Blog

But…Who do YOU say I am?

You know the question – we all do. It’s the answer that we fear; that stymies us; that we keep denying.

Jesus’ disciples were challenged by ”the” question, up close and personal, but skipped merrily through their lives believing they belonged to an exclusive “Jesus Club”.  They would post selfies with Jesus and then boast to their friends on Facebook.

They couldn’t wait for their ten year high school reunion so they could counter the negative comments in their senior year book, “most likely to end up in jail” or “most likely to become a TV repairman living in their mother’s basement.” I think that was about James or John because their mother boldly approached Jesus to ask him to get them both out of her hair! (Mark 10:35-45)

I imagine Jesus had to pose that all important question to them constantly just to pull them back to reality, “Come on, guys. AGAIN…”Who Am I?”

It wasn’t just the disciples, everyone of us through the centuries has been challenged by that question which cannot be answered by words, but rather, by the very act of our day-to-day living. And in our arrogance we rarely get it right.

Recall that Jesus’ own brothers (yes, he had some, and sisters too, get over it) often mocked and ridiculed him in front of others, “For even his own brothers did not believe in him.” (John 7:2-9)

A bit of sibling rivalry? Sure. Not surprising as he was the only one who never disobeyed or sinned.  His brothers had to be jealous of that and how his admiring followers flocked to him wherever he went.

John Dominic Crossan gives us some interesting insight into the thinking of the day:

“…if you asked anyone in the Mediterranean world at the time of Jesus, “Who’s the Son of God, the Lord, the redeemer, the savior of the world?” everyone would’ve known immediately who you were talking about, and it sure wouldn’t have been Jesus.—it would have been Caesar Augustus.”

https://bustedhalo.com/features/busted-john-dominic-crossan

That’s right and Caesar loved it. It seemed like a game to him. He was a master of propaganda and deceit and knew how to manipulate everyone from the powerful to the lowliest pheasant. Because he was so skilled at the deception, even though he was actually a dictator, everyone loved him. Go figure.

Perhaps this understanding of everyone’s belief that Caesar Augustus was the Son of God made him a hard act for Jesus to follow. Who knows?

But we know the feeling of being “less than”. Right? Stay with me here.

The title of my blog, “Passion, Purpose, and Poopyheads” defines the struggles I have had since I first accepted that I was actually gifted with passion and purpose –as we all are. The problem has always been the “poopyheads” that keep setting up roadblocks for me to stumble over. And isn’t that what we all deal with when we pose the “who do you say I am” question back to God: That incessant question.

We yearn for the answer. It’s our deepest spiritual longing. “Who am I to you, Lord?” But, his answer is always drown out by the voices of those who, for years, have run roughshod over our hearts and muddied the pure waters of God’s immovable, unchangeable, immense love for us. He calls each one of us his beloved, but we don’t believe it. Instead, we believe the lies of those who are just as broken as we are.

Picture this (and don’t pretend you have never thought this): You go to a new doctor and are ushered into his nurse’s station as she takes all your vital signs then shoves you up on a scale. All the while you can’t help but notice that she is obviously struggling with her own health issues. Then, you sit for an eternity waiting for the doctor who finally walks into the room reeking of cigarette smoke and finishing up the last bite of a McDonalds Big Mac – his lunch (gag me!). Will you trust anything he advises to keep you healthy when he clearly doesn’t follow that advice himself? Do you stay or run like hell? You decide for yourself, but I’m already in my car.

Now, let’s put that scenario into the context of this discussion of just who it is that Jesus says we are. Even though he tells us the same thing over and over and over, we choose to give full authority to the thoughts of others who are – well – screwed up. Mostly. Like us.

GEEEEZZZZZ PEOPLE!

God, the magnificent Creator of all things has set before each of us his commitments – not commandments – an important distinction here.

He has committed to never leave us no matter what twists or turns we take on the journey. He has given us everything we need for a life not laid out before us like a scavenger hunt, though we seem to prefer that. Then, we get tripped up every time we encounter any obstacles.

We just sleepwalk through this one precious life we have been given without much thought to what we’re supposed to be doing here.

But, alas, it’s January 1, 2022. A new year.

I’m going to speak for myself now. You’re welcome to tag along….

Let’s call it:

An ode to new beginnings that tell us endings are never final if you’re still breathing.

Last year was, hands down, one of my worst years ever, with Covid relegated to last place on my list of crappy moments. After the loss of my husband, I had to face the truth of a heart condition that I chose to ignore for years. Until it reared up and took a huge bite out of my…denial.

Both these profound life events were instrumental in creating my new reality: At my age, I am starting over in an uncertain and unfamiliar place.

For the entire seventy-three years of my life I have never known what it’s like to be the creator of my own destiny. Others would always butt in with unsolicited advice and make huge messes in my life like the bratty kid who knocks down all your Legos so you have to start over! Likewise, I now have no one else to blame if I fail to follow that destiny.

How often have I thought God abandoned me because a path I took seemed like a dead-end? Only to discover it offered a critical lesson that I needed to learn before I could move on. If I could just become more self-aware and present to the steps I have taken, and will continue to take, it will be clear how they fit into my life’s purpose. I’m working on that.

How many times during the Christmas season have I hear the words, “Emmanuel – God with us” and not understood that that does not mean God has taken the wheel? He is still with us; still loving on us – but from the passenger seat.

I remember when my kids were learning to drive. That imaginary brake on my side of the car never worked! And throwing my hands up on the dashboard didn’t alter the trajectory or the speed of the car. God doesn’t work like that. He will not grab the wheel to redirect us if we mess up, and he will not bail on us no matter how out-of-control we become. He waits for our return to him – sadly, expectantly, – but patiently, like the father of the prodigal son. The choice is ours alone.

I have no idea what’s around the next corner for me and, frankly, I don’t need to know. I only know this: God is always with me. He is by my side. He is my biggest cheerleader. He forgives my stupidity and delights in giving me second chances. Yeah me!

At the end of the day, hopefully, he will welcome me home into his very heart where I will hear those immortal words, “Pretty well done, Linda. Not bad, for a messy human.”  

Pretty well done indeed – I’ll take it!

The Good News Reimagined

For three years Jesus walked with and taught his disciples. He dared to love those cast aside by society. He healed the sick, turned unbelieving hearts toward God, and challenged those who believed they held the ultimate power.

The problem was that his disciples wanted to follow him on their own terms. Time and again, they failed.  Why? Their desire to change was ever frustrated by their inability to know God as Jesus knew him. Their frame of reference for God’s love was within the realm of deserving and undeserving. It was something they could control by their actions.

What they witnessed in Jesus’ Passion and death was his total self-giving to his Father. What God revealed by the resurrection was his radically gratuitous love for his Son, for the disciples, and for us. Though that love is given freely, it calls for a response from us.  I can’t help but wonder if that’s why we, like the Israelites, settle at the foot of the mountain in a comfortable, risk free faith. “Nuh uh, I ain’t goin’ up  there!”

