Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Habitual Desperation

Michael W. Smith's song Breathe was somewhat popular as a worship song in circles I moved in a few years ago. In the chorus the soul sings to God, "And I...I'm desperate for you./And I.. I'm lost without you"

I won't even go into how after hearing this song once or twice in my life, I find it boring and incapable of carrying my prayer. There's something deeper that bothers me about it, something that probably did at one point stir me up enough to sing it as a worship song with some feeling.
It is very true that the soul is lost without God. It is also a common experience to feel lost when we don't feel God.

But a good worship song really should not have us rehearsing thoughts that don't build virtues. And while we need to initially identify our desperate need for God, we need to build up our faith in God's reality and presence and our hope for His action in our world, not our own experience of a need.

I've noticed this tendency within myself. I can think of my desire for God, my longing for God, my longing for God's action, my longing to see His kingdom come and His will be done, and I can find myself in this mode: "I------ I'm desperate for you......" It's all about my tremendous feeling of need. Now, I'm not anti-emotion (although I do favor rational thinking). Emotions are good, and our sense of need for God is very good. But it's not all about me. At some point I really need to move off my experience of my desire and look at the God who has inspired that desire. We don't really take our desires seriously if we do not recognize that the God who puts them there is present to fulfill them. Oh, it won't be instantaneously, and it probably won't even a be painless and wonderful process. But we long for God because He causes that. And if we don't shut up about our desires, and turn to look upon the God we desire so He can fill us, all we are really doing is wallowing in a sensual, emotional experience. And we run the risk of walling God off in the very process of singing about our desperation for Him.

We're talking fine lines here.  And I think this is one of the limitations of modern "worship music." I firmly believe that worship is meant to form us. This is why parish music directors need to have a pastoral sense and an evangelizing sense along with musical capacity and basic awareness of who it is s/he is serving. Good worship music allows a congregation to reach out to God and to experience Him drawing them to Himself. There needs to be that exchange, facilitated at least. And if we spend 10-15 minutes simply meditating on our own habit of feeling desperate without ever looking up to see the God who fulfills our need, we are becoming deformed, not formed.

May 12, 2014

A post-script:
St. John of the Cross writes in the Ascent of Mount Carmel: "Though the intention of these persons is directed to God, the effect they receive is recreation of the senses, from which they obtain weakness and imperfection more than the quickening of their will and its surrender to God." (III, 24 [4])

This seems straight to the point I was trying to make about how worship music sometimes runs the risk of being "recreation of the senses," but it also reminds me to bring out my main point in this that I realized what I had written earlier really failed to do. I do not mean by "recreation" in this case the enjoyment of the melody of this particular song (or of any). What I means is the perverted pleasure one can feel in the comfort of being stuck in desperation. I'm sure someone has a word for this. Maybe if I keep reading St. John I'll find his. But it has to do with coming to a certain spiritual plateau that one recognizes as such -- a leveling off place in traveling where there is still higher ground somewhere -- but getting content to stay right there and simply keep asking for help that one no longer believes is really forth-coming. 

To keep with this recreation, the will is weakened -- the will to look for a way out of that plateau.

I know it is not our wills that make things happen, apart from the grace of God working on and through that will. And yet there is that moment I've experienced many times -- maybe it is exactly the grace of God activating my will -- where suddenly I *really* want something, and the skids are greased and what has remained immobile moves.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

When Confirmation Received Me

I was received into the Catholic Church and confirmed when I was 25 years old. Did infant baptism as a Lutheran, and spent five highly formative years in a charismatic fellowship right before crossing the Tiber. My pentecostal friends found it weird that I thought I needed a Catholic sacrament to make the Holy Spirit real in my life.

The weird thing I discovered was what I actually needed to make the sacrament of Confirmation come alive in my life.

My RCIA was, in a word, lame. It was taught as a class and really didn't meet any of my needs or even allow me to discover what my needs were. I was thrilled to become a Catholic, but RCIA was to me mostly a season to be endured.

However, a long time before I got that far, I made an inspired commitment to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was something God stirred up in my heart, I promised Him I would do it "someday," and then the opportunity to do it opened up when I heard John Michael Talbot speak of a group he would lead there. I'm not even sure I knew I would become Catholic when I made the decision to go. But the trip ended up being my "Catholic honeymoon," taking place roughly two weeks after I entered the Church.

Our pilgrimage group met in New York and we bonded rather quickly. My spot in our tour bus was right behind John Michael, and he and the others got to know me as "the brand new Catholic." This was my very first experience of spending any kind of extended time with Catholics with any degree of spiritual exchange. All I had known before this was my own personal prayer, sporadic discussions of theological topics with one or two Catholic friends, and my lame RCIA.

After a few days, these pilgrimage Catholics were freaking me out. I came from a land where everything spiritual was invisible. I was surrounded by people with medals and beads who thought sacramentally about blessings and places and objects and prayers in common. My roommate loved Mary to an extent that made me panic, speaking of her like the Virgin was a part of her life. John Michael gave a talk about the sacramentality of geography, and of seeing the actual places Jesus walked. People couldn't wait to touch things in all the holy places. And I could not take it in at all. My heart and brain were on full tilt.

