God’s Full Refund Offer

It seems like such a stretch…no…an impossibility, for us to accept what God really desires from us and for us: Not a list of commands we can tick off like the rich guy in Matthew (19:16), not a quick rote prayer on our way to more important things, not a list of complaints we keep bringing to him until they are heard and remedied.

And so, here we are, stuck in our miserable small lives, blaming our unhappiness on God or some inept human and demanding the universe be reordered in our favor! All the while, we seem to be oblivious to life’s special moments with friends and loved ones, majestic sunsets, breathtaking rainbows, the pure pleasure of chocolate, and most of all, a magnificent life full of richness and purpose. All planned out for us by a God who doesn’t’ do ordinary and never did.

Do you ever think about why we stay stuck there? I believe we are afraid of intimacy. Deny it, poo-poo it, thumb your nose at it, but think about it. Keeping ourselves at arm’s length from relationship with God and others requires nothing from us. Intimacy is too scary. But surprisingly, it too makes no demands. By its nature it cannot demand.

Intimacy is the love relationship modeled for us by the Father and his beloved Son through the work of the Spirit. It is self-emptying and gratuitous. It seeks the best for others over our own wants and needs. It is life-giving and it is what God longs for with each and every one of us. He beacons us into relationship with him and he will court and swoon and get all mushy over us until we let go of our fears. But, intimacy requires trust and vulnerability and we’re terrified of being vulnerable and exposing our weaknesses. Yeah, I tried that once and got smacked silly. No thanks. If we could just realize that vulnerability is not a character flaw to be conquered. It is integral to our relationship with God and is meant to be transforming. It means accepting and loving who we truly are, sins and all. It is birthed in the grace of God, not shame.

We continually believe that we’re not good enough, not perfect enough, not “holy” enough.  Who told us that? I can think of several people in my life, beginning with my parents, especially my mother. There have been countless more people over the years eager to reinforce that lie. It’s actually amazing when you think about it that we allow other broken people to define us and determine our worth. Then point to them when we try to prove to God that we are not worthy of love.

Truth be told, it’s the ego that holds us back, which is a paradox actually. The ego is our sacred cow. And yet, we live this meager, paltry, desolate life tethered to our fears, all the while pumping up our false selves for display to anyone who threatens our fragile sense of self. I wasted so many years of my life trying to defend myself against the lies and blamed God for all my misery. In my lowest moments I accused him of not caring, “If you loved me, where were you when I needed you?! What was I supposed to think when you were silent while my mother abused me?”  More silence. “Yeah, I thought so.” Proving my point I could go off and do what I damn well pleased. You’re on your own Linda. I’m pretty sure God was silent in those moments because he knew I was a hot mess; that my heart was too closed off to hear him. I wasn’t interested in healing I just wanted him to bring down fire and brimstone on everyone else.

Fear makes no sense. It denies us a loving, generous, merciful, forgiving, extraordinary relationship with God, and in turn, with others. Instead we settle for crumbs. We live in defiance of our truth because it seems impossible to believe that God would really “desire” our broken, self-centered, imperfect selves. What Glennon Doyle calls, “this crappy version of ourselves.”  Instead of embracing it, we give up trying because it’s just too hard to be the flawless human we’ve been lead to believe God requires. We’re certain that we are a disappointment to him. That he’s tallying up all our transgressions. That nothing gets past him. It’s really annoying.

Fear has a source that God continually warns us about. I love this quote from John Eldridge:

When we don’t believe in our blessedness we begin to doubt and fear just as Peter did when Jesus invited him to walk on the water (Matt 14:29)and that’s just where Satan wants us. So, how do we get beyond that? How to we learn to embrace; to love what God sees in us? Perhaps we should start with this truth: Even if your parents failed to love you well, it’s okay. It really is okay. You are okay, because you already possessed an innate capacity to love and be loved before God formed you in your mother’s womb. Our mothers, no matter if they love us well or totally suck at nurturing, are not the creators of our essence. That distinction is God’s alone. Got that? Let that soak in.

I was able to begin my long journey of change when I came face-to-face with this God who seems to forget our offenses even when we can’t. Not a change that signifies accomplishment, but change that allows me to embrace my messiness, my brokenness, my imperfections.

One of my most powerful moments of growth came when I was able to realize that my mother, my mean, abusive mother, was loved by God. But, sadly, she was never able to grasp her truth. When I was younger I hated her and told her so. She lived and died never having known the person God longed for her to accept and embrace as His beloved daughter. What I wouldn’t give to have her back. What I wouldn’t give to offer her the forgiveness and love that I now know. But when she was alive I was too lost and broken myself. God knows that and he has been relentless in his pursuit ofmy heart, so that I could forgive myself and offer his love to others. I honestly feel that the moment I was able to forgive my mom, even though it was long after she died, that our spirits connected and that mysterious, mystical love of God transcended all our barriers and healed both our hearts. I could deeply sense it even though I couldn’t explain it. Of course, as soon as you try to “explain” mystery it is no longer mystery.

When we allow ourselves to open our hearts to God the magic begins. Suddenly, our worldly longings don’t seem so significant. We stop demandinganything from anyone, ourselves included. If we can get just a small taste of the peace and indescribable joy God will bring to our lives when just sitting in his presence becomes everything it is tantamount to heaven because it is heaven.

Jesus said to all with ears to hear, which has never been many, “For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you” (my emphasis). Luke 17:21. You don’t have to strive for it or wait till you die for it.

Saint Iraneus said, “The glory of God is man fully alive”.  Conversely, the joy of Satan is man sound asleep. Are we even aware that there is a battle raging in the very depth of our hearts that is continuous and unrelenting? Jesus warned about it but we’re not listening because we don’t think it applies to us. Why is that? How much of Scripture do you believe is meant for us today; is meant to be a guidepost for how we should live and move and have our being? And, how much do we toss away as irrelevant? That, my friends, is Satan at his most cunning. Like that pesky snake in the garden, “Oh, come on, you don’t really believe all that stuff do you?! God wants you to have a fun-filled life with no worries! Party on munchkins”.

Jesus warned his followers then and warns us now, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they (you and me included) may have life and have it to the full.” John10:10. Do you feel like you’re living your fullest life possible; that you are the best version of yourself? Or does it feel like one hurdle after another to overcome; barriers and heartaches and detours that wear you down?

Well, I believe God has a challenge for you if you’re willing to give him a chance. Ready?

“Try me out for thirty days. When you arise in the morning, come talk to me first. Read some Scripture, tell me what’s on your mind, what breaks your heart. You may already be doing that, but, I would ask you to go deeper because this is where it gets real. Give me ten or fifteen quiet minutes of your time without expecting anything. Then, if you don’t feel something stirring within you (by the way, that would be me), I will give you your miserable life back! What do you say?” – God

I see you there, thinking, “Yeah, been there done that and got lost in a maze of “rules and regulations” from days gone by. I’m busy and this is complicated. Can you just give me the bullet points?” I think we have the notion that God doesn’t understand our obsession with bullet points in this hurried life we live. Look how we are drawn to articles that provide 5 Easy Steps to _________ (fill in the blank). Actually, four would be better. Just get to the point! For example:

4 Easy Steps to permanent weight loss (I could offer this in 1 Easy Step):

  • Stop eating crap. BAM! See how easy that is?

And reading Scripture? Really?! How many attempts have you made to read the Old Testament before your eyes glazed over? Exactly.  If God could just make this easier. Actually, he did. Perhaps he made it too easy and we can’t wrap our minds around something so simple. Ready?

1 Easy Step to permanent peace and joy:

  • “Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10 – Any questions?

 And this, dear ones, is what I hope and pray for you:

You are NOT Going to Heaven

Oops. Did you just spit your coffee on that new white shirt? Sorry. My bad.

