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 terms. But, 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 through their actions.

In Jesus’ Passion and death, they witnessed his total self-giving to his Father. So likewise, God revealed his radically gratuitous love for his Son, the disciples, and us through the resurrection. 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 headlong into Jesus transfigured. There was now no denying that what they witnessed they were compelled to share with a lost and hurting world. 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? We zealously take care of “number one” in a world laden with mistrust and fear. 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 are. 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. So, 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 work 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 atta girl.

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. 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 shoo-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 others 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.

Since I am very stubborn and hard-headed (duh), my transformation was is, 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 wandered into other Christian churches. Some sent me running out the door with my hair on fire! Why was I struggling to find a faith with the correct beliefs that spoke to me? For a moment, I considered communing alone with nature! Then I saw 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. At 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. The experiences along the way showed me God’s love beyond anything I had ever known. It just took this long to accept that God could 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 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 was 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 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: to love unconditionally, serve where I am called, and offer freely the same forgiveness and mercy God has shown me.

The Easter question for us 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!

Oh Death Where is Your Sting?

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 for me:

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, a few dared 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. Hearing the witnesses’ testimony 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 I 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. But 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 on this Good Friday, and hopefully be acting on daily. It doesn’t have to be Jesus who calls us to be better, kinder, and softer, to live and love more fully. It can also be the death of a stranger we have never met that wakes us from sleepwalking through life. Facing the realization that we will also die (sorry if that is 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, and 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 and 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 doesn’t change anything. 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 left my loved ones a fortune. 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?

Why You Care Matters – BUT – How You Care Matters More

I recently read Alan Cohen’s quote, Please show me is one of the most powerful prayers you can speak.”

I bulked at that, or more accurately, painful memories and an ego ever on high alert, bulked, “It’s not that simple! Life is not that simple!” That comes from a place long ago when I learned not to trust anyone but myself (how scary is that?!).

As a child, I needed to trust my mother, so I could learn to trust the world around me. But she proved to be untrustworthy, which, in turn, meant the world was also untrustworthy. The world loves those who don’t know who to trust and empowers the ego to guide itself right off every unmarked cliff until we begin to doubt ourselves.

My ego-driven mind wanted every aspect of my life to be certain and laid out clearly. I believed the Spirit I dealt with didn’t care much about its guidance in my life, “You’re on your own, kid. Good luck!” Old memories, combined with my return again and again to my default settings, dredged up my monumental failures to prove I was right – hoping that Spirit-guy would finally see that I had good reason to question everything.

Two events that always come to mind are: (1) writing a book and (2) attending graduate school. Both were significant and frightening decisions that did not turn out the way I had planned. It then seemed that the outcome of these events was confirmation that Spirit-guy could not be trusted either. And just to remind him, we had a little review:

 1) One day, out of nowhere, you clearly told me to “write a book”. That was you – right? Admittedly, after laughing hysterically, I finally did believe you and wrote the damn thing. That led to me imagining myself becoming a famous and sought-after author. But that’s not what happened, is it? No!

2) Then how about this? When offered the unbelievable opportunity to attend graduate school, after much consternation, I acquiesced. Even though I fully believed I would be discovered as a fraud and be tossed out on the street. When I finally realized I might actually accomplish such a crazy endeavor (which took nearly the entire three years I was there), I began to imagine myself becoming a beloved Pastoral Associate—fulfilling my need to be somebody special. But, that’s right, that’s not what happened either. Are you still with me, Spirit-guy?

When I read, “You can avoid painful errors and trials by letting the Spirit guide you”, my “failures” seem to confirm that that did not apply to me. But in a rare moment, I sat quietly and prayed. The response came quickly. I suppose because it has been the same obsessive struggle I have had for years, and you were probably peeved, weren’t you?!

Spirit (eye roll here), “Sit down and take a deep breath, Linda. Ready? Here we go for the bizzilionth time.”

1)  Yes, I did prompt you to write a book and attend graduate school. And, no, it did not catapult you into fame, fortune or recognition. No associate position in the church or loads of book sales. But it did develop into your blog, which has touched lives. How many? It really doesn’t matter because that’s not the point. The experience has changed your life in ways you never could have imagined beforehand – right?

Can you not see how much your faith grew and flourished when you cared for the dying as a Hospice volunteer? Then, working with the homeless, you showed them love, when they only knew rejection. No award, book contract, or flurry of accolades will come close to invoking those tears of love and compassion you reveal every time you reach out to those who suffer.

