Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Meditation on St. Ambrose's Commentary on the Visitation

Have I ever mentioned that I love Advent? And have I ever mentioned how thrilling it can be to pray and feel your life standing in God's presence, yes, even despite Him allowing a few more things to be unhidden about the mystery, often the totally miserable mystery, one is to oneself? Because when you stand in God's presence, even though you realize what a miserable wretch one is in oneself, one is also aware of God's all-sufficient love and being which is at the ready to fill us. The timing, the process are His. We need not fear or fret or let shame swallow us; we need only stay aware of our need and of His bigness.

This morning I read the commentary by St. Ambrose on Luke that appears in the Office of Readings for December 21. This is what has inspired my little outburst of delight in Advent and prayer. I found myself stopping in the middle of reading to exclaim, "Gosh, St. Ambrose, I love you!" Here's the link to the full text: (you'll need to scroll to the bottom).

Stroll through this with me and let me show you what makes me so happy.

First it says: "When the angel revealed his message to the Virgin Mary he gave her a sign to win her trust." God really seems to like signs. He felt one was appropriate for Mary -- I want to say even for Mary, the sinless one, but perhaps it should be especially for the sinless one. What is it about signs that require purity to be received? In the next paragraph, St. Ambrose says "she does not disbelieve God's word; she feels no uncertainty over the message or doubt about the sign." And I think, wow. Mary knows very well the difference between God's message, God's promise, God's word, and make-believe, her own thoughts, her own desires. She knows the Word of God before He is even incarnate. And she trusts Him completely.

I wrote about my experience with a big sign in my life, back a few posts. My experience has been, uh, quite different. Actually, I've had many incidents of "signs" in my life and frankly most of the time I've hated this kind of thing. But I realize now this is a process of purification for me, and what I've hated is the pain associated with purification. Every time, this type of thing drags out vast tracts of impurity out from hiding into my awareness. And that can be, well, a little hard to deal with, shall we say. St. Ambrose says the Blessed Mother goes "eager in purpose, dutiful in conscience, hastening for joy." I have often been stuck with an inner sense of certainty (for example, the moment of my first encountering the Lord in the Eucharist -- I knew for certain that I was before the Lord Jesus) and complications in my soul that left me anything but eager, dutiful and hastening for joy in response to my certainty. This scenario has played out again and again in my life. But I think I'm learning. Mary had nothing to learn about getting freed from sin since the Lord accomplished that work in her by a special grace from her conception, as a living portrait of hope for the rest of us, so we would have someone human to look to and follow. Our being able to do that is super duper important to God.

Ok back to St. Ambrose.

"The Holy Spirit does not proceed by slow, laborious efforts." Oh, this makes me happy. Someone once was sermonizing to me about how conversion is a slow process. As I listened, my gut said a firm "no." But most people who sermonize are quite sure of their wisdom, and this left me in the common position of listening patiently to something my deep-down simply flat out disagreed with. Conversion is a work of the Holy Spirit, and it is more like lightning. What takes a long time is the lead-up to conversion and the follow-on from the change He brings about. This is of course especially slow the more resistance we throw up to God's work in us. When I met the Lord at St. Anthony of Padua parish on Christmas morning of 1991, I was changed forever, but it has taken decades for that change to unfold. We can cooperate to unfold what God gives, but we cannot give ourselves that moment of encounter, regardless of how badly we want it. When God comes to us, it is His work and His gift, period. We stand in utter need of Him.

Then St. Ambrose looks at the contrasts involved with the four people present at the Visitation. Elizabeth hears Mary's voice, but John is the first to be aware of grace. I can relate just a little to John the prophet, and how his disposition makes for awkward social moments (if awkwardness is something one is to worry about). Elizabeth is aware of Mary, and certainly she has a joy in seeing her. But John is responding on a completely different level. There have been times when I've felt like people are exchanging the proverbial social niceties, and I am leaping for joy. And of course, the response of those who are "dealing with reality" is like: (raised eyebrow) what's going on there? But St. Ambrose goes on to say that when St. John leaps in the womb, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. He responds to, and thereby points out and makes accessible for others, the unseen presence and reality of God. This can feel strange when it plays out in real life. It's like dancing to a melody others can't hear. And I realize this is one way to describe exactly the Carmelite vocation.