While you’re cleaning up there and before I go any further, I think a disclaimer may be in order. Everything I say about God, aside from my own personal experience, is my humble opinion and has no basis in fact.  What did you pay for that opinion? Nothing. So, what is it worth? That’s right. Nothing.

So let’s continue.

There are many different beliefs and opinions concerning heaven and hell. But, there is only one fact: no matter what someone tells you, no matter what “proof” they provide, no one knows. No different than a recent conversation I had with a friend of mine who collects clowns. She thinks they’re delightful and enchanting. I actually believe they were created by some satanic force to kill us in our sleep. So, who’s right? (I’m pretty sure I am, but I have no proof of that either.)

So, if your bubble just burst or your halo deflated, I apologize. But this is kind of important stuff to consider because if heaven and hell aren’t an actual piece of real estate, then maybe your reason for being nice, or not, to the jerk next door needs to be reevaluated. And, spoiler alert, this is not going to be easy or fun.

Heaven This is not heaven!

fire And this is not hell!

Diana Butler Bass speaks of this idea of heaven and hell as “vertical faith”. She says:

“Sacred traditions replete with metaphors of God in the elements were replaced by modern theological arguments – about facts and religious texts, correct doctrine, creation versus science, the need to prove God’s existence, how to be saved, and which church offers the right way to heaven. These are the questions of vertical faith.” (Did you catch that –  metaphor was replaced with fact?)

So, when it is said that we make our own heaven and hell right here, where we live and move and have our being, what exactly does that mean? Well, this is the tough part I referred to earlier because our Western brains can’t seem to grasp or accept anything mysterious or inexplicable. Everything in existence has to be named and categorized or it gets cast aside as irrelevant.

We are very good at compartmentalizing everything in our lives. Nice people who are low-maintenance  get to be a part of our club. Unpredictable, moody, or disagreeable people don’t get to join. We easily converse with those who agree with us and avoid or argue with those who don’t. We “attend” church on Sundays and then divide up the rest of the week into unrelated “things”. We even compartmentalize life and death. We separate the two with the certainty that there is no connection (Mufasa would not approve!).

circle of life

You may be too young to recall the days when wakes were held at home in a family parlor where the life and death of a loved one was celebrated as a continuum.  That all changed with the advent of the funeral parlor. Funeral parlors opened so “professionals” could manage the uncomfortable aspects of death and turn bodies into pasty replicas of loved ones. Frankly, I think funeral parlors came into existence when some guy got tired of his mother-in-law hanging around in a box in his living room for a week, but I can’t prove that either.

Anyway…

Considering how we keep everything in our lives separated into neat tidy boxes that we can easily manage, like peas and applesauce on our dinner plate, (yuck, don’t want those to touch each other) it’s no surprise how easily we accepted God’s separation from us as well. We can’t fathom the thought of God being right here in our midst looking for any soft entry into our walled up hearts. If we could just stop for one minute, let down our guard, and imagine how different; how rich and full our lives would be if we let Him in.

Try as we may to ignore it we all have an emptiness that God placed in our hearts that can only be filled by Him and not with things of this world. Augustine said it best: “Lord, you have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”  I think, as I found in my own life, it requires us to admit our need for God; to truly see how our lives are empty of purpose and meaning without Him; that He has not left us to fend for ourselves.

How about this uplifting thought: Gian Carlo Menotti tells us, “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.” Wait now, this is actually good news. If hell is here now, and we somehow figure out what our true purpose is then we have a chance to correct our pathetic, despicable, pitiful selves before we drop dead. That is Good News, right?!

oh-crap-was-that-today

So, what does all this mean? Again, I can only speak from my own experience. For most of my life I ignored God and when I did acknowledge Him it was usually in a display of anger directed at Him. I believed He was distant and could care less about me – a heathen.

If God is known as “Father” then it would stand to reason that I would view Him just as I viewed my own father. In which case, he would be distant and aloof. He would be sitting on his sofa eating ice cream and mindlessly watching TV, while the world fell in around him. Or if my mother was any indication of who God was as a parent, I would have run like hell in the other direction. I would have seen Him as a controlling, punishing, and unforgiving God. And who needs that? Either way, He would not get a Father of the Year award from me and there would be no Hallmark card created for Him.

I think we actually like the notion that God is way up there while we’re way down here.  We might be relieved to think He’s not watching when we try to run our own lives. “Don’t need you, God. I’ve got this!” We’re probably hoping He’s much too busy with other more important things to pay any attention to us mindlessly sleepwalking through life?

olive oil sleep walking

In many traditional faiths, God sits in His heaven and doles out rewards and punishment to each of us according to our merits or sinfulness. Think of Job in his most distressing time and how his friends wagged their accusing fingers at him, certain that he had sinned in some terrible way to have been the recipient of God’ wrath. “It’s pretty obvious Buddy. You screwed up big time! Now, you need to fess up before God gets His second wind!”

So, what changed for me? It certainly wasn’t that God changed His ways. No, I had changed and it wasn’t because I was growing in knowledge about God. It was because I opened myself to a relationship with Him that allowed me to experience who God really was, not who I created Him to be. Knowing about God and experiencing Him is the critical difference necessary to live as fully as we are called to live, and to trust what lies ahead. God tells us in Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” We can choose to believe what we have long been told about a God whose wrath is to be feared, or we can choose to experience the God of immeasurable love and compassion.

Oh, if we could just grasp the reality of heaven and hell perhaps we would live our lives differently so that Menotti’s words would not be the end of our story.

Listen to these prophetic words of Father Richard Rohr:

“When hell became falsely read as a geographical place, it stopped its decisive and descriptive function, and instead became the largely useless threats of exasperated church parents. We made (heaven and hell) into physical places instead of descriptions of states of mind and heart and calls to decisions in this world (emphasis mine). We pushed the whole thing off into the future, and took it out of the now.

Jesus clearly says the kingdom of heaven is among us (Luke 17:21) or “at hand” (Matthew 3:2, 4:17). One wonders why we made it into a reward system for later, or as Brian McLaren calls it, “an evacuation plan for the next world.” Maybe it was easier to obey laws and practice rituals for later than to actually be transformed now.”

A bit more on the reality of hell by Joanne M. Pierce in Sojourners Magazine (italics mine):

“Pope Francis said, ‘Hell is wanting to be distant from God because I do not want God’s love. This is hell.’ Most contemporary theologians would agree with the pope. Hell is not about fire and brimstone; it is about our freedom to say no to God, our freedom to reject love and choose loneliness. When we close our hearts and tell the world to go to hell, we are in fact choosing hell for ourselves. Hell is the absence of love, companionship, communion. We are not sent there; we choose it. God did not create hell; we did.”

When I write a blog post there is always an AHA moment involved. Sometimes it’s what prompts the post, and other times, like now, it comes in the process of writing. It’s like getting my proverbial thump from you-know-Who that causes me to stop and listen closely knowing I am about to be inspired. It happened this morning as I was sitting in silence. Okay, actually I was whining to God. I had a particularly bad couple of days and sleepless nights. I beat myself up so much I thought there would be obvious bruising when I got up this morning.

What I read was in the Gospel of Thomas. Yes, there really was one, but he didn’t make the cut. Neither did Mary Magdalene but don’t get me started on that one! So, Thomas writes, “Jesus said, “Seekers shall not stop until they find.  When they find, they will be disturbed. After being disturbed, they will be astonished (my emphasis). Then they will reign over everything.” Now, hold that thought a minute. The scripture verse we are most familiar with is similar, but clearly less challenging, it is Matthew 7:7, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”  Our shallow, non-threatening translation? Just ask and you’ll get whatever your little heart desires. This reads like a Christmas wish list: Apple AirPods? Done. Captain Marvel Legacy Hero Smartwatch? It’s yours. Chanel’s Quilted Tote bag? Because Lindsay Lohan!? Whatever. Here you go.

