Posts about Christian living

Our Calling to be Little John the Baptists

Posted on December 18, 2023

St. John the Baptist Sees Jesus from Afar by James Tissot

During Advent, I have been reflecting on the injunction to “Prepare the way for the Lord.”  This is the life message of John the Baptist, and he does it with his whole person even unto death.  Usually I receive this admonition in Advent as one for my own heart to make ready more space for the Lord, to give the long awaited Jesus more access to my valleys and mountains so that he can make them into a straight path for his presence.  My death to self gives more breath to the risen Christ living his life in me.

This year I have been focusing on what it means to prepare the way of the Lord for others.  It doesn’t mean that I am the savior;  I cannot rescue, deliver, or redeem.  But I can, through my presence, actions, and words make someone more open to meeting the Lord and receiving him so that if he followed right after me, this person would recognize him and welcome him.  This has heightened my awareness of every interaction--with the Muslim checker in the grocery store to my tone with a seller when working out a dispute on Facebook Marketplace, from my morning exchanges with my teenage son to someone to whom I must tell the truth, which I would rather avoid.  This means being aware of Christ’s presence in every conversation, something I aspire to but have not attained.  “What would Jesus want me to communicate to this person in front of me who is beloved to him?” This does not mean I cannot have conflict; it simply informs the undertow of the conflict.  Is our conversation pushing someone away from the possibility of meeting the Lord or pulling them toward curiosity by a warm infection of kindness, consideration, and bracing love? Of course, some will choose not to welcome the Lord on a path he prepared so well.  But that is not our responsibility.

In Brazil recently, my husband and I were seated at the little café where we would have our daily afternoon coffee.  Incidentally, the café was named for a coin that a landowner minted using a certain weight of gold that could redeem a slave.  With one “Pio” a slave could be set free.  This landowner used his wealth to make a path of freedom for slaves.  

The café opens to the outside and the ocean air mingles with the tourists enjoying a reprieve from the pressure of their faraway lives in contrast to the locals carrying their own secret sorrows while setting tables for tourists. 

I love the way this café allows wandering peddlars and beggars to meander around the tables, and I was cheered by the softness in the customers to respond kindly and buy them a sandwich or some juice.  But it was hard to be interrupted often when we were trying to relax, and I was fighting callousness. After all, the day before I had bought a woman a sandwich and a drink. 

A woman came to our table whose spine was so twisted that the top of it and the end were at a 40 degree angle from each other;  every step was clearly painful.  I wasn’t interested in her garish refrigerator magnets.  And her obvious pain was a reminder that I cannot get away from sorrow.  I had come to this place to escape heartache.  At first, I just motioned that we were not interested.  But then the Holy Spirit whispered in my heart to prepare the way.  

I called her back, and I gazed into her eyes.  What was her life like? I asked her her name…Vilma.  I asked her about her back.  She said she had fallen as a child and become crippled.  I asked who she lived with.  She said her mother and father had died, that she lived with her grandmother and her daughter.  As she shared about her life, she would reach up and wipe her face with her sleeve.  Her basket of wares were of little interest now.  We had entered into eternal territory together.  I wanted so badly to pray for immediate healing for her and see that spine straighten, but God has not yet worked such miracles through me, though I pray for them. 

I could say nothing except, “You have suffered profoundly.  You must be in so much pain.”  And we just held each other's eyes in silence for a long time, both of us crying.  All I felt I could do was to be with her in that moment, to see her, hopefully to make a path to the one who loved her with his life and could make of her wilderness a watered garden.  My husband, who even without the language can communicate the passion of the Lord and a prophetic word, joined me in praying for her with an infusion of hope.  God’s interest in her far surpassed our casual encounter.  He was committed to her for life and had nudged us to let her know that.

That moment has stayed with me this Advent.  Almost everyday I think of Vilma and pray for her.  I do not have words to describe what happened to me in that encounter.  It was truly a moment inhabited by the Holy Spirit, and all I had to do was notice, be curious, be available.  And I almost missed it.

C.S. Lewis says so eloquently in his essay, The Weight of Glory,” that all day long our interactions are leading each person toward glory or away from it. This would be too great a burden to bear if we could not walk in the Spirit.

“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.”

Lord, help us to prepare the way so that we are a lantern lighting the way to Jesus, or a hand helping someone who is stumbling on the way or a warning for someone to turn around and not walk toward destruction because the call of love is so compelling and a narrow way.  May we be aware of and humbly bear the great capacity we have to prepare the way for the Lord so that somehow the love of Jesus can sneak in, even to the hardest of hearts, simply because they felt a whisper of the breath of God or saw a flicker of light or smelled a fragrance of a heavenly garden with a gate open.

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Confined with Ourselves

Posted on May 01, 2020

Easter Vigil by ourselves (and Deacon Aunt Margie and cousins Charlotte and Josiah)

My uncle used to joke at the end of an evening, “We enjoyed ourselves…that’s about all we enjoyed…”  Here at home quarantined with ourselves I find we are enjoying ourselves... some of the time;  we are also disappointed in ourselves or bored with ourselves a lot of the time.  

In “The Wise Woman,” by George MacDonald, the mystical Wise Woman, in order to affect change in a selfish girl, confines her in a home where she must labor day after day at mundane chores.  With another self absorbed young girl, she encloses her in a bubble in which she must see herself in mirrors from all sides.  I feel that this “shelter-at-home” has this agency of transformation behind it--forcing us to be with ourselves as we go about mundane, repetitive labors, some of which we don’t even know how to do.