And then St. Ambrose talks about how Mary's soul is to be in each of us, in the sense that we are all to receive and bring forth the Word of God. "The Lord is magnified, not because the human voice can add anything to God but because he is magnified within us. Christ is the image of God, and if the soul does what is right and holy, it magnifies that image of God, in whose likeness it was created..." And thus we are blessed and exalted by God, purely as His gift.

And what he doesn't say is that this exaltation by God then draws others, enabling them to encounter God and enter into their own odyssey of faith. God is good. And He chooses to need us. To the degree one can grasp that, what other response can we give but to give our hearts to Him entirely in worship?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

God's Answer to my "How To" Question

I wish I had a word for this mood surrounding me of late. I think of it as a sort of impotent intensity. I feel this great driving urge within me and also the inability of that drive to go anywhere. It's like a great desire to "pray hard" and then realizing that one can only stumblingly form words to lift to God let alone find any depth of feeling inside them.

Perhaps this is fitting for the great Advent wait.

Starting last fall, the theme that jumped out at me with my every approach towards Scripture was the theme of the anawim: the humbled remnant that has no power and can look only to God to be the Savior, the Redeemer. Last year had an Advent in it as I recall, and I heard the same readings then as I hear now. But then, it was all the call to become anawim.

This Advent, everything I hear is swirling around God the judge, the one Who arrives on the scene on behalf of the anawim. The one who takes evil out. The One with power.

So lately I've been asking God "how" questions: How do I relate to You? How do I draw near to You? What is it I'm actually supposed to do?

My problem with asking things like this is that sometimes I make nice little collections out of the answers I get. I get really happy with answers from God. The answer is a sign of God's love. But I don't always take it seriously, until the second or third or fifth time God reminds me to actually DO what He says. Geez, I sound like my kids.

Today I came across this from St. Irenaeus, and I realize it reads almost like one of those annoying "Five Simple Steps to a More Fruitful Spiritual Life" articles. But, I was asking, and I read this, so writing about it is step one in etching these things into my heart. First, the quote:

If man, without being puffed up or boastful, has a right belief regarding created things and their divine Creator, who, having given them being, holds them all in his power, and if man perseveres in God's love, and in obedience and gratitude to him, he will receive greater glory from him. It will be a glory which will grow ever brighter until he takes on the likeness of the one who died for him.

So, here's how I break that down.
Without being puffed up or boastful -- humility
Right belief regarding created things, etc. -- detachment
Persevering in God's love -- believing in, receiving, and returning God's love
Obedience -- to Scripture and to the Church
Gratitude -- for everything, towards God and people

The net result, says St. Irenaeus, is receiving greater glory. This is the same saint who says "the glory of God is man fully alive." The glory of God is really the manifestation of His presence. And St. Ireneus says that this presence will grow brighter until we actually seem to be like the Lord Jesus Himself.

So, my answer to "How do I draw near to God" is simple clear. Seek humility, seek detachment. Love God, obey Him, and be continually thankful.

All of these have given me quite a workout, but I must say the one that is left most loose and flapping on me is gratitude. I have the temperamental tendency to always see how things could be better, how they are not quite perfect. And I realize as I write that that I have some difficulty really owning that for what it is. A friend of mine who decorates our church was telling me recently how she has learned to use her own critical eye in her art to train more people to see as she sees, and to encourage others' talents, using hers to merely tweak their work rather than take the whole burden on herself. And there is a lot of wisdom in that. It isn't quite as easy to do in music, which is where I have the opportunity to train others to hear what I hear. Too often I settle for "ok, whatever" instead of helping others improve. This, too, is a lesson God has given me and I have not paid attention to.

But back to gratitude. Working to correct someone constructively is a far cry from simply crabbing and complaining about everything that's not perfect. Even if it isn't verbally articulated exactly that way, even a subtle tendency to moan over imperfect things can fuel a general direction into ingratitude. That is very easy for me to slide into. I have been making it a point to explicitly thank God for things I often take for granted. It will take some time before this becomes habitual or natural to my way of thinking, though.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

I Used to Hate Christmas

I was just scrolling through Facebook posts recently when suddenly I remembered: I used to hate Christmas.