Now, back to Thomas. I’m guessing that his gospel was rejected by the powers that be because they were afraid they could not control us if we discovered who God really is and the power that truth gives us. Of course I wasn’t there, so I’ll admit I’m really just pushing hot air, but I think the verse is useful for making the point of this blog.

Thomas tells us that we are to be seeking God and when we find Him in our very hearts, it’s all over. What being “disturbed” and “astonished” means to me is that this only happens when we experience God.

I also read Micah 6:6-9 this morning which tells us what God wants from us. In verses 6-7, these two stupid rich guys were trying to gather up all the best they had to appease God and buy their way into heaven. Somebody even threw in a first born child for good measure. But, God rejects their attempts to buy His favor. God, “Nope, I don’t want your stuff, I want you.”

“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Let’s look at that last verse again. Read it slowly because it is the very core of who we are called to be as children of God: And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

I fully believe that we are living our heaven and hell right here on earth, in our day in and day out lives. Each time we make choices to love and serve others, or conversely, serve ourselves. Each time we seek out those God calls us to bring His love to, or we take care of number one. Each time our hearts break over the pain and suffering that permeates our world and then do something about it or turn our backs and cling to our fear of what it might require of us. With every choice we make to love or hate we choose our own heaven or hell right here.

Now, how does that translate to what eternity looks like for us when we take our last breath?

Wait for it….

Wait for it…

I have no idea.

But, I will tell you this: I have lived as a sinner/saint (don’t laugh, my mother-in-law thought I was a saint once for about five minutes) and everything in between, in my seventy years. I have lived many years of anger, pain, and bitterness. I have been hurt and I have hurt others. At one point I attempted suicide because the idea of living another moment was too unbearable (clearly I sucked at that too – thank God).

In recent years, I have been blessed to live with the indescribable joy of a rich and full life, even in the messy parts.  A life that encourages giving, serving, and caring for others. That calls us to be in relationship with God and everyone around us – to be Christ to a broken world.  A life that requires forgiveness of others and ourselves. To be totally honest, still today, my virtues and faults are often intermixed on any given day. We humans are complicated, but it’s okay.

I now know that I can show up for life unkempt, messy, disordered, and at times unpleasant because I am a beloved sinner. I know I serve a God of mercy and unconditional love so I am not afraid to humble myself before Him and I am not afraid of what lies beyond this life.

And as for you, my friend, if you’re reading this you are still breathing, and if you’re still breathing it’s not too late. Even if you feel like your life is empty and you’re a total failure – you’re wrong! How do I know that without even meeting you? Because you were created in God’s image and He said as much when He first laid eyes on you as a tiny thought in His imagination, “Yep, I did good, real good! You’re a work of art, even if I do say so myself!”

You always have another chance to get life right. To erase regrets, to heal broken relationships, to seek forgiveness, to serve others, and to be all you were created and gifted to be! God is your biggest cheerleader (don’t try to visualize that!).

And, dear ones, this is not something you want to put off till Monday, like that diet!

I will leave you with this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson “You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.”

 

May God bless and keep you. May God’s face shine upon you and give you peace,

Love,

Linda

Do You Want to be Made Well – or What?

I love today’s gospel of John (5:-5-6), “Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’”

do you want to be healed

REALLY!? Come on. Why would he ask that? Jesus could end thirty-eight years of misery for this guy! Is there any possibility that he would say, “no”? Well, yes there is. I know that for a fact, because I have said “no” to God longer than that! I turned my back on Him and suffered a life of emptiness for years. Truth be told, I still suffer the consequences every time I close my heart to God and choose to go my own way.

Most of my life I was angry and self-indulgent (I often still am). My faith was shallow and lifeless (it, maybe not so often, still is). I continually picked at the scabs of the wounds inflicted by others, refusing to forgive, and at the same time denying my own sinfulness (yeah, you guessed it – still doing that).

As I began to really listen to God’s word, and began to meet and know some faithful Christians, I became aware of an unexplainable longing in my heart. That was God, though I didn’t know it at the time. I found myself getting bolder at reaching out to God and to others, and proclaiming my faith. Though I still considered myself unworthy of anyone’s love, especially God’s love, and I could not allow anyone to minister to me.

I was also learning, belatedly, to become a better parent. God had a plan that parenting skills would be passed down from generation to generation, but some of us have to look elsewhere for guidance. As much as I resented my mother for abusing me, and as determined as I was not to be like her…I was. Her way was the only way I knew. But then God showed up, initially in the ministry of Dr. James Dobson (author of several excellent parenting books), and I’m forever grateful for that.

As I poured more and more of myself into my children, however, a new reality was setting in. My husband and I were headed for disaster. I begged him to look honestly at our relationship, all the while refusing to do it myself. I prayed that we could work harder to mend our hurts and strengthen our marriage. But my pleading fell on deaf ears and my fears were becoming a reality.

One by one, our children were leaving home and my husband and I became lost in the deafening silence of our empty nest. So, after much thought, counseling, and prayer, I made the heart-wrenching decision to leave. Each of our children reacted differently to the news of our separation, but all of them were devastated. It was probably the most difficult decision of my life! And, even though I truly felt God was okay with my leaving, I had no idea what the outcome would be as a result of it. I will say this in hindsight though: I know I did not sense that God was approving of my decision or that He was telling me to leave. But, I am certain that He intended to use my decision “for His good”. (Genesis 50:20)

So, off I went. I decided to go to Kentucky to volunteer for an organization that worked with the poor in Appalachia. Before I left home, I prayed a prayer that I had never prayed before: that God would change me, not every other person in my life, ME! God was just giddy with excitement! And, oh, the lessons I was about to learn!

How can I describe to you the soul-cleansing that I endured during that time; what those eight months were like for me? Every single day seemed to bring to light another of Linda’s issues to deal with. I didn’t enjoy confronting my pride, anger, and resentfulness. As a matter of fact, it was, in essence, like being in hard labor – for eight months. Non-stop. With no anesthetic!

“Come on, breathe for me,” says the doctor. “Breathe for me? Breathe for me? I’ll give you breathe for me! How about if you try to breathe for me while my hands are around your neck, choking you? How about that?” (Oh, sorry, I must have been having a flashback.)

Anyway, for the first time in my life, my longings, my brokenness, and my hope that maybe I was worthy of love, were laid bare. God was beginning to change my heart, though I hardly knew all the implications of that at the time. It was a beautiful example of how He can work in our lives when we “allow” Him to do what only He can. All of my past attempts to change had failed because I tried to do things my own faulty way; by my own strength. I refused to yield my will to His, and I had failed time and again.

The fulfillment we seek can seem elusive. It can be confused with something as insignificant as a new outfit or something as unattainable as somebody else’s life. When I’m removed from my groundings, and feeling overpowered by my struggles, God reminds me that I’m right where He wants me – in the fray is where I’ll learn to be most like Him. That’s where I’ll learn that my joy cannot be stolen unless I allow people or circumstances, rather than God, to define me. Coming to grips with that truth will open me to the fullness of life.

John 10:10 says, “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”

Sheer desperation began leading me to accept whatever God deemed necessary to change my life. No strings attached that would allow me to yank control back if things became too hard, or too painful. I would resist the impulse to switch to an easier route, though that was my normal reaction when I was afraid. And what did I receive in return? Oh, not much…just a new relationship with God; with my family; with my husband of forty-three years; a purpose that fulfills me; and the joyful hope that endures, even during the most difficult of times. In short – an abundant life I could never have imagined on that fateful day I left home.