One night we prayed in the Church of the Garden of Gethsemane. I felt so lonely and frightened that Catholicism -- or at least life among Catholics -- was a terrible mistake. I believed the Church belonged to Jesus and somewhere was hiding rich mystical treasure, but I felt like I was stuck in a dead church where people were caught up in a bunch of stupid, meaningless trappings.

As we left the church that night, our priest companion said to us, "Be sure to come up here and touch the rock before you go" (supposedly the rock where Jesus had prayed). That was the last straw for me. Interiorly I screamed, "Lord, I don't want to touch some stupid, dead rock. I want to touch you!"

The next morning as I trudged to the next holy site from our hotel I prayed a good "agnostic's prayer" about all this. I told God I didn't believe anything about holy places and things having special graces, but if He wanted to prove me wrong, He could go ahead and do it.

Our Mass that day was in the Church of the Tomb of Lazarus, and we used the readings and Mass proper to that place. With the readings I began tearing up, and as the Eucharistic prayer began I was weeping, practically wailing. I had no idea what has happening to me (as everyone around me showered me with tissues), but I remember barely being able to bring myself into the communion procession, so tiny did I feel, so peeled to the core. The words roared through my spirit "He that believes in me, though he were dead, YET SHALL HE LIVE." The Lord was telling me He knew all about my deadness and all about everyone else's deadness, but that He had brought me into the Church and commissioned me that His life would go forth both in me and through me. My mission was clear. Be alive. Bring God's life everywhere I would be sent.

John Michael spoke during the communion meditation about how even though we can come into the Church and receive the sacraments at one point, sometimes it is at another point that the Church and the sacraments "come into" us. I probably didn't realize at the time he was talking to me. And I didn't really realize that my Confirmation, my commissioning by God, was exploding into activation at that moment.

And after I cleared the snot out of me after Mass I sat down to collect myself. I felt the Lord ask me, "Um, Marie, by the way.... where are you?" And then I realized. "Oh. The church of the Tomb of Lazarus. Ok, Lord," I admitted, "I guess holy places do have special graces."

And all of this I was able to realize not only because I was in the Holy Land, but because I was experiencing being with Catholics in a sharing-life, community way. When I was without a lived experience of faith with others, I spared myself a lot of pain, but I also "spared" myself the glory of God revealed. That community experience was as temporary as it was real, but it awakened a hunger and a seeking that has only intensified over the last 21 years.

Let us be brave to face the pain and the glory, and not allow ourselves to be satisfied with our utter dissatisfaction.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Handing Over That Friendship

A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; / he who finds one finds a treasure. / A faithful friend is beyond price, no sum can balance his worth. / A faithful friend is a life-saving remedy, such as he who fears God finds; / for he who fears God behaves accordingly, / and his friend will be like himself.
(Sirach 6:14-17)

Two years ago, liturgically speaking, I handed over my life in a way I did not and could not have comprehended at the time. I acted in obedience to what I discerned was a prompting of the Holy Spirit -- an important one -- and it has been one crazy ride.

Mostly the crazy has subsided. But when I mash that with the Scripture above, well, I recognize important things.

It is true that a faithful friend is a life-saving remedy. It is also true that friendship gone wonky is probably the most Good Friday-esque thing I know. There are many, many things about which I have sort of a natural detachment. I just can't get too bothered by certain things at all. But I have rich potential for bother when it comes to relationships with people. I think that is why God has taught me, has been trying to teach me for decades, that I need to see all people in my life as coming from Him and all relationships belonging to Him. Not to me.

The treasure of friendship I can embrace, but I acknowledge that it comes from God. He proves Himself faithful, though, because never ever has He left me high and dry. He knows exactly which people to introduce into my life. And yet, at the same time, I have to acknowledge that the very, very real relationship that God wants as my top priority is the one I have with Him. That really is the only way anything works smoothly with other people. Well, perhaps that is a deceptive statement. Sometimes for things to go right with others there needs to be a degree of bumpiness. It is needed to the degree that sin and self clog the way and need to be purged. I had so much junk that had to go, in reference to two years ago. We all do, and we seem to grow new crops of it all the time. Sometimes the desire to "keep peace" and to ignore our junk and that of others is exactly what destroys holiness in relationships.

For me to trust God with this handing over of myself to Him, which involved an irrevocable change in a friendship I treasured, has also irrevocably changed my life and my relationship with God. I would be a blind fool to not realize it has been a change for the better, precisely because it has been so Good Friday-esque. The power of the resurrection already percolates, and I believe God intends more than just my interior life to be affected as a result. All I know for sure is I can never accurately anticipate what God decides to do.

But I don't have to have anything figured out ahead of time. I just need to be ready with my Yes when He beckons.