Before Jesus’ crucifixion all of his wishy-washy disciples ran away in fear of meeting the same fate. (Just a little reminder here: the women stayed! You know that, right? Power to the women!) Anyway, the manly men finally came out of hiding and ran head-long into Jesus transfigured. There was now no denying that what they witnessed they were compelled to share with a lost and hurting world.

For the disciples, transformation came through their realization that this Jesus, standing before them, the same human person they knew before, now reveals his divinity. Through his resurrection, they are also made a new creation by the power of the Holy Spirit. That reality released within them an unshakable love, beyond their human capacity.

Can we possibly grasp the implications of that love in our own lives? In a world laden with mistrust and fear, we zealously take care of “number one”. How does that correlate with the fact that we were made in the image of God?  It doesn’t.

As Christians we too were created anew by the resurrection and empowered by the Holy Spirit. That is Good News! And we have a mandate to take that Good News into the world. If fear holds us back, it is grounded in the denial of who we really are. Fear clings to the old self, refuses to relinquish control, and ties the hands of the Spirit. God’s sacrificial love is meant for all, and I am to be an instrument of that love, or my faith response is inadequate.

Confession time! For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be an “instrument” of God’s love on my own terms, just like the disciples, and I blew it – big time – just like they did! BUT, I’m still breathing so I still have time for a course correction. Sooooo, let me get all my “stuff” out there now and pray for that clean slate God is so good at freely offering us. You might want to fasten your seatbelt!

You see, I always felt the need for certitude about something, anything, in my messed up, confused, and broken life, but I wasn’t sure about trusting that to God. I mean, up to that point he didn’t seem to pay any mind to me or my trials. I was convinced I was screaming into an echo chamber when I complained about the raw deal life handed me. It sucked for real! So, I went about creating a new and different me and it seemed to be working just fine – on the outside – for a while.

After my husband and I were married I became a card-carrying member of the Catholic Church. Then with a cross around my neck and a big fish on the bumper of my car I sat and waited for the angels to break out in song. It never happened. I never got so much as a thumbs up or attagirl.

For several years after my official dunking I still lived in a state of doubt, always questioning the very essence of my faith. I read the Bible from front to back even though my eyes glazed over trying to wrestle with the Old Testament. Still, I came away from that experience believing I now knew everything about everything God, Jesus, Spirit and leprechauns (Okay not leprechauns, I just threw that in to see if you were paying attention), but God, Jesus, and Spirit, yes!

I was also good at making you look bad to make me look better. Listen, I could easily admonish you for all your faults and failures without skipping a beat. I could even quote Scripture verses to shore up my convictions. “Oh yeah, you think you’re a shoe-in for heaven? Well, I’ve got news for you – you’re screwed. Matthew says so, ‘For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few – very few – almost no one!’” (Matt. 7:13–14). I hate to tell you (NOT!) but this is not your lucky day and tomorrow ain’t lookin’ too good either if you don’t change your ways! Don’t say I didn’t warn you. You’re welcome!

Jesus side-eyed me for my attitude more times than I care to admit!

Then, one fine day in 2006, I was accepted into a graduate program at Aquinas Institute of Theology! Yeah, surprised the hell out of me too! Now I thought I would have even more ammunition in my arsenal to judge and condemn you while promoting myself. Sweet! I have shared my experiences at Aquinas in previous posts. So, let me just say that, like Paul, I was knocked off my high horse and taken to task because of an arrogant assessment of myself. It was not pretty.

Now, since I am very stubborn and hard-headed (duh) my transformation was very, very slow. Truth be told, I muddled along for several years after graduation trying to sustain my convictions. After all, who would I be if not this person I created to shore up my sense of self, albeit a very fragile and false self?

So I trudged along searching – for what? I didn’t know. Longing for something out there that could give my life meaning I tried desperately to fill the void. I left the Catholic Church in frustration and wondered into other Christian churches. Some sent me running out the door with my hair on fire! Why was I struggling so hard to find a faith with the correct beliefs that spoke to me? For a moment I considered communing alone with nature! Then I had a vision of St. John the Baptist running naked in the woods, eating bugs and swatting mosquitoes! No thanks.

And then – my glorious and long overdue AHA moment arrived at my doorstep unannounced. In my search for a belief system that I could buy into I suddenly realized what I was actually longing for. In that moment, experience and dogma clashed head-on and I understood that I wasn’t searching for correct beliefs. That has never been what drew me to God. It was the experiences along the way that showed me God’s love beyond anything I had ever known. It just took this long to accept that God could actually love me like that. Experiencing God in relationship, not knowledge of God, wells up within the very depth of our hearts – where he resides. I was finally home within my very being – where my deepest longing and hunger reside.

I could beat myself up for all the years I wasted wanting faith on my own terms, but God has spoken tenderly into my brokenness and heartache. That voice was not a voice of condemnation that I was taught to believe is God’s. It’s not helpful that we are reminded every Lenten season that he had his beloved Son killed because of our wretchedness. NO! I believe Jesus was killed by a power structure that feared him. He lived a life that he had to know would get him killed but he did it anyway out of a self-giving love that was at the core of his being.

I now trust that the God I long to surrender to also longs for me. The God who knew his Son would suffer terribly and die showed us his unwavering love and mercy, compassion and forgiveness in the person of Jesus.  

John 15:12-13 tells us: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Seeing Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in the context of John’s gospel of love has cast a new and beautiful light on what I now see when he says, “I am the way”. His life and love show me that if I follow in his way I will be living my purpose which is to love unconditionally; serve where I am called, and offer freely the same forgiveness and mercy God has shown me.

The Easter question for me, for us, as for the disciples, becomes, “What do you believe about me?” What I say I believe must manifest itself in the way I live my life or it is a lie.

A Blessed Easter to you all!

Good Grief

Last year, an unwelcome course correction arrived at my doorstep with the sudden passing of my husband. My life came to a screeching halt as I faced the stark reality of being thrust into the unknown and the numbing emptiness that followed.

I unwillingly became a part of a club with no guidelines, no rules, and no secret handshake. I was signed up without permission and I can’t “cancel at any time”. 

The blessings that came from a forty-seven year marriage were overshadowed for most of this past year by regrets over things said or done, the if onlys and lost opportunities. I thought that dark cloud would not dissipate. It totally sucked.

I needed someone to complain to.  Ahhhhh, God. I could complain to God. I’m so good at that. But, the last time I tried it went something like this:

Me dialing the number I found on Google…

The message in response:

                Dial 1 to leave a message of gratitude.

                Dial 2 to leave a complaint. You will be prompted to whine, grovel and beg.

(FYI this box is not monitored.)

How in the world did I fool myself into believing that my life would just keep plugging along with only a few pot holes here, bumps in the road there, until I drifted unceremoniously into eternity? I was lulled into believing that the way my life was would not change drastically or without some kind of damn warning.

Wrinkles and gray hair warn you. They don’t just show up one fine morning. They tiptoe in without much fanfare giving you plenty of time to disguise them before your next high school reunion. The aches and pains of aging sneak around your joints like a ninja which mercifully eases you into the acceptance that your running days are over.

For as long as I can remember each day of my life seemed to blend into the next. Birthdays piling one on top of one another were no more thought provoking than a trash can filling up. Any thought of purpose or meaning was often left unaddressed – till tomorrow – or next week – or…. 