Henri Nouwen, in his most beautiful book, The Return of the Prodical Son, enfleshes all that I have experienced; all that I have been so afraid to admit or even look at honestly. His vulnerability and openness about his own struggles gives others the courage to trust that when Jesus comes to us and asks, “Do you want to be made well”? Our “yes” can be the beginning of more than we could ever imagine or hope for. (Ephesians 3:20)

Nouwen talks about his own “coming home”; about being in his Father’s embrace where:

I so much want to be, but am so fearful of being….It is the place where I have to let go of all I most want to hold on to….It is the place that confronts me with the fact that truly accepting love, forgiveness, and healing is often much harder than giving it. It is the place of surrender and complete trust.

And, I believe Henri Nouwen would agree that it is the place where Jesus’ call and our self-emptying “yes” meet in the fullness of God’s grace.

All these years later, I’m still being challenged daily, and I don’t always respond as I should. My sinfulness is constantly a force to be reckoned with. After all, I’m still a messy human being. But I know that God longs for us to claim the gift of His extravagant love in the very midst of all our messiness. If we’ll only look within ourselves, we can see what is already there. We can become who we already are. God offers that joy to all of us. All we have to do is claim it. When Jesus asks, “Do you want to be made well”? – and your answer is finally “yes”…strap yourself in for the ride of your life!

roller coaster2

Leave me Alone – I LOVE Being Miserable!

Who aggravates every fiber of your being? Come on, you know there’s someone in your  life – past or present – you have, in one of your most aggravated moments, wanted to throw from a moving train!

Throw mama from the train

Perhaps it isn’t your mother (like Danny Devito in Throw Mama from the Train); you love your mother. How about Uncle Bill? Uncle Bill makes you dread holidays! Every. Single. Blessed. One. He hates holidays, and in short order, makes you hate them too. He also hates your new living room set, your cheesecake; thinks you’ve put on too much weight, and wants to borrow another $200.

How about that annoying and relentless neighbor who causes you to lock your doors and pull your shades when you see her coming? Sometimes she catches you off-guard and holds you hostage in your own yard as she rants incessantly about absolutely nothing! Oh yeah, and she thinks your new birdbath is tacky (she might be right though).

birdbath

Anyway, you walk away dazed and confused. Ewwww, she got you again! She makes you want to smoke more, or drink more, or kick the dog. (Don’t do that. It’s not the dog’s fault.)

It’s really not the dog’s fault, or Uncle Bill’s fault, or your neighbor’s fault. It’s your fault because you choose to allow others to control you. Don’t think they’re doing that? When you allow another person to upset you, for whatever reason, they are controlling you. How do you like being controlled? If you’re like me, you pride yourself on being the one in control and refuse to believe anyone could have that kind of power over you.

NEWS FLASH: When we cling tenuously to control or give it up to another that is the prescription for misery.

Mark 7:14-23, “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. From within the man, from his heart, come evil….”

My dear mother-in-law recently passed away at the age of ninety-eight. Before her health took a decided turn for the worse, she was happy and content and loved being with her family, especially the grandkids. She was always very giving of herself and generous to a fault. But, the last few years of her life she was miserable. Daily she expressed that misery to us, “Why won’t God take me?!” She felt like a burden; that her life no longer had purpose. She was angry, frustrated and confused. Throw in hip pain, a bad back, possible strokes and dementia and of course she was miserable!

But, what’s my excuse? What’s your excuse? I believe we have forgotten. We have forgotten who we are. Life presents a series of blows to our fragile ego and the joy God intended for us is over-shadowed by misery; misery that we inflict on ourselves, all the while blaming others.

“Wounded by sin, clouded by temptation, we are our own worst enemy. Everything we say and do arises from within our own hearts. If our hearts change, it stands to reason that our actions will follow.” Terry Modica (http://gnm.org/good-news-reflections/ )

We see misery played out in a powerful way in the lives of the Pharisees during Jesus’ time. He not only came to show us by His own life how we are to live, He used the Pharasees as a prime example of how we are not to live. They were pious and arrogant! They were mean, vengeful, and always trying to trip up Jesus. Their hatred for Him was palatable because He was always exposing their sinfulness. No one wants to be exposed. If they could just get rid of him! Mark 8:11 tells us that Jesus “sighed from the depth of his spirit” because of their actions.

He could have retaliated, but he didn’t. We would have liked him to so we could justify our own reaction to the hurt we feel from others. But, he humbly walked away and in the end, he humbly received the torturous beatings and crucifixion.

Misery can be a stern mother. But, Psalm 119 tells us that being afflicted is a good thing, “It is good that I have been afflicted, that I may learn your statutes.” Also, sometimes, we can learn from other’s afflictions. Take my mother-in-law for instance. I believe I learned more from her at the end of her journey, when she laid dying and unresponsive. I learned more about compassion that cannot be measured; love that cannot be returned, and inexplicable joy in the midst of it all.

When I would sit vigil in the evening with her, I could sense God’s presence, as in Genesis 28:16, …surely the Lord is in this place.” The joy I felt during that time was unmistakable; the joy of knowing that Catherine would soon be in God’s presence. Truth be told, I was a bit jealous. I recall saying to her several times even though she could not respond, “Aren’t you excited?! You will soon see all of your family and friends that have gone before you. They’re waiting for you. God is waiting for you. Oh yeah, and don’t forget to put in a good word for me – I need it!” I thought I heard her say, “Yes, you do!” one time, but it was probably my imagination.

In all the training and experiences I have had as a Hospice volunteer you just know that God is present. You can’t explain it or quantify it. You just know. For me, the most intense times of joy are these experiences and the Lenten journey we are now on. Joy that comes in knowing God never forsakes us; never abandons us. These are times when He asks me to return to Him. Joel 2:12 says, “Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart…”

Listen to this beautiful song by John Michael Talbot.

Every Lent I read Henri Nouwen’s, “The Return of the Prodigal Son”. I am enthralled by this book and Nouwen’s honesty about his own life and struggles. It is a beautiful and powerfully written account of a story most of us know, yet few of us delve so deeply into. Nouwen uses Rembrandt’s portrait of the Prodigal Son to tell the story:

prodigal son

The son made a choice. He chose to leave his father and go his own way; to take his inheritance and “set off for a distant country and there he squandered his wealth in wild living” (Luke 15:13). Soon he was broke and in the midst of a famine. He was hungry, but no one offered him anything to eat.

This is a very telling example of what happens when we turn to the world to meet our needs but all we meet there is misery. We want the world to fill us with all we ever thought we wanted, but what we want is never enough. The world can’t/won’t satisfy. The world only takes and leaves desolation in the empty places of our souls.

Notice though that the son finally, instinctively, knew where to turn when he was starving – his father. Though he felt he wasn’t worthy of his father’s love because of the shameful way he acted, he also hoped his father would at least feed him as the servants were fed (15:17-20). That was all the son hoped for. Imagine his surprise when he didn’t even get his well-rehearsed words out of his mouth…

HOLY FATTED CALF BATMAN!

Being willing to receive crumbs, the son got the surprise of his life when “the father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” (15:20) There’s no way my father would have done that and my mother would likely have changed the locks on the doors when I left.

The father had compassion for his son because he knew he was a miserable lost soul – but, now he was found. It was a time to celebrate; it was a time of joy and thanksgiving.

Well, okay, the oldest son was not so joyful and was not willing to offer his brother the least bit of sympathy or support. He was also angry with the father because it all seemed so UNFAIR! Here’s that “misery gremlin” again! Sucking the fullness of life and joy from anyone too self-absorbed to notice.

Nouwen says, “It seems to me now that these hands have always been stretched out – even when there were no shoulders upon which to rest them.” And of the son he says, “He realized he had lost his dignity as his father’s son, but at the same time he is aware that he is indeed the son who had dignity to lose.” He says, “I am loved so much I am free to leave home.”

Think about that.

