The View from the “Clouds”

The View from the “Clouds”

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A pastor friend posted this video on Facebook on Tuesday (21 May 2013).  Though he wasn’t the first person in my feed who did, his comments gave me pause.  He wrote:

He died yesterday at age 17.
How does a kid know so much about parenting?
How does a teen know so much about life?
How does one suffering know so much about joy?
How can such sorrow and loss shout hope and purpose?

When we talk, Sunday after Sunday, that it is possible to have joy in all things, he shows it is possible.

So how can I put the wisdom of this life, with all its joy, hope, and courage into my life?  I want to be like him when I grow up.

Before watching the video, I replied:

There are those among us who have not only spent life living, but watching and thinking — the introspective contemplatives.  It is in the presence of these individuals that one realizes what “an old soul” truly means.  Most live simple lives that only impact the lives of those in their immediate world around them, but every so often the words of one or another of these remarkable persons are preserved and handed down. Often we find the writings of these individuals as mature adults, but in peeling back the layers, realize the individuals in question were long remarkable. Add to all of that the knowledge that he knew that life is short, fleeting, and precious long before most people figure out they aren’t invincible and immortal…that’s how.

The video:

Love the video. Zach gets it — got it:

“Because you can either sit in your basement and wait, or you can get out there and do some crazy stuff.”

“Life is just really beautiful moments, one right after the other.”

“It’s really simple actually, it’s just…try and make people happy. Maybe you have to learn in less time, maybe you have to learn it the hard way, but as long as you learn it, you’re gonna make the world a better place.”

So many people clutter up life with just…things that don’t even matter. The younger this can be learned — the sooner this can be learned — what does matter, the better. The gift that Zach’s cancer gave him was a clarity about this. The thing that can be the greatest evil in this world is not isolated incidents of wickedness and depravity, but the wholesale distraction on a massive and societal level toward ephemeral things and away from the beauty and preciousness of what makes life…life.

Not the best shot of either one of us, but there we are

Not the best shot of either one of us, but there we are

I have a dear baby niece who I try to see a little bit every day. She’s about four and a half months old (younger in this picture) — a sweet, willful, sassy little thing — this child has known what she wanted since before she was born. But she came into the world with little expectation from life — as we all do. Everything is a fascination, and there is so much delight and joy in her as she experiences life. What she wants is simple: to be with those she loves who so dearly love her, and to experience (and delight in) the wonder of life that is her world.

At what point will she be told that’s not good enough?

At what point will she internalize that ‘that’s not good enough’ is true?

The thought that there will come a day when that will be true fills me with profound sadness, because that is the day she will lose her life…the part that matters anyway. Because Zach is right (though I’ll be the first to admit this is a difficult truth to always internalize at every dark moment):

“Life is just really beautiful moments, one right after the other.”

If we ever lose that perspective, we risk losing — forfeiting — all the goodness, joy, hope, and love possible in this life.

For all my love for life (though not always love for the way my own life is going), for all the words of love, of hope, of encouragement…I tend to spend a lot of time on the theological dark side. Sin, evil, pain, suffering, death — what do these things mean within the parameters of a Christian worldview, what does God have to say about it, and how do theologians across the ages weigh in on the discussion? And there is a lot to be found on the subject, because the primary narrative of the Bible is not of children of light living in the glory of eternal light — the primary narrative of the Bible is God’s great rescue plan for broken humanity.

Please remember that the world didn’t start out as a place of light, it started as a place of darkness (see Genesis 1). It is, in-fact, impossible to know light without darkness. That’s not to say that the light does not exist without darkness, it is to say that it will not be noticed: for though the stars burn as brightly during the day as at night, their light is lost to us during the day because of the light of the sun.

Sometimes what makes a thing most noticeable is its deficiency.

“How does one suffering know so much about joy?”