I think life’s subtle changes are meant as a wake-up call. But, they’re too subtle for me. They need to scream loudly into my failure to act before it’s too late…but…oh yeah…pride helped me ignore the fact that I probably needed a hearing aid. Until now – until this.

Then, just as suddenly as I was knee-jerked into widowhood, the dark cloud lifted to reveal God’s promise to turn my mourning into dancing (Psalm 30:11).

Being thrust into the pain of loss must become the catalyst for change; for hope that there is more to this life. Or why do we even bother? Matthew 4:16 says, “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light”. Jesus came along and spent his life showing us how to live abundantly in that light often in spite of the darkness.

Then one morning, God spoke into my broken heart, “This is your new reality Linda. You’re still here. You are surrounded by my love, the love of an amazing family, and supportive, loving friends. Now, get up, dust yourself off, and go do what you were created to do. Because, if you haven’t learned anything else this past year, you surely have realized that this one precious life you have is short. Quit wasting it!  Roll up your pity party mat and GO!”

I will leave you with two of the most powerful quotes that have helped me move beyond my sorrow:

Gian Carlo Menotti wants us to let this sink in, “Hell begins on the day when God grants us a clear vision of all that we might have achieved, of all the gifts which we have wasted, of all that we might have done which we did not do.”

 John Shelby Spong tells us, “It is to live not frightened by death, but rather called by the reality of death to go into our humanity so deeply and so passionately that even death is transcended.”

A Drop in Vegetable Sales Ushers in Lent

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

And so it begins. Another Lent when we give up peas (my husband’s favorite sacrifice) but not our belief that we are such wretched souls that a vindictive God demanded the death of his son to fix it.

A sort of bait and switch tactic which is kinda genius if it weren’t for the fact that God deals with stupid humans. I mean, it’s not like all of humankind did an immediate about face and never sinned again. If God really devised this plan to correct the stupidity of Adam and Eve it didn’t work. We have continued to sin and fall short of the glory of God. So, what would have been the point?

Even so, I think this belief is easy for us to buy into because it makes no demands on us. It’s a bit like believing “fortified” Froot Loops are healthy! No kids – they’re NOT! So spit it out and go get yourself some common sense! GEEEEZZZZZ.

I hate to admit that I lived comfortably for many years in that safe place too. Eventually it grew impossible for me to accept such an untruth in light of the God I grew to know intimately. How can anyone “know” God you ask? – By experiencing his essence in the beauty of nature, the love of family, the compassion of friends, and the thoughtfulness and generosity of strangers.

Jesus’ Passion should declare the unbridled love of God for us. The cross should upend any denial that he loves us deeply and obsessively. But, as Hebrews 10:31 tells us, “It’s just way to scary to fall into the hands of the living God” (loose translation). That is not a god we want to snuggle up to. We prefer a god like that unpredictable crazy uncle we keep at a distance. Genesis 3:8 insists that Adam and Eve ran and hid from that God!

Every single blessed year Lent calls us to look at the cross differently. It’s a perpetual life lesson that keeps showing up forty days a year, year end and year out, until we “get it”! If we get it at all.

Will we ever wake up to the beauty of the cross? I believe that can only be possible through the eyes of faith – illuminated by the grace of a tender, loving God.

In order for that to happen though, we must be willing to fix an unwavering gaze at the cross and realize the true meaning of Jesus’ Passion. We must embrace with faith – even if it’s a bit shaky – the reality that the crucifixion on Friday and empty tomb on Saturday were necessary for the revelation of the profound mystery that is God manifest through Jesus on Easter Sunday.

Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Choices

We’re not talking about regrettable tattoos, people. Although, if you trusted a tattoo guy who never got past the third grade– well – you’re a bonehead! Let’s move on.

We’re talking about serious, life-altering, fast-track to hell choices. If you can look me straight in the eye and deny you have ever made any decisions that tipped your halo sideways I will be the first to recommend you for canonization to sainthood. Oh, not Catholic? Then, sorry, you’ll just have to settle for hopes of an honorable mention (which comes with no monetary rewards).

Now, know that I am not talking about the likes of the Catholic baby, later confirmed, Hitler turned adult monster. There can’t be any doubt in most people’s minds that he did not pass GO and did not collect $200 on his way to hell. Right? Or at the very least still resides in Purgatory because his momma was the only one who may have wanted to pray him out of there but she died long before him. Never mind him. If you think for one minute that Purgatory will be your saving grace. Well, that’s a major attitude fail on your part and God will side-eye you every time you knowingly sin and make no corrections.

It seems the idea of Purgatory came to life in the late 1100’s. Thomas Aquinas and the Church quickly latched onto the concept. Aquinas likely had a personal stake in it because he was a no good, very bad boy in his early days and the Church quickly realized it was a money-maker for them. Pay to play. Cha Ching. In my humble opinion though, Purgatory makes no sense. Let me tell you why I believe that. And, again, I don’t know. No one does.

Anyway, several years ago, I went through a year-long training to work with hospice patients. The most profound learning for me came from reading books written by nurses and doctors who worked for years with hospice patients. First off, they believed, as I do, that anyone who sits with someone taking their last breaths should remove their sandals because they are standing on holy ground.

During the time I sat with dying patients I only witnessed two deaths. Both experiences were intense for me and I came away with a much different belief about the idea of “cleansing” than what the Catholic Church teaches. I watched the process evolve to the final stage when they were given morphine. At that point they seemed incapable of any type of movement or communication, let alone a deathbed confession.  

BTW, deathbed confessions raise all sorts of anger among the snobby self-righteous. Being certain that sinner is destined for hell secretly makes the rest of us happy knowing they didn’t get to live their whole life being a total ass and then received an eleventh – hour Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card. NOT FAIR!  

Anyway, though I had not known anything about those two people prior to their deaths it was clear that something was happening within them that I was not privy to. There was restlessness not a sense of peace – not until the end. In both of those situations, I had an opportunity to meet briefly with a family member before I left and in each case they shared the struggles their loved one had during their life.

Do these encounters prove anything? No. But, I came to believe, as I still do, that if cleansing is an actual thing, it probably happens in those moments just before we die. Who knows? As for me, I decided long ago to hedge my bets and make course corrections in the moment I know I did or said something mean or unkind to someone. And if you’re still hanging out there waiting for an apology from 1985, pm me and we’ll meet for lunch while I beg forgiveness.

When God says, “I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it” he means it. But that doesn’t mean he won’t roll his eyes or admonish us when we screw up. It means we can go to him trusting that he will forgive and forget our stupidity. Those we have hurt may not be so gracious, but that doesn’t change anything. I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want my indiscretions to cause God to do a head smack and question the wisdom of creating a doofus like me and then take some big ole God sized eraser to my sorry self. Even if for a split second he thought about it. I mean, do I dare bring up the antics of Moses to take the pressure off myself? Sure. Why not?