What brings the joy we so long for? It’s a choice we make in how we respond to our circumstances. You can be the younger son who learns from the misery he inflicted on himself, or the older, bitter, son who doesn’t seem to “get it”. It is a daily, sometimes minute-by-minute choice.

Nouwen says:

And this concerning the attitude of the elder son: “Am I so ensnared in my own self-righteousness complaints that I am doomed, against my own desire, to remain outside of the house wallowing in my anger and resentment? God says to the elder son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours.”

The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.

God always has more for us. We are always only at the beginning of love (you must understand) Jesus is pleased with you right now. He sees how much you’ve already done. He wants to see you overcome the next hurdle and get that much closer to the finish line. He is committed to taking you there.

“I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)

Often, my prayer is that God will not give up on me and that I will daily surrender to this love that is beyond my understanding; that I will let go of all those hurts and sorrows that steal my peace and joy.

 

Thanks – Just Kidding!

For, SO MANY YEARS, my life was out-of-control and my brokenness held a death-grip on the teeniest desire I may have had to change. During that time, if anyone would have told me to be grateful I likely would have slapped them silly! And in their stunned state, while I had their attention, I would have pulled out my handy “gratitude – NOT” list and spewed all my anger and bitterness right at them.

Let’s see…

  • Thanks mom for all the abuse. That was fun.
  • Thanks psycho-neighbor kid for introducing me to perversion when I was too small and afraid to run away from you.
  • Thanks ex-husband for your “lying, cheating, cold dead-beating, two-timing and double-dealing, mean mistreating, (un)loving heart”. What a knight in shining armor you turned out to be!
  • Thank you world for gleefully providing all my trivial wants, empty longings, and self-centered demands.
  • Oh yeah, and THANK YOU, GOD! for totally ignoring all the above.

I was bitter and hateful all those years; entrenched in such a deep sense of emptiness and hopelessness that I felt the only relief from the pain was to find a way to end my life. I did make a failed attempt to kill myself when I was twenty-three. Two years later, when I married my current husband, Tom, I became a Christian. But, for years it was in name only and nothing really changed.

Though that was the beginning of my faith journey (such as it was) it took years of healing for me to warm up to this scripture verse that is most critical for a life to be filled with joy, passion and purpose: 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus”.

It has only been in the past ten years or so that I have been able to truly appreciate and claim for myself the meaning and depth of gratitude in two significant areas of my life: the painful experiences of my past and my sense of entitlement: My striving for “things”, successes, whatever it took to numb the pain. My constant shame battled with my pretense of being emotionally stable and spiritually healthy, “Look at me people! Aren’t you jealous? You are and you know it!”

I know gratitude for the pain as well as the joys in life seems like a paradox – it makes no sense at all, right? Believe me, I get it…

All I can say is that it was gratitude that finally made sense of my past. In the midst of the pain inflicted by others in my life I felt I had nothing to live for: No purpose, no hope, no concern for anything or anyone beyond myself. Gratitude has loosened my white-knuckled grip on my own sins as well, which was actually my biggest hurdle.

The beginning of my transformation was like a forest and trees analogy: I had to step away and look back to realize how God was with me all along; that He did love me, and had a plan to use my pain in service to others. My gift was to share my story. My purpose was, and still is, to walk alongside those God puts in my life that are also broken and lost. My life has never been richer. I have never been happier. I could never ask for more. I owe a debt I cannot pay to a God who will never send bill collectors to my door – not ever!

So, is my life now pain and heartache free? No…but…now I know how to access God’s love which resides within my very being; I know I can hope and trust in Him to overcome anything life throws my way even if I may not have the slightest idea what good will come of those struggles.

Brennan Manning Quote

Sooooo, how do you replace discontent with gratitude? Is gratitude a simple act of will? Sort of like all the diets I have been on? Let’s see…today I am going to be content with this bowl of broccoli while you eat that big, fat, juicy steak!

No, it isn’t easy.

It’s important to first realize what we’re up against. I believe the biggest obstacle to gratitude and contentment is our Western culture’s sense of scarcity in all areas of life. We need more gadgets, a bigger house, a better car, a more important job. We’re never grateful for what we have because someone else always has more.

The Scarcity Gremlin eats up sufficiency for a midnight snack. So, by morning each day begins with a sense of “not enough” of___________ (fill in the blank), and then a striving to get it. Whatever “it” is.

How can you be content, you ask, when your new neighbor, who just moved into a house twice the size of yours, is younger, prettier, has a career you envy, and a pool to die for. And if all that weren’t bad enough, she speaks eight languages – you only speak four. She has traveled to fifty-two countries – you have only made it to thirty-eight. She’s been married six times – you’ve only been married once! Okay…ENOUGH!

We are continually comparing ourselves to others in myriad ways: Our looks, our weight, our homes, our successes and that of our kids, our social status, our cars, the lushness of our lawns, and jealousy inducing vacation pictures of our friends posted on Facebook! It’s endless and exacerbating.

Where is God in all this? Ephesians 3:20 tells us, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us”. Sounds lovely, but we prefer, no, must have, the newest doohickey that we often can’t afford, but cannot possibly live without. Really? The first smartphone was introduced, what? In the 1990’s? How’d we do without it for about 2,000 years before that?

Jesus smartphone

Our sense of scarcity; our need to one-up others, distorts and devalues all the blessings and gifts we have been given. We are so hyperfocused on what we don’t have, we fail to appreciate or show gratitude for what we do have. Gratitude seems to be a lost virtue in a culture never satisfied.

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David G. Myers, author of The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty, wrote in an American Psychologist article. “Compared with their grandparents, today’s young adults have grown up with much more affluence, slightly less happiness and much greater risk of depression and assorted social pathology. Our becoming much better off over the last four decades has not been accompanied by one iota of increased subjective well-being.”

So, are you sleepwalking through life, fooling yourself into believing that striving, owning, having, and out-spending others will make you happy? Is this what your purpose in life is?

You know you want to change because there is something deep within your heart that has been speaking to you for a very long time about how discontented and unfulfilled you are with your life and with all your “stuff”. All you need to do is trust that God’s got your back and is just waiting for the slightest motion toward him. That mustard seed step of faith (Matthew 17:20). A faith that begins with patience and hope which are two critical elements of a healing heart:

  • Gratitude requires a great deal of patience; trusting God’s timing and ultimate plan for our lives:

patience

  • Hope is not tangible, it is in things unseen: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Hebrews 11:1

Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California-Davis, considered the world’s leading expert on gratitude, says, “Gratefulness is a knowing awareness that we are the recipients of goodness.”  When we turn our focus from ourselves to God, we are the ones who benefit. “The self,” in the words of Emmons, “is a very poor place to find happiness or meaning in life.”

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above (not Amazon prime), and cometh down from the Father of lights.” (James 1:17)

If you want to read more Dr. Emmon’s Website is here:

Now then, time for true confessions. Until six weeks ago, I was feeling pretty altruistic and benevolent toward “the least of these”. After all, over the years, I have given away perfectly good: designer clothes, furniture, household items, a kidney, canned goods, and my precious time and energy. I thought I knew what poverty and hopelessness were all about. I was wrong.

Six weeks ago, my husband and I went to Rwanda in Central Africa to visit our son, daughter-in-law and two of our grandkids. It has been the most profound and overwhelming experience of my life! Here, hunger has stared down my apathy. I have seen the memorials that display the graphic reality of the genocide in 1994: A mass slaughter of almost a million men, women, and children in just one-hundred days, while the world stood by and watched. I have talked to survivors and been surrounded by hungry, often shoeless, always laughing, children. I can’t even put into words how it has torn at my heart.

And when I think of the contrast between this country and America: what we have and they don’t; what they appreciate and we don’t, I can’t help but think about the virtue of gratitude and pray that I will be a different person when I return home. That I won’t forget. I pray that contentment will look much different; that I will be mindful of the difference between need and want; that I will not be so wasteful or take anything for granted again.