Because amid suffering it becomes apparent that joy is the only thing that really matters. I frequently raid the theology section of a local used book shop, and was having a conversation Tuesday afternoon with the owner about my general distaste for the “heaven tourism” genre. It isn’t about whether I believe or disbelieve the accounts, it’s that I don’t find them relevant or important. I pointed to Philippians 1:21, and said that what interests me more are the books by the people who have wrestled with and internalized “to live is Christ, to die is gain” because they have faced death. It may or may not be a hard word or a hard sell to an eschatologist to say that I don’t give much thought to “what’s next,” but I don’t. I have deep enough Roman Catholic roots for God to be “allowed” to be mysterious. I know God keeps his promises. There are enough broad brush strokes in the Bible to understand the glory and benevolence of heaven without needing a tour map and itinerary. I have an eternity of “later” to think about “later,” what don’t have a lot of is “now.” A friend of mine presented the thought a few months ago that in-light of my trials, suffering, and constant illness this year she wished I could just sleep until 2014 (my reply to that can be found here). I wrote:
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Time is precious…

fleeting…

measured in breaths…

in sunrises and sunsets…

in grains of sand…

in waves on the shore.

It cannot be bottled, nor saved

nor kept, nor held —

only savored, cherished, remembered…or else merely regretted for its passing.

What Zach understood is that life — what we make of it, how we live, and how we die — is a matter of perspective. Whatever we go looking for in this life with intentionality — goodness or evil, hope or despair, joy or sorrow, beauty or wretchedness — we will find. One of the most profoundly affecting things I’ve ever done in my life was volunteer-visit hospice patients. Because hospice patients are a distinct group — a person has committed to not seeking further medical treatment for his or her terminal condition at that point — my various patients gave me the quiet gift of a very close view of death and dying. One thing I discovered first about hospice patients, but then chillingly realized applies to every single living human in my world, is this: absolutely everything about how a person lives his or her life and faces his or her death is tied to the question of whether or not he or she fears death.

Everything.

I have faced my own death many times, and have been called to be a part of the death and dying process of many pets and people. Now there are those who do not fear death who still fight it a little — e.g., what can be done to fight this cancer, do I have a chance? There is a line, however, in a certain type of patient that never makes it to hospice — the patient who fights to fight, even when fighting is of no practical use and destroys the possibility of living and dying with dignity, because their soul has no anchor but to this life and to this world. Realizing how these people lived long before they died, the quiet similarity I’ve noticed — especially among women — is that defying the aging process on all levels becomes a macabre obsession. The thing is though, in the time spent trying to defy aging and death (which, face it, our culture shoves down out throats) we actually surrender control of our lives — minute by minute, dollar by dollar — to that same distracting, dark spirit that steals our days by filling them with ephemeral things. Zach’s view was:

“Death is just another thing on the agenda, kinda. Yeah, it’s scary, but the only reason it’s scary is ’cause you don’t know what’s next or if there is a next. So it’s kinda like sittin’ in the dark. And so you can either choose to be freaking out in the dark and thinking, ‘okay, what’s out there?’ or you can just relax and fall asleep, and be happy and content with everything.”

And it’s by this view — in not “freaking out” but knowing to “relax” — that I know Zach did not fear death, he had a greater peace.

And one of the greatest graces that facing death — reckoning with Philippians 1:21 on a very personal level — is that it can teach you how to live.

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Zach knew this.

Because if a person can come to the place of peace to know “to die is gain,” it completely removes all distracting and self-serving, fear-related barriers to the “to live is Christ” portion of that verse.

Given his words:

“I want to be remembered as the kid who went down fighting…and didn’t really lose.”

and statements made this week by his family, following his death, Zach knew that too.

And its my own deep knowledge of the truth of that verse that brought me to the position I took with my friend who owns the book shop, because there are a lot of really wonderful and rich verses in the Bible to use as an anchor for life, but time and time again I keep coming back to Philippians 1:21.

It’s the ultimate win-win (which Zach also knew).

A pause to fly a little close to the earth with respect to joy and Philippians for any who might not be as deeply familiar with my favorite book in the Bible as I am (or as my pastor friend). Firstly, one of the most beautiful renderings of Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi (i.e., Philippians) is to be found in The New Testament in Modern English by J.B. Phillips (click here to read it). And to read it (in any translation), one thing that is most striking about this epistle (“epistle” is the $10 word for “letter” in Bible-speak) is that it drips with hope and joy…sometimes on a nauseating level.

Seriously, read it…joy, encouragement, hope, love (and the most beautifully succinct passage on the incarnation of Christ is to be found in Chapter 2).