I think Moses got a raw deal. If it was me, I would have bid those cranky Israelites adieu early on, “I’m done here. You guys are on your own. Good luck!”  Remember Moses tried to worm his way out of God’s calling to lead them (Exodus 3:1-12:42). Maybe he later agreed because of a bigger than life ego. “When I get these guys to the Promised Land they will surely erect a statue of me and bow to me profusely! It will be epic!”

But, toward the end of those forty long years he totally lost it. It wasn’t what he expected and what with all the whining and complaining about everything and blaming it all on him. “No food – your fault! No water – you’re fault!” Their anger slammed up against his vision of them worshipping at his shrine. So, what does he do? What any self-righteous, self-serving guy would do. He begged God to “DO SOMETHING! I can’t deal with them anymore!” So, God sent him back to wave a stick around in front of a rock and then he (God – not Moses – a small detail Moses left out) would make water pour out from it.

Anywho, Moses thought that was a terrible idea. So, he devised a better plan when he remembered seeing this witch doctor work some magic on a Netflix special back in Egypt. Back when they had Internet and modern conveniences and stuff!

 

Everyone thought he was to blame for all their problems. Fine. He would show them how powerful and mighty he was. The poor guy probably still had abandonment issues from that whole baby-in-the-basket-in-the-river incident, so this seemed like a great plan to bolster his sense of self. Surely they would bow down and worship him then.

So, instead of waving the stick around in the air, he beat the crap out of the rock with it and voila water poured out! The people went crazy! Yeah, it was all fun and games until God stepped in.

Personally, I think Moses possessed some HUGE nerve in his life. In a temporary lapse of judgment he did some awful things, like, I don’t know, defying God and then getting all up in his business. And, lest we forget, in the end, his antics kept him from joining the Israelites in the Promised Land. That ship was sailing without him. (BTW, I don’t recommend you use this material in a Sunday School class. It’s all made up. You’ve been warned.)

So, now, put on your big boy/big girl pants folks and gird your loins cause it’s up to you how the rest of your life will play out and your journey will end. I have had regrets in my life and will probably have more because that’s the foolish me who can’t seem to learn the first, second, or zillionth time! But, God still forgives a zillion + one times, if that’s what it takes.

I would just recommend that you don’t stand before him with unfinished business and a shit-pile of complaints from those you didn’t treat right along the way. Because, again, no one knows what that encounter will be like and who wants to be handed a fireproof robe and a one-way ticket south, especially if your momma isn’t around to pray for you, you little schmuck? So clean up your mess and make better choices from now on! GEEZO!

A Theology OF Running

Yep, there is such a thing! Okay, I could have made it up, but just work with me here.

It has been ten years since I ran my last half-marathon and I have decided it’s time to dust off my running shoes and get back in the game. God help me. This will probably kill me!

I began running thirty years ago when a friend dragged me to a high school track near us. We planned to run the St. Patrick’s Day 5K in St. Louis. It was three miles. Since I had never run a day in my life, it seemed reasonable. I could easily drive three miles without getting winded. So, why not?!

The first morning we ran once around the track, a quarter mile. OMG, I thought I would die! But, I didn’t. So, I went back for more; again and again until it got easier and I decided I could do it. Not just that, but I was actually beginning to love it and the challenge that came with each turn around the track. Initially, my ambitions didn’t go beyond the 5K and the free beer at the end!

It wouldn’t be long before I was hooked as I grew to love the challenge of discovering my ability to go beyond anything I had imagined. Let’s see whatcha got Linda! Though I have run several half-marathons over the years since then it has always been that initial 5K that developed my theology of running.

I started off slowly, but pushing myself to run faster became a passion for me, especially when we moved to a rural area where I would run country roads at 5:00 in the morning. I was often told I was getting too old to run and that I should slow down because it wasn’t good for my joints (jealous couch potatoes every last one of you!). I had no desire to slow down. Every time I decided to walk instead it didn’t last long. It wasn’t the same. I didn’t feel the joy and fulfillment I experienced when I ran.

I discovered that I am most fully alive when I am running, especially in nature. When we moved further out into the country I enjoyed it even more. I could run right out my front door and be in the woods. It was so peaceful and serene. In the early morning the sunrise was breathtaking.

There was something else I noticed: God was there. In those moments my connection with God was most vibrant and my prayers seemed most profound. That never happened for me sitting in a pew in church (I don’t need forgiveness father…that ain’t a sin!)

St. Irenaeus said that, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”  Being fully alive is the quintessential manifestation of Divine Love. That magical mysterious Love is most revealed to me in these moments when I am in the midst of; when I know I am fully a part of his creation.

One of the beauties of running is its simplicity. You need only a good pair of shoes. Actually, shoes aren’t even necessary as Ethiopian Abebe Bikila proved. He set a world record in the Rome Olympics barefoot! 

For sure there is a stark difference between the simple needs I have as a runner and the “perceived needs” of those in many sports. How does that relate to what we understand as “church”? Is church the magnificent cathedrals built centuries ago or some of the mega churches of today that entertain like a new rendition of Jesus Christ Super Star?! Not according to Jesus. The “ideal” church he modeled was about action: humble service, love, unity, hope, and mission – all easily accomplished barefoot – or at the most, wearing sandals.

When training for a race there are specific practices that can be incorporated. One such practice is called “fartlek”. It’s a Swedish word for “speed play” and it’s simply short bursts of accelerating at various times during a run. Here again, fartleking could have a spiritual meaning. Well, it could! Okay, the name might have to be changed to something a bit less like a bodily function, but it could work nicely when considering the process of growing spiritually, and, yes, it is a process.

I believe there is a misunderstanding for so many of us about just how important it is to “train” if we are to grow in faith and that may be what discourages new Christians. I don’t believe faith just “happens” with a dunk in a bucket of water even if there is some sort of “ritual” to prepare new converts for acceptance into a particular faith. There’s just more to it than that. It’s not an event, it’s a life-long journey. What about babies that are baptized in the Catholic Church? Does that baby jump right out the Priest’s arms and start serving in a soup kitchen? No.

You start out testing the waters with things that aren’t too risky like smiling instead of flipping someone off in traffic. Then, maybe you graduate to a bumper sticker…or two…or six. Don’t do that. That’s not right.

Anyway, we are taught that in baptism we are to put on Christ. But, what does that really mean? We are called to live and move and have our being as followers of Christ who teaches self-giving love by his example. And how does that happen? We learn from him to be less self-centered and more other-centered. For most of us none of that growing happens at the moment of our baptism. We will struggle in life, have set backs, and often lose our way. We have fits and starts trying to believe we truly are God’s beloved and our life has purpose. 

As we journey through life, hopefully, we will grow in the fullness of that baptismal call to be an instrument of God’s love for the good of the world we live in. This realization can surely be likened to a “runners high”! When we finally become conscious of who and whose we are and we respond through works of love, justice and mercy. Call it a “Jesus high”! You just can’t get enough.

Now I am at the place where I need to tell on myself and share a couple of final important AHA moments in my long running and faith journey. The first experience goes back to the beginning when my friend and I started training for that 5K. When we got to the day of the race we both felt we were not prepared, especially since, just a few days before, her husband, an avid runner, told us that the route of the race was very hilly! Wait…what? Hilly?! As in mountainous hilly? As in, crap, we didn’t train on hills, hilly?! After that initial shock we decided to do it anyway even if we had to walk – or crawl – or call an Uber.