Just try to imagine the following contrasts. I could have posted many more. But, I hope these will give you a sense of how this experience has impacted me:

Believe You Are Enough

Here’s a challenge: How about some honest soul-searching? Come on – stay with me – it’ll be fun! Okay, it probably won’t be fun if you actually are honest. But let’s give it a go.

I’ll start.

Most of my life I have not allowed myself to admit that I screw-up. I make instant judgments about other people’s behavior, or the way they dress. I become a modern day Job when God seems to be pushing my buttons or ignoring my demands. I decide daily how things should be and then set out to make myself, you, and God conform. It’s a full-time job – let me tell you. Oh wait! Maybe I don’t have to tell you. Maybe you know exactly what I’m talking about.

I should, you should, we should, they should, trees should, rocks should, animals should, the weather should, God should. Have I left anything out? We are obsessed with shoulds and calculate daily, almost moment-by-moment, what should be. Then we adjust our lives accordingly. My boss should be nicer, my kids should be more respectful, my husband should do the laundry, I should let go of that hurt.

What if you were given the power to enact all the most significant shoulds you have ever envisioned? What would they be? This is pretty broad so let’s make three catagories:

  • My shoulds.
  • Everyone else’s shoulds.
  • God’s shoulds

Let’s begin with these: (Perhaps if you are so inclined you could reply with your own list.)

My shoulds:

  • I should be thinner, smarter, prettier, healthier; exercise more and eat less.
  • I should be more forgiving and less judgmental.
  • I should spend less time on the internet and more time with God.
  • I should quit counting offenses against me and begin counting my blessings.
  • I should be perfect by now.
  • Chocolate should not be fattening (it’s my list!)

Everyone else’s shoulds:

  • People should be more generous and less self-serving.
  • Wicked people should not prosper.
  • People should love and accept each other.
  • People should mind their own business.
  • People should be more like me.
  • Chocolate should not be fattening.

God’s should’s:

  • God should not allow suffering – especially for Christians.
  • God should punish all wicked, sinful people – except me.
  • God should make people behave.
  • There should be some reward for those who are good…like…hum…I know! Chocolate would not be fattening for us – no one else – just us! (See how easily I slip myself in here?)

God created everything and when He was finished He said, “AWESOME – even if I do say so myself!” Now think about that. As soon as God created everything on the earth He declared it “good”. He doesn’t wait until we prove ourselves for him to admire his work.  He doesn’t bemoan giving us free wills when we go our own way. “Well, okay, I could have tweaked that goofy Linda Russell a bit, but nobody’s perfect.”

 And there it is people!

NO ONE THAT GOD CREATED IS PERFECT! And that includes you dear. Sorry to have to burst your bubble.

No one is without fault. Romans 3:10-12 tells us, “There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable. There is none who does good, no, not one.”

Not one stinkin’ one of us.

Why is that so hard for us to accept? I believe I know. It is because we are not willing to be vulnerable or have the courage to be imperfect. I know. I have lived most of my life refusing to believe the simple truth that I AM ENOUGH, which, in turn, does not allow me to accept you or God as enough.

God tells us that we should have the faith of a child. Unfortunately, for me, as a child I was made to believe, by those who were supposed to take care of my tender heart, that I was not good enough; not worthy of love. I eventually stopped allowing myself to be vulnerable and tried desperately to hide as much of my imperfections as possible. I still do at times. I could not accept my own brokenness or the brokenness of others. I viewed everyone and everything through that lens, even God.  Everyone was suspect.  This is the false-self Richard Rohr speaks of often:

The false self is your psychological creation of yourself in space and time. It comes from your early conditioning, family, roles, education, mind, culture, and religion. The false self is who you think you are! But thinking doesn’t make it so. The false self dies and passes away. Yet it is the raw material through which you discover your True Self in God.

Ever so gradually, as I sat longer in prayer with God; as I grew to realize that He could be trusted with my fragile heart – that heart began to change. As I began to recognize the presence of a Holy Spirit within me that not only admonished me for my sinfulness, but loved me in spite of it, I was able to grow and change. I began to love and accept myself and others in a way I had never experienced before. All the hurts and pain of my past; hurts inflicted on me and hurts I exacted on myself and others began to lose their stronghold on me.

Now, Saint Mother Theresa I am not. I still do, and am sure I always will, screw up. But, here’s what I believe is critical for all of us – our perception of just Who and What the Holy Spirit is. This is what I think of when I hear those immortal words, “Come Holy Spirit.” Really? What is the Spirit, some kind of Ninja Spirit hanging out till we summon Him in desperation? Or, better yet, it’s that kid who’s always the bench-warmer. Waiting and praying for someone to get whacked so he can get in the game and show what he’s made of. We will summon him, but only after we try to fix things ourselves.

The problem with all that is that as soon as you became a believer the Spirit took up residence within your very soul. That Spirit lives and works and has it’s being within us 24/7. Not just when it’s convenient for us. Of course, we would prefer He be “on-call” because the idea of Him “hanging out” there conjures up all kinds of frightful thoughts. Being “busted” comes to mind for me.

charlie-brown-aaugh

Let me tell on myself here. And believe me, this occurs a lot! Here’s what happens when you arrive at the place where you can hear God’s still small voice through the thunder of your own wretchedness. Often, I will become defensive with someone and strike out at them in an effort to preserve my fragile ego. Often, I begin like this, “You should have, or should not have, done ________(fill in the blank). There, I got it out. I’m feeling better already. Never mind how it made you feel!

Then it comes, almost immediately, “So, Linda…yeah…what he/she did was pretty stupid (ego still intact)”.

Wait for it…

wait for it…

“Awe. Wait. Linda. Remember, just last week when you did the exact same thing? Remember?” (Shoot! Busted! “Why couldn’t You be somewhere else right now instead of all up in my business?”) And off I go to apologize. But, it’s okay. I laugh at myself and carry on. We have to laugh at ourselves or this whole business of acceptance fails to work because we become too overwhelmed with our failures and sorrows.

Let’s call it getting back to basics. God calls us to the childlike innocence, love, and joy that He originally created. Children are full of contagious laughter, silliness, trusting innocence, vulnerability, acceptance of all of creation, curiosity, and, yes, imperfection.

If you have expectations for yourself and others that are beyond human capacity, you will always be disappointed. We are all broken and incapable of being the perfect parent or child or friend or neighbor. God calls us in our suffering to lean in on Him and draw life and fullness from Him. Understanding that helped me to forgive my mother long ago. As a child I hated her, as an adult I realized she did the best she could. She was simply not capable of being the mother I so needed her to be. Remember, even Jesus became frustrated with His own disciples, “Geeeezzzz. How long must I put up with you!?” (Mark 9:19) Okay, He didn’t say “geeeezzzzz”, but you get the idea.

So, cut yourself and others some slack. Like Father Rohr says:

Once we have learned to discern the real and disguised nature of both good and evil we recognize that everything is broken and fallen, weak and poor—while still being the dwelling place of God—you and me, your country, your children, your marriage, and even your church and mosque and synagogue. That is not a put-down of anybody or anything, but actually creates the freedom to love imperfect things! As Jesus told the rich young man, “God alone is good!” (Mark 10:18)

So, come on, let’s begin with a simple step: laugh at yourself at least once today and then sit down with the Holy Spirit for awhile, be quiet, and contemplate the experience. Let me know how that turns out. (I do love to hear from you, even if you think I’m an idiot. It’s okay. I can take it.)

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My grandson is going to hate me for this one day.

 

Hell Begins…

(Originally posted 5/15/2012

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“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” Gian Carlo Menotti

In January of 1994 my mother died of heart disease. Eight months later, my father died of cancer. Because they hadn’t belonged to a church, their funerals were what I would call generic, with a minister provided by the funeral parlor.