Protestant vs Catholic Good Fridays

For many years, Good Friday was a day of vague confusion for me. As a child and as a Lutheran (the two coincided for me) I felt that it was to be a day of sadness. I was supposed to be sad, think of my sins and how they made Jesus suffer, think of Jesus taking my place in being condemned and rejected even by the Father, see the black liturgical altar drapings at the church service, and watch the movies of Jesus' crucifixion that used to be on TV in those days.

Then I spent a few Good Fridays in the pentecostal world. I remember one service in particular that was like a giant party. Any hint of being sad or somber was pretty much rejected as an expression of not knowing Jesus. It was all rejoicing that Jesus was crucified. (In the fellowship I belonged to, as I recall we didn't observe Good Friday in any particular way at all.)

And then I entered the Catholic world. And for the first time, Good Friday was about fasting. And there was a long, somber service where we all venerated a cross -- one of those uncomfortable, unscripted Catholic moments where we were supposed to freestyle in public. And since I never really had anyone explain to me what was supposed to be going on interiorly during all this, I simply had to pull stuff out of my hodgepodge of past experience. But generally I was so hungry by the evening of Good Friday that the only thought I was capable of was whether Jesus felt as completely incoherent when he was being led to crucifixion as I did from eating nothing all day. So I figured that Good Friday, for Catholics, was about experiencing Jesus' suffering with Him.

What gave Good Friday its vague confusing sense was having deeply conflicting theological ideas rumbling around my head. Yes, it is true that Jesus took our sins to the cross and paid the price for them. No, it is not true that He became so repulsive to the Father as sin that in His wrath the Father turned away from Him. (How do you really get the Trinity to rip apart just for that moment?!) Is the cross primarily a court that changes our legal status with God? Is righteousness imputed to us, Jesus' holiness substituted for our sin? (No.) Or is the cross the mystery of the revelation of God's self-giving love? Did God plan from all eternity to show His love by the second person of the Trinity taking on human flesh and then demonstrating the depth of love that God is from all eternity? Is it that action of God made man that pays in our own flesh the price we could never pay to gain access to union with God by opening up the life of the Holy Spirit to us -- the bond of love? Yes, yes, and yes! Suffering does not save the world. Love saves the world. The reality of love is that, because of sin, it causes suffering.

So, sure, we can rejoice in Jesus' death, but it isn't a fitting nor a human response to just party at the thought of suffering love, even a suffering love that bought us so great a victory. Because the cross isn't just a past legal event that gets us free admission to heaven. It is an invitation to enter the same self-giving love that Jesus demonstrates. It is the meaning of our suffering, of our lives. It is a moment to glory in the faith, the hope and the love which are given those who have put on Christ. Faith and hope are things we need in a world that isn't heaven yet. We still have to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus. And the love is the glue. We see Jesus' tremendous love poured out, and this not only fills us and empowers us, but overflows through us. But the sufferings overflow to us, too. It isn't Christian to deny them or try to escape them. It is Christian to have hope that a far exceeding glory is being worked in us. Jesus Himself -- His life -- is being formed in us and lives through us.

So it behooves us to look closely at His passion with more awe than sadness, and with more courage than celebration. Yes, it was the price of our ransom. But it is also the life we live.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Looking Upon the Pierced One

I have found that the most fitting way for me to do an examination of conscience is to look at or picture in my mind a crucifix.

Except this isn't about my regular way of looking at things. For example, it wasn't like the time I thought our shovel was stolen from our yard even though I'd walked passed it about six times every day for three months. It no doubt entered my field of vision all those times, but I didn't really pay it any heed or care that it was there. It wasn't until I realized I needed it that I noticed it wasn't in the places I was looking.

This looking at Jesus pierced is an intense kind of looking that isn't as much about what I see with my physical eye or my mind's eye as about what I feel and experience. And decide.

Read the rest here:

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Relationship With... Whom?

Last week I was in a setting where I was listening to a person, though we were not exactly in a conversation. And this person to whom I was listening began to speak of "one's relationship with God." As I listened, I suddenly became aware that this person wasn't speaking of a relationship with God at all, but rather of a relationship with one's interiority.

The tip-off was how the whole content of this relationship was things like frustration over failures to achieve self-improvement goals and disappointment that overcoming sin wasn't easier to accomplish.

I was a little bit stunned putting this 2+2 together, but just as quickly it became a naru hodo moment where I understood why when I have heard this person talk about God in the past, it seemed something big was missing.

Like an experience of a personal God.

Oh, I can't say of course that this person hasn't experienced God in a real way; in fact I would guess that quite the opposite is true. However, it seems entirely possible that one can experience something without thinking about it sufficiently to be able to articulate it, or to understand that crucial value of experience. And perhaps one has had a long and deep formation in ways that have served to reinforce this idea that since prayer is interior, therefore anything that happens interiorly is equivalent to meeting God.

But a relationship with God, like a relationship with a human person, is going to involve interaction with Him in ways that simply are not part of me, myself & I. God is Other, and He comes to me, revealing to me myself and all things, but first and foremost, Himself.

And this made me wonder.... How many other religious people of Christian background misunderstand this basic Christian truth when they hear or use the phrase "relationship with God"?