But we were going and we were getting that beer at the end. Period. So, off we went. When we got to the start line we immediately saw the “hill” staring down at us laughing hysterically! Undeterred, we went for it. It was hard, but we both endured and walked when we had to. AND THEN, we turned a corner and saw the finish line! I got so excited I took off running with all I had in me (it was downhill which helped). As I got to the end, gasping for air, my friend caught up with me. She was visibly upset, “Why did you take off like that? We spent all this time training together and we were supposed to finish together! Why did you do that?” I felt so bad for leaving her behind. I was only thinking of myself and that was just wrong. Sadly, I suppose I believed that everything revolved around me.

NO. IT. DOESN’T. DUMBASS.

Our faith journey is not meant to be about us alone. If we are merely growing in a personal faith that does not embrace others on their journey; if we are so self-centered that we sprint toward life’s finish line knocking others aside, I’m pretty sure God will be waiting with those chilling words, “You came alone? Where’s your friend?”

Okay, that experience wasn’t funny, but this one is. A few years ago, another friend and I signed up for a 10K. She wasn’t concerned about training because she planned to walk. I think she just wanted to be sure I survived because, well, by then, I was old. So, off we went agreeing to meet at…that’s right…the beer truck at the end.

There were a lot of turns so volunteers stood at designated intersections to point the way. At one intersection I was a bit confused and was alone to choose. I turned right and kept running. After a mile on that road with no one in sight, it became clear to me that I had gone the wrong way. So, I turned around and ran another mile back to where I should have been. I was tired, but knew the end was near. And there, around the last corner, I saw it! The finish line! WOOT WOOT…

Then I realized the race was over and they were deflating the blow up finish line! I panicked and ran faster, but I was too late. By then most everyone had left. No one cheering. No one telling me I was almost there and to not poop myself (they tell you that. It’s not funny. Neither is the lie that “You’re almost done” when you’re not. It’s not right). Anyway, I was devastated and my friend was in a panic!  When I finally did see someone carrying some medals I insisted I deserved a first place metal for being the only person who ran eight miles instead of six! So, technically I reasoned I came in first in the unofficial eight mile race. That logic didn’t fly. I was handed a “Yep, you did finish even though you screwed up” medal. FINE. WHATEVER.  “Where’s the free beer?”

There were still a few drops of beer left for my friend and I to cheer each other and I did survive, so it wasn’t all in vain. And the lesson? Yeah you know. On this journey of faith we will also make wrong turns, but God is always at the finish line with a cold beer (don’t tell me there ain’t no beer in heaven!) and a “well done, my good and faithful servant” cheer!

You’ll have to decide for yourself if there’s beer at the finish line of life, or if that’s really why you want to run that race – to get some reward. As for me, I fully trust that a life of faith is all about the journey, not the finish line. That will take care of itself.

Death: Our Uninvited Teacher

I wrote the following Blog post on 4/2/2021 having no idea that just fifteen days later my husband would pass away. The words are now more poignant than ever:

Oh Death Where is Your Sting?

Today is Good Friday. I am struck to tears and unspeakable heartache, now more than ever before.  Why? Every Good Friday we are called to remember the brutal beating and crucifixion of Jesus. He walked in the midst of those deemed lesser and unimportant. They experienced his love and compassion for them. But, he walked a lonely road to his death. Sure, there were a few who had the courage to walk with him (ahem…the women!). But many, his disciples in particular, scattered for their own safety. Feeling powerless to stop it from happening.

Also, today we are reliving the horrific facts of the death of George Floyd during the trial of Derek Chauvin. To hear the testimony of the witnesses as they broke down and grieved over watching Floyd die has been excruciating for many. Most of the witnesses were strangers to him, yet they all spoke of feeling helpless and guilty that they didn’t try to help him. Even though they also knew they were powerless to do so.

Jesus was innocent of any crime, George Floyd was not. But, the fact remains that neither deserved to die in such a violent way at the hands of another.

So I sit quietly and contemplate both these men and how their deaths have impacted me. As a professed Christian I am called to emulate Jesus’ radical love in every aspect of my life. I mostly fail, but keep trying and longing to be more like him in the ways I live my life.

And George Floyd? I didn’t know him and likely never would have, nor would most of us, if not for witnessing his horrific death on the daily news.

Both men have touched my life. In those beautiful and poignant words of John Donne, “No man is an island; entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

“Any man/woman’s death diminishes me.” That is a fact of God’s making, we are all interconnected – like it or not. It cannot end there. The death of another, be it a loved one or a stranger, should call us to stop and take inventory of our own lives. Every funeral I attend does that for me and often shines a light on my failings to be Christ-like to others. Thankfully, every day is a new day – a day to begin again.

So, here’s what I will be contemplating and praying about today, on this holy Good Friday, and hopefully be acting on daily. It doesn’t have to be Jesus who calls us to be better, kinder, softer; to live and love more fully. It can also be the death of a stranger we have never met that wakes us from sleep-walking through life. Facing the realization that we will also die (sorry if that’s news to you) – maybe sooner than later (sorry again) – should cause us to ask ourselves if our houses are in order and, more importantly, what we are leaving behind because…

Death does not care if we have left business unfinished, relationships broken, or children to be raised. It doesn’t matter if we are not ready or sit on promises to change. It will take the weak with the strong, the humble with the proud, the saint with the jerk. Death doesn’t respect wedding plans, vacation plans, or unmet deadlines. It does not operate by a timetable we set, and is no respecter of age. It does not discriminate between the most loved or most hated. It may not wait for the most brilliant to cure cancer, bring peace to a troubled nation, or receive a Nobel Prize.

Denying that death is a part of life is like believing we still look like our high school picture. We can’t rely on death to come when we are ready. But we can rely on it to teach those of us who are willing, how to truly live. It can and should be a time of reflection: Have I lived well, loved well, forgiven — honestly – and sought forgiveness humbly?

For good or bad, I have touched the lives of family and friends, the mailman, and the grumpy receptionist at the doctor’s office.  I may have amassed wealth and recognition, and may leave a fortune to my loved ones. All things they can pack away, gamble away, or throw away. But, at the end of the day…what have I left in their hearts?

The suddenness of my husband’s death has not made me fearful or anxious as I know God’s love and care for me has always been steady and unchanging even when I have so often failed to appreciate it. At the same time, it drives home the reality that my own life is not guaranteed beyond this moment. So, what does that mean?

My life is still filled with many moments of disbelief that my husband is actually gone. I’m sure that will continue for some time. But, in the midst of that, as I daily make my own decisions about how I am to “live and move and have my being” (Acts 17:28) in this new reality – I am discovering my better Self; my true Self, not the self on display when others are watching.

I am asking critical questions that will surely determine the direction, purpose, and focus of my life for whatever time I have left here. How will/should I live my life moving forward? What do I want my loved ones to remember about me?