Prior to my mother’s wake, the minister gathered together all twenty of us kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids. He asked us to tell him something about this woman he’d be eulogizing the next day. He wanted to be able to relate some happy memories of my mother at her funeral. In complete silence, we looked at each other, incredulous, thinking, “Come on, somebody. Come up with something!” Digging into the recesses of our minds, we slogged through the anger and the sorrow, trying desperately to recall a long-forgotten quip or enlightening conversation, maybe a silly habit, a favorite joke, one special Christmas tradition, or what about that time when…?

Nothing.

At the end of my mother’s life, her family had absolutely nothing to say about her. Well, nothing you would say at a funeral – you think it, but you don’t say it. The minister, quickly seeing that there’d be no wealth of joyful material from which to draw his comments, politely excused himself to go hunt up some old familiar one-size-fits-all sermon. That experience left me numb.

My father’s death that autumn was like suffering through a bad movie for the second time: same cast of characters, same setting, same faulty plot line. Again, the twenty of us couldn’t come up with a thing. The silence was deafening – and, yes, I was angry. I wanted to shout, “How could the two of you do this? How could you inhabit this earth for more than seventy years, at the epicenter of a family you supposedly loved, and not leave behind even the faintest happy memory? How could you journey through your lives without touching anyone else’s?”

I hadn’t expected this level of grief. I didn’t understand it. How could I grieve for the parents who had left me nothing to miss? Eventually, though, I came to see that what I was grieving was the absence of love. All my life, I longed for my parents’ love, but I had just been fooling myself. And now…that longing would remain unfulfilled.

Those two impersonal funerals, and my indignant response to them, proved pivotal to the changes in my life that would follow. I was inspired to set two goals that I might otherwise have shrugged off: To seek the love that would draw me closer to God, and to share that love with others, especially my family. I wanted to make sure that I’d have a different funeral someday, and a different legacy, than either of my parents. I wanted to be remembered as someone who had loved, someone who had honestly and openly confessed to others when I’d failed or fallen short, someone who had needed and known God’s mercy. And I wanted everyone who attended my funeral to have a smile on his face! – a smile that reflected the joy we’d shared, the compassion we’d known, the forgiveness we’d received, and the love we’d never doubted.

As Scripture tells us, “…if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)

After determining my two goals and reviewing my life accordingly, I could see that a mountain would indeed have to be moved. And, in all honesty, I also felt that it would be impossible!

That was fifteen years ago, and I can tell you with absolute conviction that, not only is it NOT impossible, it is certain; it is God’s promise to us and it will be fulfilled by Him! He simply needs our mustard seed, shaky knees, sweaty palms “okay, I’ll give it a try” response – with no assurance of the process – simply the faith to trust. The outcome is not ours to know. However, it is God’s already set in place plan  if we’re willing to cooperate with Him..

Perhaps, unlike everyone else in all of creation, you somehow are privy to the date and time of your demise. Even then, you may, or may not, have LOTS of time to fix all the messes you have made in your life and the lives of everyone around you. Otherwise, it’s probably not a good idea to procrastinate on this one.

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Welcome to my Groundhog Day!

(Originally posted 2/12/2014)

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I recently celebrated my sixty-fifth birthday. I’m thinking that sixty-five years is a loooooong time to be doing the same dumb things over and over and over. I’m also thinking that God is thinking the same thing! I believe that’s why He has also recently been intent on repeating himself over and over and over until I – hopefully (hope springs eternal) – change.

Let me say that God has done some pretty incredible things in my life! And there have been significant changes over the years. But there are still things that haunt me: Rejection, complaining and lack of true humility. Oh sure, I can lay claim to superficial humility. You know, that surface stuff that implodes the first time some jerk gets on my bad side!

And so, like our poor friend Phil here, I go to bed every night with good intentions and wake up the next morning finding myself stuck in the same place.

Remember in the movie, Groundhog Day, when Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) says to Rita: “I have been stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted, and burned, and every morning I wake up without a scratch on me”? That would make a great metaphor for my life, and probably all our lives to one degree or another, except for the “without a scratch” part.

Here’s how my life has unfolded:

I was once a concept of God’s wild and magnificent imagination. I can envision all the angels in heaven dancing for joy at the sight of every single creature God brings to life.

Then, without warning, I was plopped into a broken world and life immediately began its re-creation of me into the person God no longer recognized. And the angels fell silent.

Through life I too (metaphorically) have been stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted, and burned”. First by those who were entrusted with my care, and then by myself attempting to live within the context of that person who forgot who, and Whose, she was. Everything this Original Creation was supposed to be morphed into something unrecognizable. My focus was not to live with joy the fullness of the life promised to me. My focus became simply a matter of survival. Like Phil waking up every day in a world that never changed.

I tried to end my pain just like he did. Only I didn’t have a groundhog strapped to my steering wheel and it wasn’t on railroad tracks. It was me drunk in my little MG on the highway, praying that I would crash and die. Phil’s reaction when his attempt to kill himself failed was, “Ah, nuts.” Mine was the same. I think my exact words were, “Great! I’m even lousy at killing myself!” I remember getting out of bed the next morning and going off to work: Same empty life, different day.

Over the years, since that not so fatal day (thank you God!), much has happened. As I said before, God has done some remarkable things in my life considering my incessant resistance to the death of my own will. We have been through so much together! When I think about what He has managed to accomplish in this continual wrestling match it has been nothing short of a miracle! (Genesis 32:22-32)

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After Phil described the torture he had endured he exclaimed that there was “not a scratch on me”. I couldn’t say that, but I did think that “not a scratch on me” meant symbolically that I tried to live as though the pain and suffering had no impact on my life. That I was just fine when I was far from it. I knew in light of the fact that God has brought my issues to light again, and not so subtly, that a lesson was coming…and it wouldn’t be pretty.

Sure enough, the last couple of weeks I have embarked on a new meditation that’s pretty AWESOME! It is titled Bridges to Contemplative Living, a compilation of the works of Thomas Merton and other Spiritual Giants. I know that God is ever so gently loosening my white-knuckled grip to my own self-will.

Of course, as is God’s mysterious way and because I have been in total denial, I have been whacked with almost daily admonitions from God of “Who do you think you’re kidding, Linda?”

For example: Within all of our relationships lies the truth of our faithfulness and sinfulness whether we want to acknowledge it or not. Every time we try to fool ourselves into thinking we’re destined for sainthood, if we’re not afraid to face that truth, there are powerful lessons to be learned.

So…I recently had a conversation with my husband. Okay, let me restate that. I had an angry confrontation with him concerning a family matter that I felt was going badly. I wasn’t angry with him, but wanted him to know how I felt about the situation. God sat quietly while I whined and wailed and wore myself out. And then ever so gently stepped in and stuck a big fat mirror in my face! That’s all it took.

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I had to sit with that and in the process I realized that my anger stemmed not from the current situation, but from many years of trying to defend my fragile ego and pride. It isn’t just with this particular person; it is with every person that pushes my ever so delicate buttons.

And I hear God say, “Okay, Linda. Let’s give it another try.” And so…I’m trying. What I would like to share with you is what God has been showing me in the process of the meditations, prayers, and almost daily experiences related to the study I am in the middle of that provide the litmus test of how I’m doing. Regardless of the fact that God has not cut me one bit of slack, I think it’s some pretty awesome stuff.

Some things have been subtle; some not so much as God tries to love me into the person He originally created me to be and He knows full well He has His work cut out for Him.

One profound lesson concerned rejection:

Have you ever felt rejected? I have, all my life. Even today there are people I feel rejected by and I react to them with unkindness. But how often have I considered the times I reject God by those thoughts and actions born of pride and cultivated in arrogance?