It's true. I did.

I was uptightly religious about it, too. When I was in college, from somewhere I got this bendy plastic, tall, skinny Santa figurine that somehow had just a metal hook where its head was supposed to be. I taped it upside down to a big piece of paper and put in big bold letters "DEATH TO SANTA" across it and taped it to my dorm door. The RA, somewhat disturbed by this, eventually removed it and refused to give it back. Apparently doing things like that to Santa in a Lutheran college was just too much.

I was against all the commercialism, you know. That's a pretty self-righteous position, isn't it? Aren't good people opposed to commercialism, after all? Sales, carols, decorations, people with no right to go about with smiles on their faces, thinking they can or should make other people happy... to me it was all so obviously a lie and hypocrisy. Bah. Humbug.

Buying presents for people just because they are related to you seemed so dumb. No one really seemed to ever know what anyone really liked, wanted, or needed. I mostly just wished someone cared in others months about what people liked, wanted, or needed.

Ok, the truth is I hated Christmas because it shoved all the pain of my life up into my face. My parents' divorce, the fact that my dad seemed to get drunk more often at Christmastime and terrorize us with drunken phone calls and arguments, the tense eggshell environment we all lived in as we all agreed to simply pretend these problems and more didn't really exist and never had. The isolation that grew thicker the more I was with people. The spiritual emptiness of it all, on what was supposed to be a profound Christian celebration.

I hated being a human being, even as a Christian.

And then, one night 22 years ago, that all changed.

God knows everything. He knows every pain each one of us faces, and He doesn't know it as if He read about it once in a magazine. He knows because He has been present with us while each one of them has happened. And He is our Redeemer. When we are finally ready to turn our hearts to Him and open them just a bit, humble ourselves, and ask Him for help, He rushes in.

That's what He did for me at a Christmas Eve Midnight Mass in 1991 in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. I had an enormous barrier to get over, namely a carefully nursed hatred of all things Catholic. But that night He helped me hand over that hatred, and then He scooped me up and began whispering to my soul that He humbled Himself for me, became a human being for me, in order to redeem me, because I was worth it. It took 20 years for those whispers of that night to finish rocking my world.

Christmas awesomeness. Total redemption.

And today, I couldn't even remember the person I once was without conscious effort.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Prophets, Prophets Everywhere

I have prophets on the brain of late.

Those Advent Mass readings, right? Even if I've heard the same thing every year in the past, I'm not hearing it the same way this year. 

Today, there's Balaam, the dude who is better known for getting so angry at his donkey that God gives the donkey speech to tell him off. Hired to curse Israel, eh? Well, we'll see about that. God makes it clear that He is the one who gives messages, even to asses like Balaam. I love, though, the eloquent intro he gives to his prophecy of the Messiah:
the utterance of a man whose eye is true,
The utterance of one who hears what God says,
and knows what the Most High knows,
Of one who sees what the Almighty sees,
enraptured, and with eyes unveiled:
 It's like you just want to tell him, ok, enough puffery, get on with it. And yet, it seems that almost in spite of himself, Balaam speaks the truth.

The Psalm: "Teach me your ways, O Lord." I heard that immediately as the prayer coming from the heart of one being discipled in the prophetic, in what it means to be a prophet. God's ways are prophetic; He is speaking forth. And the key there, as to the entire spiritual life, seems to be humility.

Then that gospel that just made me grin as I heard it. I wrote a post yesterday about St. John the Baptist, and how he speaks to me as a prophetic sign in my own life. And I love how Jesus interacts with these religious leaders. They are concerned that Jesus defend his right to, you know, exist and do Messiah-y things. They have clearly not grasped His divinity; at most they have considered it a theoretical possibility, but they are waiting for it to make sense to them before they are willing to embrace the idea. They live religion on the level of ideology. It is about the idea of a coming Messiah, the idea of religious authority, not faith, not the openness to experience that leads to the embrace of faith.

And Jesus simply will not meet them on that level.

What about John the Baptist? What about that whole experience? Was it from God? Or was it just another human thing. (Good golly, in reference to my post I wrote yesterday, how many zillions of times did I work through those questions?! Does this experience bear the marks of the work of God, or is it a simple human flash-in-the-pan?)