God longs for us to use the gifts he has given us to leave the world better than we found it. How will I do that? How will I serve in this time of such need and suffering? Every moment of every day gives us an opportunity to grow in love and compassion for all those we encounter on this journey.

There truly are gifts in the midst of our goodbyes. What do I want mine to be? What do you want yours to be?

Sleep-Walking Through Life

For years, as a Christian, I determined that my “job” was to inform everyone I encountered of their “heaven/hell” status. I was good at it too! I could even give you a check list of “requirements” to get into heaven and I can assure you the hoops you were required to jump through were daunting. It was not for the faint of heart! It’s no wonder I was never successful at “converting” anyone, including myself!

We sleep-walk through life with no clue what we’re doing here or that our lives have meaning and purpose – but they do!

We are all called to use the gifts and talents we already possess that have been uniquely designed for us. But it takes awareness on our part. We can be so enmeshed in, and blinded by, the things of this world we miss out on our whole reason for being here.

If you are going through life day-after-unremarkable-day; schlepping through the same routine to ad nauseum – STOP IT! Your life has a purpose people. God needs your brilliance and love to shine his light in a darkened world.

You. Matter. That. Much.

Leo Tolstoy’s  novel, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”,  considered a masterpiece, was written just after his own “profound spiritual awakening” and conversion experience.

While lying on his deathbed, Ivan ruminated about the reality that his entire life was superficial and self-serving as he profoundly stated, “Maybe I didn’t live as I should have done.At the end, he posited a question that Tolstoy must have pondered, “What if I really have been wrong in the way I’ve lived my whole life, my conscious life?

And don’t look to me anymore (like you ever did) to give you a formula or a check list to send you on your way to sainthood. But, I will tell you this: You cannot love and serve others (which is our greatest calling) until you are able to love yourself. And you can’t love yourself by means of any of the myriad of self-help books on the market. And…no…sorry, there’s not a pill for that either.

We are so used to being in a world that is loud and demanding of our attention. We even busy ourselves filling in uncomfortably quiet places.

Socrates claimed the unexamined life is not worth living. “To live deep and suck out all the marrow” as Thoreau put it.

If we would just stop talking and LISTEN to the lessons life is trying to teach us!  Geeeezzzzz, we’re SO BAD at listening.

The expression, “Life is short” is a yawner for most of us until it becomes a reality. My reality came a few months ago when I found my husband had died in his sleep. Now it’s real for me!

Church – A Great Place to Hide

Church has been made safe, comfortable and non-threatening. We leave our messy and damaged selves outside freeing us up for Worship Aerobics. We greet, bow, kneel, sit, stand, sing, bow, kneel, recite, pray, hug, sit, stand, stare, judge, wiggle, squirm, and day-dream – then go home for a nap.

THE DISCONNECT:

Rev. Gretta Vosper shared these thoughts with a reader who left her church and feels disconnected, “It is so hard to realize that you are no longer drawn to a community of faith by the faith of the community.” She then offered opportunities to consider for community and service outside the church:  

There are so many places that need a helping hand from food banks to women’s shelters to garden centres and reading programs. Any one of them would lift your heart and connect you to that great power of love by which so many needs in the world are filled. In the process of finding that new ministry, be open to the new friends to whom it will introduce you. They may not look like what you’re used to, but your heart, next to theirs, will soon beat with a common rhythm.

For me, walking away from church was a formidable and uncertain experience. I thought I had everything figured out – I was wrong. Now, here I was, packing up a Master’s Degree that hadn’t even had time to collect dust.

Then came the guilt. My Graduate School education was completely paid for by a grant. When I was accepted into the program it was expected that I would return to my parish and begin work as a Pastoral Associate. What seemed to be forgotten, or missed all together, by those establishing the program, was the stubborn refusal of Priests to accept us…you know… women, as part of the leadership team. Apparently, the times they were not a changin’.

I spoke to some pastors, my own in particular, who flat-out told me they weren’t interested in what I had to offer even though I said I would work as a volunteer. I was shown the door and given a man-sized boot.

I’m sure the discouragement and frustration I felt were palpable. I couldn’t fight that male-dominated, power-hungry, muscle flexing attitude. It exhausted me and made me cuss more frequently, so I gave up. It was a short walk from there to totally leaving church, but I left broken-hearted.

THE PROBLEM WITH DONUTS AND LATTES:

How about you?

If, as a youth, going to church was nothing more than an obligation and the only time you didn’t drag your feet and complain was Donut Sunday – that’s a problem.

If the only thing that set your heart on fire at Youth Group were the cute girls/boys – that’s a problem.

If you quit attending church the minute you came of age because it was never your “thing”, whose failure is that? The Churches’? Your parents?  Yours?  Or….

STUCK IN ORDINARY

In the Catholic tradition we have what is called “Ordinary Time” – basically the times before and after Easter and Christmas. I would imagine that resembles other traditions even if it isn’t named as such.

Perhaps the word “ordinary” is a problem. “Hey, I live ordinary, monotonous, boring every day of my life! Why on earth would I want to get up early, dress up, squeeze into a pew full of strangers and listen to irrelevant “stuff” that puts me back to sleep and causes me to snore and drool out the side of my mouth? Why?

Megachurches have tried to fill the gap with music and light shows that could rival “Jesus Christ Superstar”.

The problem is, while folks are swinging and swaying and belting out thirty minutes of music (albeit beautiful music), Jesus left the building and no one noticed.

TRANSCENDING ORDINARY IS RISKY:

Is it the Church’s responsibility to turn “ordinary” into extraordinary?  And what exactly is “extraordinary? Can we even define “church” in the context of what we do know about God?

God is: Magnificent, gracious, merciful, and forgiving. His gratuitous love spills out into the heart and soul of every one of us. He cares deeply about the lost and forsaken. Is that what we experience in church? Is that what we hear from the pulpit? Is that what we base our actions and attitudes on? From the daily news of the violence and hatred emanating from many “Christians” today, it wouldn’t seem so.

How many of us would feel culpable if we stood by and watched but didn’t actively participate in that violence? How many of us hate in silence?

Mary Collins shares the words of the British writer Monica Furlong:

“It has been customary to talk as if the purpose of the Church has been to put people in touch with God, or to keep them in touch with God….although on the face of it the church seems to exist to help its adherents into relationship with God. It equally, and perhaps essentially, plays the opposite role of trying to filter out an experience of transcendence which might be overwhelming.”

Collins continues with a striking question, “What did she (Furlong) judge to be one of the church’s key filters for helping people avoid too great an intimacy with God? Liturgy. Liturgy as ‘keeping in touch’ without getting too close. Yet the bravest among us allow ourselves to wonder. Dare we agree that liturgical practice itself, in whatever form, conceals truth about God that we are unable to bear?”

In my own faith, which has grown from non-existent to something beyond my imagining, God-filled AHA moments did not happen while I was sitting in the pew on Sunday. Possibly because I was always on guard for lightening strikes against me or the guy next to me.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved certain aspects of being a part of a church community. What frustrated me was not seeing the most central expression of our faith – communion –forgotten the minute we (myself included) walk out the door.