And, so I pray: Lord, I seek your forgiveness for putting so many things ahead of you. You love me SO much and feel my rejection so deeply. You cannot make me love you, though you love me unconditionally. Help me to sit in silence in your presence and teach me how to love. By your power and your grace, help me to let go of the things that fill my thoughts and keep me out of relationship with you and with those you bring into my life.

Another lesson reminded me how much I complain:

Mark 6:34 says, “When Jesus saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them.”  Not so much the hearts of his disciples. All they did was complain. Jesus said to feed them. And their response? “What, are you kidding? There are thousands of them.” They counted the meager change in their pockets, “You can’t expect us to just call out for pizza. Let em’ get their own food!”

Jesus always manages to shine a spotlight on our smallness. In those moments I’m standing right there with the disciples all indignant about my weaknesses and inadequacies; forgetting the Source of my power that is within my very soul. He’s trying his best to get through to them, and me, and you. He even humbles himself for heaven’s sake! “I can’t do anything without my Father!” (John 5:30) But, do we listen?

And, the recurring theme throughout this study? Humility:

Matthew 3:13-17, “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you are coming to me?”

There is a whole bunch of humility going on here! John the Baptist never felt worthy “to tie Jesus’ sandals (Mark 1:7)”, and said before his followers, “I must decrease so Jesus can increase.”

How often are we willing to decrease so Jesus can increase? We are all called to love; to have faith and trust and hope; to be filled with joy, peace, and humility, which underlies it all. None of this is remotely possible if it is not born of a heart filled with awe and wonder at the magnificence, power, and glory of God. None if it!

And think of Jesus himself allowing John to baptize him. He wasn’t a sinner and didn’t need to be baptized. Yet he humbled himself before everyone and in the company of sinners to lead the way to his Father.

Reflecting on what I have been reading and studying was like a one-two punch. No, God doesn’t punch, but I’m telling you he flicks! I have been flicked often enough to know. And it hurts. Because he’s not flicking my head, he’s flicking my heart!

At one point in the movie, Groundhog Day, Phil says, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” Good question.

When we go our own way; when we obey the parts of God’s commands that are easy and discard the parts that don’t appeal to us: love your neighbor – check, love your enemy – scratch, is it any wonder that God hates that?

It’s funny, all that I have just related to you is nothing new. “HOLY COW, I never saw those verses before! I never knew God felt so strongly about THAT!” Liar! They have just been an inconvenient truth for me. They demand something I have not been willing to submit to. I pray that is all changing.

I’m sure God isn’t finished with me yet because I checked my pulse and I’m still alive!

I’d like to say that I have finally conquered this one but I know better, and I’m pretty sure there will be another lesson tomorrow…

and the day after that…

and the day after that!

 

 

 

Underwhelmed by God

(originally posted 3/13/16)

I am a nominal Christian. There I said it. Perhaps that is the beginning of change, like someone who goes to AA. They have to admit they’re an alcoholic first. I have wanted God on my terms because I never really trusted Him. How could I? I have not been able to trust the most important people in my life. Why would He be any different? So, in the name of self-preservation, I created my own box. One that was safe, or at least, one that I imagined to be safe – and I put Him in it.

God wanted to be the most important thing in my life, but I kept Him at a comfortable distance. He wanted to show me how much He loved me, but I refused to accept His love, reasoning that He was trying to trick me. He had to be. He wanted me to trust Him, to surrender my life to Him, but I wouldn’t be fooled by His cunning. I was smarter than that! Sure, I played the game when it served me. But, I’m not sure my “playing” was believable to others and God certainly knew!

do have moments of sincerity; moments of longing, that God latches onto. He doesn’t miss an opportunity. When the door is opened, even just a crack, he zooms in with lightening speed! One example recently, was when I was struggling in relationship with someone very important to me. I felt a “loving confrontation” was necessary to resolve the issue once and for all.

Now, I don’t handle confrontation very well. So, in a rare moment of submission, I turned to God first and prayed for His guidance. I wonder if He’s gotten over the shock yet, especially considering that I actually waited for His response! That’s nothing short of a miracle.

A few days later, I went for a run about 10:30 in the morning – not my usual time to run. I turned on my MP3 (that’s right, shocking, huh? I don’t have an iPhone, an iPad, or any I-want-what-you-have gadget. But, somehow I manage to hobble through life). I turned on the radio instead of my playlist – also not usual. (As an aside, we have an amazing Christian radio station – 99.1 Joy FM that is completely paid for by its listeners! You can stream it from anywhere if you want to. It’s awesome!) Anyway, as soon as I turned it on the woman announcer was talking about a book she was reading, “Unoffendable” by Brant Hansen. As soon as I got home I downloaded it on my Kindle. I couldn’t put it down. Honestly. It was amazing and just what I needed. Not just for this situation, but for all time. He is so spot on and so incredibly funny. (He says he’s not, but he is.)

When Hansen says we Christians are the worst examples of always being offended and reacting with “righteous anger”, sadly, he’s right, and I am the worst offender of all. And, folks, that is why I have to admit that I am a nominal Christian, no matter what else I do to try and convince myself otherwise. Hey, I tithe generously, I fast, I pray and go to Mass. Wait! Who do I sound like? This guy in Luke 18:13 who stood humbly before God and prayed?  “He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” Not hardly. More like this guy in verses 11-12: Looking around to make sure everyone was listening he says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’”

When I consider my “righteous” anger in the context of my relationships, I have to understand that I am making a statement about my faith and about God. Every time I try to one-up someone I am showing them a false image of God; of Christ. I imagine them saying, “Oh sure, Linda, you have planted within me a burning desire to run to God with arms stretched out. Longing for His tender embrace –“

NOT!

What I am actually doing is turning others away. There’s a scripture verse for that and it starts with WOE TO YOU knuckleheads! Check it out all through Matthew 23. It’s not an affirmation! And, no, he doesn’t use the word “knucklehead”, what He does use is worse!

So, back to Hansen’s book. I was looking through it for my favorite quotes, but there are too many. And the scripture verses he quotes are too numerous to mention. Just get the book and fasten your seat-belt!

After reading the entire book without taking a breath (I’m not kidding!), I prayed, asked God’s forgiveness for my pride and self-righteousness, for seeing myself as the savior of the world, and then I finally let it go. God’s timing is impeccable considering Good Friday and Easter Sunday are right around the corner!

The Pascal Mystery is relived for us every year because we too quickly forget! Our tears of sorrow on Good Friday turn to tears of joy on Easter Sunday and dry up on Monday. If God is lucky we might make it to Tuesday. If our promised surrender to God was something tangible it would end up on Craig’s List like the treadmill from a New Year’s Resolution with the heading, “Like New – Rarely Used”.

Being a nominal Christian does not have to be my fate. I no longer believe surrender to God is an instantaneous, magic wand moment or nothing at all. In Matthew 4:5, it was the devil who tempted Jesus to jump off the cliff with a promise of great reward, not God. God doesn’t give us an all or nothing ultimatum.

If we will just start somewhere in our messiness to trust Him; to give up something we are clinging to, he will show us what he can do with it. He will reveal to us the peace and joy in our hearts that can only come from turning loose of our need to control.

This can be the time for us to sit at the foot of the cross and “see” with our very hearts what is right before us.

What do you see there?

Do you see a God to be feared?

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Do you see a God trying to trick you into submission?

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Do you see a God who will betray your trust?

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Or do you see a God who loves you THIS MUCH:

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God is not a nominal God and we are not called to be nominal Christians. We are called to take His love into a hurting and broken world without fear; knowing He goes before us.

Are we in or out? (By the way, that confrontation I told you about never took place because I felt God’s gentle nudge to let go of the need to “fix” other people).