But these religious leaders weren't even really ready to wrestle with the question. They still worried about how the question made them look to other people. If they said it was from God, Jesus would "get" them. If they said it was all a human nothing, popular opinion would "get" them. And at all costs, they would not be "gotten" by anyone. They had to stay far removed from all that. And that's why they lived in their isolationary ideological ivory tower (oooh -- "i" alliteration; be still my poetic heart!)

No answer, Jesus. We'll stay with ideology.

Okees. You choose to stay there. Then I won't answer you, because you don't really want it and my answer will do you no good.

And right there is Jesus' prophetic lesson: this is how you talk about truth. Step one: you have to be all about the person in front of you -- understanding, loving, respecting, challenging, and then letting go.

And then I come across this homily of Pope Francis' today.
Commenting on the day’s readings, Pope Francis said a prophet is someone who listens to the words of God, who reads the spirit of the times, and who knows how to move forward towards the future. True prophets, the Pope said, hold within themselves three different moments: past, present, and future. They keep the promise of God alive, they see the suffering of their people, and they bring us the strength to look ahead. 

'Tis certainly the season to think about prophets, but there's something insistent here for me to pay attention to.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

John the Baptist and The Sign

Sometimes, a picture is just worth a thousand words:

The Mass readings of today held many layers of personal meaning for me. But they are all summed up in the figure of St. John the Baptist.

This passage from St. Augustine in the Office of Readings also blew me away today:

From a sermon by Saint Augustine
John is the voice, and Christ is the Word
John is the voice, but the Lord is the Word who was in the beginning. John is the voice that lasts for a time; from the beginning Christ is the Word who lives for ever.
  Take away the word, the meaning, and what is the voice? Where there is no understanding, there is only a meaningless sound. The voice without the word strikes the ear but does not build up the heart.
  However, let us observe what happens when we first seek to build up our hearts. When I think about what I am going to say, the word or message is already in my heart. When I want to speak to you, I look for a way to share with your heart what is already in mine.
  In my search for a way to let this message reach you, so that the word already in my heart may find place also in yours, I use my voice to speak to you. The sound of my voice brings the meaning of the word to you and then passes away. The word which the sound has brought to you is now in your heart, and yet it is still also in mine.
  When the word has been conveyed to you, does not the sound seem to say: The word ought to grow, and I should diminish? The sound of the voice has made itself heard in the service of the word, and has gone away, as though it were saying: My joy is complete. Let us hold on to the word; we must not lose the word conceived inwardly in our hearts.
  Do you need proof that the voice passes away but the divine Word remains? Where is John’s baptism today? It served its purpose, and it went away. Now it is Christ’s baptism that we celebrate. It is in Christ that we all believe; we hope for salvation in him. This is the message the voice cried out.
  Because it is hard to distinguish word from voice, even John himself was thought to be the Christ. The voice was thought to be the word. But the voice acknowledged what it was, anxious not to give offence to the word. I am not the Christ, he said, nor Elijah, nor the prophet. And the question came: Who are you, then? He replied: I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way for the Lord. The voice of one crying in the wilderness is the voice of one breaking the silence. Prepare the way for the Lord, he says, as though he were saying: “I speak out in order to lead him into your hearts, but he does not choose to come where I lead him unless you prepare the way for him.”
  What does prepare the way mean, if not “pray well”? What does prepare the way mean, if not “be humble in your thoughts”? We should take our lesson from John the Baptist. He is thought to be the Christ; he declares he is not what they think. He does not take advantage of their mistake to further his own glory.
  If he had said, “I am the Christ,” you can imagine how readily he would have been believed, since they believed he was the Christ even before he spoke. But he did not say it; he acknowledged what he was. He pointed out clearly who he was; he humbled himself.
  He saw where his salvation lay. He understood that he was a lamp, and his fear was that it might be blown out by the wind of pride.

Here's my take-home pondering. A few years back, God placed someone in my life and a little bit later gave me to understand that this person had a John-the-Baptist-like role in my life. I really didn't understand at the time what that meant. But today I see with greater clarity. John the Baptist signaled the end of the old covenant and the beginning of the new. His role was limited; he pointed to Christ, and then he was beheaded. And yet he was the greatest of prophets because he literally pointed not centuries ahead (see yesterday's post) but feet ahead to the present Messiah.