When we share communion we are reminded of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, “Take this bread and never forget me. Never forget how much I love you! Never forget“. But, we do forget.

We stroll in late, then haul purses, coats, and kids through the communion line and straight out the door for the important stuff of the day: Soccer, brunch, bingo, whatever.

We forget there is more that must take place the other six days of the week. God’s call to take what we were just fed into a hurting world rings hollow in hearts that are not transformed.

We refuse to accept that the problem has anything to do with us and we certainly don’t want to get close enough to God to hear the truth. That’s too scary. It may expose us to the real God, and it’s that real God we go to great lengths to avoid.

Many come to faith in the same way we come to our day-to-day world. We bring our narcissistic attitude that the world revolves around us. The God we worship must meet our expectations and demands. The world is a mess – He must fix it. People are suffering – He must help them. I am a Christian – He must put me first. So our worship amounts to praise if things are going well and complaining if they’re not.

Those “bravest among us” Collins calls God-seekers who risk. She says:

Monica Furlong, speaking about liturgy as keeping in touch without getting too close to God, distinguished between ordinary churchgoers and “god-seekers”.  She observed that god-seekers risk more than the ordinary. They risk their sanity – their healthy adjustment to conventional thinking – by opening themselves to powerful disclosures of the divine. The rest of us, less adventurous, go to church. But it is possible to be both.”

WOULD WE LAY DOWN OUR LIVES? (JOHN 15:13)

Saint Oscar Romero was a bishop in El Salvador. He was gunned down at the altar while celebrating Mass. He knew full well that was likely to happen when the night before he pleaded on the radio for the violence and murders to stop.

He called out the National Guard troops in particular. They had already killed six other priests, so he was certain he was also going to die at their hands. But, he spoke out anyway, and he celebrated Mass anyway. And the people came anyway! He passionately and fearless upheld the gospel mandates to care for his brothers and sisters in Christ – all of them!  

The poor among him who suffered, as well as the soldiers, heard his plea:

“No soldier is obliged to obey an order counter to the law of God. Therefore, in the name of God, and in the name of this long-suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven every day more tumultuous, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you! In the name of God: ‘Cease the repression!’”

The purpose of the church is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  We as Christians and the preachers who are called to lead, should hear and ACT ON Romero’s powerful words or our profession of faith is a lie:

“A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed — what gospel is that? Very nice, pious considerations that don’t bother anyone, that’s the way many would like preaching to be. Those preachers who avoid every thorny matter so as not to be harassed, so as not to have conflicts and difficulties, do not light up the world they live in. … The gospel is courageous.”

God wants us to know that every bit of pain and suffering that we see or experience calls for our response. Without us nothing will change. Nothing!

Annie Dillard also presents a tough reality, “There is no one but us. There is no one to send but only us. There never has been.”

What is required of us but to do justly and to love mercy (Micha 6:8). We are called to be the instruments of justice and mercy in this world. There is no one but us. If we can ever come to a place where we “get it” our worship will become the action that will resound into a world that suffers.

We will sing through our hurting, rejoice through our suffering, and be a beacon to a world that is yet to “get it”.

JUST WHO ARE YOU, GOD?

Can we ever be brave enough to accept the reality of a God we can’t imagine?

Even though every theological method of putting a label on God has been tested through the ages, one fact remains, and it’s one we as human beings refuse to accept: We will never figure God out! And I am certain (metaphorically) he rolls his eyes at our feeble attempts at it.

WHAT’S THAT SMELL?!

We can affect change in the world if we become bold enough.  God is in search of people hot after his own heart, like David. Yes, that David, the adulterer and murderer. He was a screw-up who hobbled through life, often missing the mark. But, when he got it right, when he was on fire for God, there was no stopping him! And people took notice! They smelled something burning and came to check it out.

Now, dear friends, it’s our turn.

Is It Worth The Risk?

In the Book of Esther (I LOVE that girl!), Mordecai tells her she must go to the King to save her people; a life threatening proposition for her. He asks her to consider that this may be God’s calling, “Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” And her reply? You gotta love this!  “And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!”

So often God calls and we’re afraid to answer. If we choose to ignore him he may eventually go away, but the loss will be ours, not his, because he will find someone else. Yes, a call from God probably is risky. He’s an expert at risky. Remember he took the ultimate risk by giving us free will to tell him “No”. He has also provided examples of many Risk Takers to lead the way. Not the lease of which was Jesus. Of course, if you think Jesus is too difficult to emulate, you could start with any of the misfits he hand-picked to follow in his footsteps.

When I think of the question we are all called to answer: Is saying “Yes” to God worth the risk? –  the first thing that comes to mind for me takes me back sixteen years. In January of 2005, my husband and I were given the opportunity to go to Belfast, Northern Ireland, to spend a year working for Habitat for Humanity. Life in Belfast was full of blessings, many of which were realized from lessons learned only reluctantly (the story of my life, really).

We lived close enough to the City Center to walk there on occasion. One morning, I walked to the post office to mail some letters before going to work. My time was limited so I was in a hurry. By then, the route was so familiar to me that I rarely noticed the things that had taken my breath away just a few months earlier: The iron gates dividing the Protestants from the Catholics and the murals that told of each side’s pain and suffering during the “Troubles”. They no longer seemed quite so shocking.

On this day, God taught me a most profound lesson on the streets of Belfast. I was about to meet Bernie, my alcoholic teacher on my mission to tick off another task before work when I noticed a woman lying on the sidewalk. People passing her seemed to be oblivious to her. I even noticed some crossing to the other side of the street. And here’s me as I walk past her, “I wonder if she’s alive”. But did I stop? No. And then came that “Holy nudge” I knew so well.

Dang it! Not now. “Lord, don’t you have other heathens to reckon with?” I must have walked another five minutes before God got the best of me. I guess I thought I could out-pace him. I kept hearing, “Go back”. That’s all. Nothing about what I was supposed to do once I got there. No. That would have been too easy.

Fine. So, back I go.

As I sat down on the cold sidewalk beside her I nudged her but she didn’t move. Oh my God, I got a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach. What if she was dead?! What if I stepped over a dead woman without a thought of her humanity?

I nudged her again. She slowly opened her eyes and I could tell she was intoxicated. “Come on, Love. Sit up.” (that’s what they say in Ireland. They call everyone “Love” even if they don’t know them).

She looked at me and angrily responded, “Leave me alone!”

“No, come on, you can’t stay here. It isn’t safe. Sit up.”

She managed to sit up and stare at me.

“What’s your name?”

“Bernie”

“Do you have a home, Bernie?”

“No”

Now I’m wondering what I am going to do with her. Being unfamiliar with Belfast I didn’t know where to take her. “Are you hungry? We’ll go get something to eat.”

“No. You got a fag?”

“No, sorry I don’t smoke, (are you ready for this?) it’s bad for your health.” That caused both of us to laugh. It was such a ridiculous response.

Then she looked me straight in the eye and said, “Look at me! No one wants me. It’s no use. It’s no use. Just leave me alone!”

“No, Bernie, that’s not true. I am looking at you and what I see is beautiful. Now, come on, let’s get you to some place safe.”  Then, as I struggled to help her up, I prayed, “A little help here, Lord!”