Maybe a review of Luke 15:4-6 is in order here. You know – when Jesus dropped everything and went after ONE (you!) lost sheep. ONE! And then he danced and sang all the way back to camp like he had hit the lottery!!

2) Admit it, Linda, it took these experiences and many others to strip away enough of your brokenness (not all, but enough for now) to open you to the love of God that had been gathering dust in your heart for a very long time. And, yes, I’m still going to be there, as always, to offer you some pearls of wisdom, even if you pretend not to notice me – the elephant in the room!

Anyway, those are the things you would probably never have considered being capable of before God wrested your shallow ‘faith’ from you and replaced it with a love for others.

Purpose can never be driven by the world’s definition of success. So, stop already putting expectations on the outcome!

Now, come on, we have lots of work to do, and you aren’t getting any younger, you know. Just sayin’.

Can you relate? Have you experienced your own come-to-Jesus moment, but you’re not sure what that means for you?

When Jesus said, “follow me,” it was a radical call, not an invitation to tea. It wasn’t the Jesus version of Simon says, “Touch your toes. Wiggle your nose. Bend your knees. Pat your head. Here’s your prize.”

You realize, don’t you, that Jesus never said, “Go to church”. Never. Church is where we often hear the Word of God, rejoice for a millisecond, and then go home to cut the grass. Following Christ means living the Word; it means being Christ to others. He told us, “I have suffered the hatred of those in power to serve those at the bottom – the forgotten and rejected. If you follow me, you will do even more and, yes, you will suffer for your efforts as well.” Our response to that call should be a resounding, “Yes”! But, it’s often, “I’ll get back to you.”

Remember that all the disciples ran for cover when Jesus was taken away. When they saw the empty tomb in unison, they proclaimed, “Bummer, this is not how we imagined it turning out.” (Does this sound familiar?) So, when Jesus showed up unannounced at their pity party, he was surely in the same place Spirit-guy has been with me so often, “Okay guys, let’s try this again. First of all, let’s get this out of the way – none of you will be sitting on any throne no matter what aspirations your mother has (Matt. 20:20-21). You’ll be sitting in the muck and mire with the least among you and, get this – you’re going to love it there because that’s what you were created for, selfless love and compassionate care for the lost and hurting.”

Today, we have been inundated by images and news concerning Covid-19, our broken economy, hunger and homelessness, and the BLM protests that have shed an uncomfortable light on the inequities in this country.

People are suffering and dying every day because they have been victims of Covid, hatred, or both. How are you affected by these realities? What do you think of when you witness this most profound moment in our history? Do you turn off the TV and retreat to your safe place? Do you pray or send a check to a food bank? – I’m not discounting those things. Both are needed for sure. But, is there a tugging on your heart to act on that reality?

This is a time of reckoning for all of us who consider ourselves decent human beings. Never mind any label you may attach to that: Christian, Jew, Atheist, none of the above, whatever – just decent human beings who know deep down we are called to lift our “caring” to a whole new level.

I love the expression: “Bidden or not bidden, God is still present”. God still lives and moves and has his being in the very depth of your heart, whether you believe in him or not. And even if you don’t, he just hangs out there, hoping you will one day acknowledge him and, in turn, recognize who and Whose you are. He’s like the heart whisperer, “I love you, you are mine, and your life matters.”

If I ever sound like I have totally got my act together, don’t think for a moment that it’s true. We are all a work in progress. We have all sinned and fallen short (Romans 3:23). I’m just thankful that God’s love and grace know no bounds. Our weaknesses don’t anger him, and our fears won’t push him away. On the contrary, he is merciful, forgiving, empowering, and likely has a wicked sense of humor! Oh yeah, and he has never been untrustworthy. Not once.

So, let’s do this. Yes, sitting quietly is important to discern how and where you are called to serve. But then, like Jeremiah, get off your butt and get over yourself because God will give you all you need to do what he calls you to do. That’s a promise we can all trust.

I will end with this wisdom from Anthony DeMello, SJ:

Once upon a time, a disciple asked the elder, “Holy One, is there anything I can do to make myself Enlightened?”

“As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.”

“Then of what use,” the disciple asked, “are all the spiritual exercises?”

“To make sure,” the elder said, “that you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”