Now, it seems a little tricky for a person to be put in my life as a prophetic sign, but I think that's what I'm saying has happened. This person has been more than a prophetic sign, though. There have been other aspects ranging from the good to the bad to the very, very difficult in our relationship with each other. Today, though, it seems that the important thing for me to pay attention to is the meaning of the prophetic sign. Because of this person, God dug through some very old things in my life, pre-Catholic, even pre-conversion to Christ, and did away with them. Boom, gone. Well, that "boom" took a few years, but still. And also through this person, God has ushered me in to a new era of my life. As I look back now, it is clear-as-day undeniable. God has used this person to call me to a new and deeper life in Christ and the Church, which has a concrete name: the Secular Carmelites. My personal relationship with the Lord has been utterly transformed. And there's even been something like a beheading. Fortunately it has not been literal, but the whole ordeal was painful enough that it feels like it should have been. Just to drive the point home that it was a non-coincidental move of God, a certain division landed smack on the feast of the beheading of John the Baptist a couple years ago.

I can get really caught up looking at signs. It reminds me of the gospel scene of Jesus having ascended to heaven, and the disciples stand there staring up into the sky, probably with their mouths open, gaping and dumbfounded. The angel has to come and say "Yo, dudes. What are you doing? Close your mouths, and then go do what He just got done telling you. Shoo, go, make disciples!"

I have stood gaping at the sign God gave me. Signs are precious gifts. But signs exist so that we put our faith in the power of the One who has revealed Himself to us, not so that we can build booths and stay on the mountain top forever with the sign.

God is calling me onward. Onward, for me, usually means something interior. I have sensed this for at least one solid year, but "senses" never come just once; they build in layers of prayer and experience. But I know that this "onward" means this understanding: Love means giving myself for the other. Which other? Any and every other God puts in my path. It means loving and giving for the sake of the other, not for what I get out of the loving or the giving. My life is a blank check. Absolutely all of it is put at God's disposal for His purposes, which means it is at the disposal of the people in my life: "my neighbor." I am reminded how Bl. Teresa of Calcutta said that God does not command us to love the world because "the world" is an abstraction. He calls us to love our neighbor. That means the concrete person sharing our life.

But that person, those people, do not become my security. I do not lay claim to any person. Love with detachment, as the Father does and Jesus reveals to us. This does not mean God is aloof; it means that He does not love with self-seeking. He loves with complete self-giving, to the point of death.

My security, my attachment is to Christ on the cross: the sign of God's eternal love which becomes mine. May I love Him and come to imitate Him.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Prophecy, Reality, and the Done Deal

Under the category: Scriptures that Blow me Away
I was listening to the Seraphic Fire recording of Handel's Messiah today. Any average time I listen to the Messiah I am bound to be captivated by some Scripture or another from it, as I have written about on previous occasions. But this time, it was a completely new aspect that grabbed me and, to be honest, made me heave joyful but surprising sobs that I didn't completely understand.

It was the words of the very first definitive proclamation of the birth of the Savior as having happened.

And they are recorded in the book of the prophet Isaiah, and were penned some handful of centuries before Christ.

For unto us a child is born
Unto us a son is given
And the government shall be upon his shoulders
And his name shall be called
Wonderful, Counselor
The Mighty God, the Everlasting Father
The Prince of Peace
I heard this with completely new ears today. Imagine it. The prophet proclaims that something has happened, already. One who is called God has been born a child. This sent my mind and spirit tumbling in a sort of timeless free fall where faith is the only solid foundation. When the prophet wrote these words, were they true? Were they fact? Jesus Christ was born something like 500-700 years later, depending on how you date Isaiah. But the prophet did more than see the future. He saw the heart of God. He heard the promise of God, uttered in the moment of the eternal gift of salvation.

Then I imagined people who read Isaiah's words when the ink was still fresh. Ok, buster, where's this child? Nice poetry, but I don't see God ruling us. Why don't you go off in your little religious corner and daydream some more. 