Just then (I’m not kidding) a van pulled up and a young man got out. Bernie recognized him, “Here comes the welcome wagon.” We both laughed again. The man, calling her by name, very gently and lovingly got her in the van and climbed into the driver’s seat. Wait! He was interrupting my “Good Samaritan” moment! Not sure what to do, I quickly wrote down my phone number, “Please, would you give her my number if she wants to contact me?” He assured me he would and drove away. After they left, I resumed my walk to the post office, at a slower pace though, and still a bit stunned.

“Lord, what just happened? You stopped me dead in my tracks and sent me back to help her.  Now I’m certain I’ll never see her again. What was the purpose of all of this?”

No answer.  I sensed he was going to let me struggle with that one for a while. Except he did fire a Matthew 25:41-43 warning shot at me! As I continued to walk in silence, I could feel God speaking to my heart, “Linda, next time, don’t pass me by.”

A few weeks later, I broached the subject with God again, “Come on, Lord! You’re killin’ me. I know you aren’t finished with this lesson.”

And then came my answer, “Oh, Linda, you poor thing! I didn’t send you to save her, I sent her to save you – from your indifference.” (Ouch! I should have left well enough alone!) 

Soon my next risky adventure came along. I was walking down Falls Road behind a woman and a little boy about four years old. It didn’t seem to concern her that I was right behind them when she suddenly reached down and smacked the little boy on the face. I have no idea why. He said something, and she hit him again. Amazingly (or not so amazingly, I suppose), he clearly was not surprised by the abuse. Then, they crossed the street and I continued toward home, which was just a block away. I didn’t get there though, because I knew instantly that voice I had heard so clearly before was going to strike again. But I got a jump on it this time, “I know, go back!” I crossed the street and headed toward the woman, having no idea how she would respond to the intrusion. If she would hit her own child, what would stop her from striking at me?

“I don’t like this, Lord. Please help me out! What do you want me to say?” It felt very awkward, but as I approached her, I simply asked, “Do you need help? Do you want someone to talk to?” She gave me the stink-eye and brushed past me and the little boy stuck out his tongue at me. Cute.

I assumed they lived close by. Maybe I would see her again. Maybe she would knock on my door one day. But that never happened.

After our year in Belfast, we returned home to settle back into our former lives; to business as usual. I found a beautiful trail nearby to begin running again. I loved the beauty and serenity there. At times, I encountered a few cyclists along the way, and occasionally a scary dog, but I was usually alone.

One day, I noticed someone coming towards me. He was walking alongside a bicycle with a chain of baby bike trailers behind it. It’s funny how you can suddenly become acutely aware of your surroundings. We were approaching each other in a secluded area of the trail. Trees blocked the view of the road and there was no one else nearby. I ran a little faster andoffered a “Good morning” as I passed. I’m sorry to say that, as we approached each other, I did not feel less threatened because I gave my trust to God – I felt less threatened because I was confident I could outrun him –okay, and someone else was approaching on a bike. As we passed each other, we both said “Hello”- but he did something I did not, he stopped to talk to the man; the man who is our brother; the man I should love and respect because of his dignity as a child of God – no different than me. I was feeling pretty crappy right then. So, I went back and we spoke for an awkward moment.

Then, my emotions kicked in – or God kicked me (whatever). I said goodbye and ran quickly to my car, drove the three miles home in a cloud of dust, woke my husband to enlist him to help me pack up a cooler and some money to take to my soon to be new friend. We found him by the river – fishing. He was amiable and enjoyed telling us about his travels, and he allowed my husband to take a picture of us:

Here’s what makes me so sad. Look closely at this picture. He didn’t want me to touch him because he hadn’t had a bath in a while. Yeah, I knew that, but after running for an hour, I was pretty smelly myself! There we were, two smelly, beloved children (and one worm) of one AWESOME God!

From these three very brief incidents I learned volumes about risking and reaching out to others: That the outcome may not be ours to know, and about the unexpected blessings we receive from it.

These were momentary encounters with hurting people that I fancied myself saving. Truth be told, they actually saved me. We weren’t meant to have ongoing relationships that would last a lifetime. None of them would be calling me years later to tell me they named their first-born child after me, or to invite me to their college graduation. God was working quietly and without fanfare on my hardened heart which he somehow knew was not beyond reach. It would just take time.

There are signs all around us of man’s inhumanity to man. Violence against our brothers and sisters never seems to abate. We strip our fellow human beings of their dignity when they are suffering and we refuse to involve ourselves in their lives. How easy it is to ignore the misery of others! But when God teaches us to “see” with our hearts there’s no going back.

Honestly, I’m not sure I will ever stop gauging my compassion by my sense of safety. But, I pray for the grace to let go of my fears, so that I can reach out freely – out of love instead of guilt – like Sister Karen Klimczak.

Many would say that  Sister Karen Klimczak  should have paid closer attention to the dangers that surrounded her. For years she ran a transitional housing program in Buffalo, New York, for men who were being released from correctional facilities. Her selfless, heroic work ended with her murder on Good Friday of 2006, at the hands of one of the very people she had cared for. Ironically, Sister Klimczak, like Jesus, believed that “people will die if we don’t reach out”. 

Fifteen years before her murder, Sister Klimczak dreamed (or had a premonition) that she would die a violent death. Just before Holy Week of 1991, in her personal journal, she wrote the following words to the person who would take her life:

Dear Brother, I don’t know what the circumstances are that will lead you to hurt me or destroy my physical body. No, I don’t want it to happen. I would much rather enjoy the beauties of this earth, experience the laughter, the fears and the tears of those I love so deeply! Now my life has changed and you, my brother, were the instrument of that change. I forgive you for what you have done and I will always watch over you, help you in whatever way I can. Continue living always mindful of His Presence, His Love and His Joy as sources of life itself – then my life will have been worth being changed through you.

Sister Klimczak’s advanced warning that she would meet a violent death didn’t stop her from championing the world’s outcasts. Instead, she simply continued doing what she knew she’d been called to do, for as long as she was able.

“You leave your fingerprints on everything. We need to be people who leave imprints of peace wherever we go in our world.” Sister Klimczak

Fear does not protect – it limits – it limits the blessings and grace God longs to pour out on us, and those we reach out to in his name. 

Richard Rohr in his book, Job and the Mystery of Suffering, explains risk beautifully:

There are two things that draw us outside ourselves: pain…and…beauty. Those – pain and beauty – constitute the two faces of God. Whenever we see true pain, most of us are drawn out of our own preoccupations and what to take away the pain. I think we are rushing not just toward the hurt child, we are rushing toward God. That’s why Francis could kiss the leper. That’s why so many saints wanted to get near suffering – because, as they said again and again, they met Christ there. It saved them from their smaller and untrue self.

Jesus’ Matthew 25 challenge is always right in our midst: The poor, the homeless, the lonely neighbor, the crotchety checker at the grocery store, the elderly left to die alone in nursing homes. If only we would embrace the vulnerability that allows us to dare bravely for the sake of others what a different world we would create.