I know that I had big plans for this time cloistered at home with my children.  I gained twenty hours a week simply by not doing carpools, shuttling to activities, and engaging in active church ministry.  In the return for the deep loss of engagement with friends, life giving activities, and all the preparation for a Holy Week that we live for every year, I thought life at home would provide a kind of sabbath;  I would be productive;  we would have the chance to read books we have not had time to read, learn games that are still in their shrink wrap on the shelf, play music, sip coffee, make food that we enjoy, FaceTime with family and friends overseas, watch some documentaries.

Even as I look at that list, I realize we have done some of all of those things.  My meals have been more interesting because I am at home during meal prep time;  I have skimmed a Marie Kondo organizing book and organized my closet and drawers and the board games (whoopee); my boys played eight hours of Monopoly; we have had daily walks and more regular family prayer; we have had meaningful Zoom calls with family and friends, the kids have strung hammocks four high, and we have read out loud to each other and watched an interesting movie series.

But the feeling I have is restlessness and disappointment.  Screens are necessary for school and engagement with others. My husband has been on Zoom calls for work sometimes eight hours straight, and my older children are scattered throughout the house on computers for E-learning. It is a disconcerting disconnect to be so embodied with ourselves while being completely disembodied from others. And it is a strange “sabbath” to be away from Church and Communion.  The regularity of the news feed of fear looms large in our conversation, and our daily decisions about contact with extended family or others feel disorienting.

In this atmosphere of restlessness, I have watched us all go through a level of de-tox, of slowing down, of accepting limitations. Not having the normal hurry that jerks us out of our homes and gives us a brief escape into activity, not having the rush of careening toward lights out, forces us to be with our thoughts and our emotions, to be reminded of our choices. It is almost as if being able just to be with ourselves has affected an important work of awakening in us a discontentment with life, a longing for something more.

What if the success of this time is not once again measured by productivity or even creativity, but by personal growth in gratitude, hope, faith, and love?  By shifting our expectations of life? And is it possible that this is achieved simply by being with our own emerging thoughts, reactions, fears, and expectations, and having time to see them as they are?  And then to find that God is opening a window into an eternal space? 

At the end of each day, I do an Ignatian Examen, which involves rehearsing the day from four vantage points.  This has formalized a self-examination that has helped me articulate what is emerging in myself.  This first involves asking Jesus to be present with me as I look back over my day to reveal what I need to see in the light of his love.

The first is Gratitude:  this is a chance to allow the events, conversations, faces of the day to go before me, and to see the hidden mercies, graces, joys of the day.  The monopoly game on the living room floor for three days was an irritation, but two older brothers included a younger brother who often feels excluded, and he held his own.  I become present to that hidden small miracle and grateful for the seeds of something transformational. We stood and observed an unusual hawk in our backyard and identified him as a Cooper’s hawk.  To help our family with gratitude, we have a gratitude journal on a stand on the table encouraging everyone to write moments of gratitude throughout the day.

The second is Thoughts: this is an opportunity to examine my thoughts of the day--this is where I end up spending a lot of time. Where did my thoughts lead to faith, hope, and love?  Where was I caught up in a desolate cycle of thought?  Dialoguing with God about these thoughts and having him shine his light on them, has been an important aspect of the shelter-at-home for me.  Where are my disappointments catalytic for re-evaluation and change?  Where are my disappointments simply an acknowledgement of living this side of heaven? My fears of how this whole Covid-19 experience will change our world have had to be challenged with the faith for how this whole Covid-19 experience could change our world!  

The third is Words: this is an invitation to rehearse my words of the day.  I often find that I neglected to use words that could bless others and encourage them.  Instead, I was reactive or critical.  But I can also hear God’s, “Well done,” when I engaged in a conversation where I listened and was a vehicle for blessing in my words.

The fourth is Deeds: this is a chance to pause and examine actions of the day.  Where were they self serving? Self-sacrificing? Pointless and wasteful? Enriching and engaging?  Where did my deeds match with God’s purposes for my day or where was I drawn into the expectation of others or the misplaced desire to please others?

This simple exercise (which I actually do the following morning, looking back on the day before) has helped me be “with myself,” but in the transforming presence of God.

I am adjusting my expectations of this Coronavirus Confinement.  I have ceased to expect that I will accomplish a lot or that I will have bursts of creative energy and artistic output.  It will be more like the planting and weeding of a garden--totally unspectacular, laborious, with little to show for it at the end of the day, but evident in the breaking forth of a new season.  In actuality, weeding and tending and planting is full of the small actions of hope and expectation. So helping a child with math, listening more intently, making food, sitting down together to eat it, going on countless walks, being willing to navigate the feelings of fear and frustration with an awareness of God’s presence is sowing transformational rewards. 

In short, being with ourselves as we actually are, increases the capacity for us to be with God and others as they really are and find joy in it.  And when this confinement is over, I believe we will look back and see the creativity that emerged, the changes that were sown in the hiddenness of this time, and the longing for God and true community.  This is the faith I am engaging for how our world will be different after Corona...we will be different.  And this unleashes eternal possibilities.  

I better go cut some boys’ hair right now, a labor I do not relish. Wish me joy.

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