Maybe people did have an understanding and appreciation of the prophets and prophecy back then. But then I remember what Jesus said about how all the prophets endured persecution. So, maybe my guess is fairly accurate.

I think perhaps my sobs today were because I was rejoicing with the prophet that His words were vindicated by the concrete event of history that was the birth of Jesus Christ of the Virgin Mary. But it was more than that, too, for even the concrete event -- the truth of it -- can only truly be seen and known by faith.  I was sobbing because I realized I was standing in the same faith that the prophet had. He saw by faith something that was yet to be. I saw by faith something that had happened. And yet in each case, the Reality of the One promised was present, right now, by faith.

And if He is present right now by faith to me, then that means that all those things that I long for, pray for, sacrifice for, everything that actually originates in His heart and somehow makes its way into mine, all those things are completely fulfilled in Him, too. Right now. Done deal.

Just like the child spoken of centuries before He was conceived in the womb of the Virgin.

And I live to pray into being that which already is. Whoa. Was that mystery-induced dizziness that just struck me?

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Feeling Guilty Because Your Advent is Crazy-Hectic?

Advent has grown on me every year. There is always something so heart-throbbingly beautiful about it to me; potent but elusive. One minute the longing of it all draws me up out of myself, and the next that wave crashes out of me into an infinite shore so vast that every longing I'm capable of from here to eternity feels like it can only culminate into a tiny speck of nothing.

Ah, Advent.

For lots of Christians in the Western world, the season comes at the traditionally busiest, bustliest, frenetic and frazzled time of year: The Holiday Season, or preparing for Christmas. For many other people in the northern hemisphere it is also a time of sadness, loneliness and depression, no doubt partly fueled by people's dark-days-induced lack of vitamin D. It is also fueled by a vague sense that at Christmastime, everyone is supposed to be happy. The depth of everyone's loving connections, the warmth and empathy that surround us are all supposed to be on display, caressing us and making everything bright and wonderful. Solving our problems. Giving us hope. But what often happens instead is that either our vague hopes get dashed, and we are sad once again, or the hearts we have turned to steel against all such soft feelings over the years get revealed for what they are, and we reject notions of warmth, love and empathy either outright (bah, humbug), or in more subtle ways that go mostly unnoticed, even to ourselves.

And in the midst of it all, we find Christians who feel guilty because they are so busy trying to prepare for Christ's birth that they hardly feel like they are living Advent at all.

I've been listening inside my own frazzledness, and I think I hear hope for us.

I draw this hope from my own lived experience of conversion which I've blogged about extensively, so if you'd like to read the stories, just follow the links.

I've written about the Christmas Eve midnight Mass 22 years ago which was the turning point in my conversion to the Catholic faith. The liturgical timing of that moment of conversion was absolutely prophetic for me; God chose it to teach and form me in a very deep way. I've also written about another major turning point in my life that happened only five years ago (almost) on the feast of Epiphany. Because that one is far newer I am still very much still writing the story, so to speak. But I know that it is about mission. And the mission is one God has taught me about in the context of Advent, but also in the context of my Carmelite vocation.

And because of all those experiences, it feels clear to me that my spiritual purpose in Advent is to pray and offer sacrifice for the conversion of souls. We like to give gifts to those we love at Christmastime, and we really like it if we can find a gift that really brings joy to another person. What greater joy does Jesus ever have than the conversion of a soul who has been cold towards Him? His nature is love, and nothing pleases Him more than to be able to have that love received and enjoyed by a soul who has been without. And when you consider the end-time focus of Advent, every Christian's thoughts should immediately turn toward the eternal salvation of those who have lost or who are in grave danger of completely losing sight of God's love. And we should also keep solidly before our eyes remnant Israel, humbled, anawim, waiting, expecting. Israel, which has learned that salvation comes from God alone. Israel, who has endured suffering and trial, whose hope is not in its own might but in the One who makes and will fulfill His promises.

So, I lay in to everything I want to do to be in Advent and prepare for Christmas, and I find, oh dear!, obstacles! Stress! A crazy schedule! A grumpy attitude! Doubts about whether it is worth it, and, if I'm honest, creeping resentment towards some of those people I'm supposedly wanting to make happy!

