yam!” But Paul speaks such truth. We can only be who we are. Thanks be to God! That is all God wants from us. God only wants us to be God’s beloved children. That is it. If we get that, the rest feels easier. Knowing this gives us the strength to do the rest of it. God’s only expectation of us is to love God. He even gives us the ability to do it. Allow God’s love in, and God will fulfill all of your expectations.
So next time you are feeling overwhelmed, keep this song in mind!
I have a funny little habit. I try to find God in songs I hear on the radio. Not obvious Christian songs but songs that are popular and maybe not really intended to be spiritual. This song by Phillip Phillips has really hit me lately. Give it a listen.
Home. It’s more than a building, right? It’s the memories of what happens there. It’s where love resides. It’s where you are always welcome. Like in another song from “Cheers”, it’s where everybody knows your name. There has been laughter and there have been tears at home. You can wear your pjs and nobody cares.
“Settle down, it’ll all be clear.”
Think about the Exodus. The Israelites never felt at home where they were. They longed for it. They traveled far for it, even though they weren’t sure how it would all turn out. They knew they could find a home where it would all be okay. God told them they would and they trusted that. Home is where God is.
“Don’t pay no mind to the demons; they fill you with fear”
Except when you don’t have that kind of home, right? What then? We will hear all about that this Sunday in the Gospel reading (Luke 4:21-30). Jesus is not welcome in his hometown…so much so that they try to throw him off a cliff. “But he passed through the midst of them and went away,” (Luke 4:30). Why does he do that? He’s paying no mind to “the demons”. That’s not home for him anymore. Home is where God is.
“Just know you’re not alone cause I’m going to make this place your home”
God is always with us. No matter what we do. God is where love resides. God is love. We are always welcome to God. God knows us. God wants to be a part of our laughter and tears. We can wear our pjs all day long with God and God wouldn’t care. Home is where God is.
After wrestling with the readings for a couple of day this week, I came upon what I knew to be the perfect theme. Joy. Listen to the enthusiasm of the people as they exalt in God’s saving action so much they simply must break in to song. Paul simply states, “Rejoice.” And then, as if he cannot wait to exclaim again, “I say it again, rejoice.” With Christmas so rapidly approaching the Church gives us this day we call “Gaudete Sunday” the joyous Sunday of Advent. And I knew I would be rocking my rose colored vestments and we could simply speak of joy.
Then I heard the news from Connecticut and I thought that I must choose another path. How could one speak of joy in the midst of such suffering? But I corrected myself. I made a mistake so many of us make. I had confused happiness with joy. Happiness is by definition a temporary state. It would be the height of insanity to be happy all the time. Joy however, comes from a place somewhere deeper. It is a gift that God has given us and it can never be taken away. It is that which allows us to know how blessed we are regardless of the shadow of the circumstances around us. Happiness is laughing at a joke. Joy is making a friend.
Perhaps a good analogy would be our lawns. We try to keep them pristine as possible in the summer. We water them, protect them and cut them; all the while knowing they can never look that good permanently at least not in upstate New York. But we do what we can to extend the season. Ah the foolish things we do for happiness to make that which must pass, last. Joy is like a tree. Even when its leaves have fallen and its beauty has been diminished, there is still life within it; it is still a sturdy shelter. It roots run deep and breaths in life in the midst of winter. And when the wind buffets and the storm approaches, would you rather be a blade of grass or a tree?
Look at the cross. Why does it stand as the great sign of our salvation? There is nothing happy about the cross. Jesus is in pain. He has been betrayed and abandoned. He sinks nearly into despair, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Yet, he is able to say at the end, “Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit.” He is able to trust his God will love him, take care of him and save him. That is joy. That is the source of Christian joy.
Christian joy is simply this: that we know we are loved. Loved beyond all telling. Christian joy is knowing we are never given up on. That love endures. Happiness is vulnerable. Perhaps that is why we do so much to defend it. But joy is always present. It gives us courage and strength and faith and hope. That is why the churches of Newtown are filled. That is why last week they filled churches in Clifton Park. That is why so many people in our parish who have felt the searing pain and have had the darkest of darkness descend upon them still come, because the need the inevitable consolation of Christian joy. We need to know we are loved.
It why we gather around the table of God’s body and blood and around his word. We need to remind ourselves of the endless promise of God’s love and dip into Christian joy so that we can attain what Paul speaks of in the second reading, “Peace beyond all understanding.”
So even in the midst of our hurt and pain, we rely on Christian joy. How blessed we are to have a God who have given us inexhaustible love, who has promised to embrace us for eternal life. Let us thank God for Christian joy. In the summery days of our life it gives us the shimmer of exhilaration and a gleam in our eye. Let us give thanks for Christian joy that in the most challenging of times, we have courage that only being loved can give us. A determination in our Spirit and a sturdiness in our legs. And let us give thanks for Christian joy that gives us consolation in the midst of heartbreak and hope that surmounts the most terrible of losses. Let us give thanks for Christian joy for we are always blessed. We are always loved.