What is happening?!

It's just Advent. Welcome to your normal life, with all the potential for sacrifice highlighted.

It will get easier if you stop thinking you find a holy Advent somewhere else. Your holy Advent is in embracing the few extra weights in your pack as you climb this mountain. The weights, the stresses, are not evidence convicting you of failure. They are your share that you can chip in to give Jesus what He's always wanted: your heart, and a path to the heart of others.

Holiness does not come in feeling "together," or in being so in control that nothing ever bothers us. That's stuff of the flesh. Holiness comes only from union with the Lord, and feelings are no sure indication of that union. Holiness has a lot to do with simply showing up for duty, with no consultation with our sense of competence, let alone perfection. Perhaps it is when our feelings register "ain't got nothin'! but Lord, here I am" that Jesus can be biggest in us. When we are all offering, taking upon our lips and into our lives Christ's prayer to the Father, He can be all Gift through us.

That is Advent prayer and sacrifice. God does tremendous work through His Church. When we Christians humbly count ourselves members of Him, as we are, we become His outposts in this world through whom He achieves the salvation of souls.

So, back into the list of things before me today, and you too. If When it gets hectic, smile inside at Jesus, and tell Him it's for a present for Him.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Trust is the Beginning

As I was working with my daughter on her math lesson the other day, she taught me about a stumbling block on a spiritual level that I've experienced and watched others struggle with too.

The truth is simple: The goal of being taught is learning, that is, to grasp in practical terms the truth or skill we are being taught so we can turn around and use the skill or apply the truth.

And as I sat there explaining "part one plus part two equals whole; whole minus part one equals part two; whole minus part two equals part one" to my daughter, she assured me "Yeah, yeah, I get it. That's easy. 7+4=11; 11-4=7; 11-7=4." I worked through some slightly more complicated exercises with her, and as long as I was working with her, she got it.

But the structure of her lessons moves her from my teaching, to working together, to her working independently. And when she came to that step, I saw it. She asked me questions, but they weren't related to understanding the concept. They were relational-fishing questions. She was focused relationally, wanting to make sure I was still with her.

But exactly that became her place of insecurity: "Are you really here with me?" In order to master the skill, she had to know, to decide, in her gut that I am there and give herself to "part + part = whole." Otherwise, anything she would accomplish with math would be scraps of work, not learning.

And when I saw that, I saw so much of my own history with God. To be trained by God as effective builders of His kingdom, to work with Him in mission, we have to have it settled that He is with us. He is for us. We have to trust His love.

Joyce Meyer used to do this bit that drove home the point of accepting God's role in our relationship. She'd sit in a chair, and then say "So, what if someone came up to me and told me to sit down when I'm already sitting?" And she'd flail around trying to "sit more" in the chair. The point is, if you are positionally related to the chair (or to God) and then you start to question and doubt the basic fact and try to see if you can make it "more true" by "trying harder," well, it just gets impossibly silly. When you are sitting and someone tells you to sit, you assert the fact: I'm already seated. You do not give in to insecurity that questions the fact.

And yet this is a snare that grabs so many. We spend all our energy trying to get God to prove that He is listening, prove that He loves us, prove that we are good enough for Him.... all because we lack faith. God tells us that He is love (1 Jn. 4:8), that He loves the world and everyone in it (Jn. 3:16), and that He will never reject anyone who comes to Him (Jn. 6:37). These are the facts. We need to stop doubting them, and believe. We have to trust His love. We have to do business with God on His terms.

So many people believe it while they feel it, and when something happens to challenge their feeling, they lose "faith." Instead of losing faith, they need to be choosing faith.

Because to be trained by God we have to have it settled that He is with us. Then and only then do we even hear what He is trying to teach us when He is with us. He is teaching us skills and giving us experiences that He means for us to reproduce in love and service to others. But we have to grasp some basic things before our hearts are free to apply them to the real world with wisdom, as God desires us to.

God loves us, and He wants us to be firm in knowing it. But He also wants to teach us, because God loves everyone, and He calls us to take His love to others. And He wants not only to teach us, but for us to bring His love to others, once we get the skill He has desired to form in us.

Once a soul trusts Jesus, this is the trajectory on which He sends it.