So what’s the story behind the writing of Philippians? Paul hints at it — he was in prison.

Prison?

Yeah, prison. He was chained to a guard 24/7 and used the opportunity to evangelize the guards. Prison — not much joy and hope to be found there. And yet? In Philippians we have one of the most beautiful books in the Bible coming out of the darkness and despair of unjust imprisonment written by a man who was eventually martyred.

“To live is Christ, to die is gain.”

Paul knew what Zach learned — life is too short and too precious to brood over unalterable injustices. In this broken world terrible things happen that we have no power to prevent or to change, but that doesn’t mean we have to swallow the poison and define our days by brokenness. The world was not created broken, it was created beautiful — God made it and saw that it was good. All the goodness didn’t drain out of the world at the fall — much goodness and beauty exists still, albeit imperfectly, and it’s up too us to seek it.

That’s how such sorrow and loss can shout hope and purpose — because sorrow and loss have a walk-on part in eternity for people of faith like Zach, they were not the main characters of Zach’s life, and they will have no part in things to come. Sorrow and loss certainly shaped and informed Zach’s last few years in this world, but by no means did it define him or his beautiful life.

“When we talk, Sunday after Sunday, that it is possible to have joy in all things, he shows it is possible.”

Yes, he shows it is possible, but he also doesn’t deny the bad days. What any who choose to find joy in all things will tell you, is that finding joy — and light…and hope — in profound darkness requires intentionality.

“So how can I put the wisdom of this life, with all its joy, hope, and courage into my life?”

Well that’s the answer, isn’t it: intentionality.

Please understand that finding the goodness, hope, joy and beauty in this broken world is not equivalent to turning off one’s brain and declaring that bad things and brokenness do not exist (“La, la, la — not listening!”) — they do, and they are just as real as all of the good and beautiful things. What intentionality means, is looking at all the good and all the bad, but choosing to honor the goodness of life as more important to value than the bad. It really is that simple…and yet it is so damnably easy to be distracted down the rabbit hole of despair.

Intentionality is no easy task, but it is possible for all. We don’t need to be some kind of super-saint sitting on top of a mountain contemplating life 24/7, it is perfectly possible to be intentional — each and every one of us — in everyday life. It does require a bit of contemplation.

Marginally connected to my application and acceptance to one of the best Jesuit universities on the West Coast U.S., last fall I started delving into the history of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) and their founder St. Ignatius of Loyola. I really like what Loyola had to say about much; his Spiritual Exercises (basically a month-long retreat), The Examen, and so many of his other spiritual disciplines are an amazing and simple way for everyday people to grow closer to God in a very practical way that — really — anyone can do. Ignatian Spirituality is one of the most practical approaches to conducting an interior life that I have found. And don’t think just because Loyola was a Roman Catholic, that this is somehow a “Catholic” thing and doesn’t apply to Protestants, it does. Ignatian Spirituality is a really great tool box for practical faith, and for more information I would recommend reading The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life by James Martin, SJ as a great place to start (he’s very readable and approachable and funny — this will not be a slog, Martin is great!).

Because one of the best ways I’ve found of being intentional about life is the Ignatian principle of finding God in all things — all things. There is a passage from the First week of the Spiritual Exercises that both inspires and challenges me. I’ve quoted it before, but I just keep coming back to it because it is so clear in what it teaches: come what may, our ultimate desire should be anything which enables us to best praise, revere, and serve God (which echoes the famous question/answer from the Shorter Catechism to The Westminster Confession of Faith: Q. 1. What is the chief end of man? / A. 1. Man’s Chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever). Loyola wrote:

Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord and by this means to save his soul.

And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.

From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.

For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.

To be intentional to seek to lift up what is good and worthy (regardless of circumstances), to find God in all things (regardless of circumstances), and to desire what will best enable us to serve God (regardless of whether the circumstances that come of it are particularly comfortable or desirable to us) — that’s the secret to living a life of hope and joy and courage. Embrace today, it’s the only “today” you’re going to get.

That is what Zach knew.

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Sylmar hill walk. Sylmar, CA. 8 MAR 2013.

And so Zach journeys on without us, and we sojourn here without him. I immediately thought of the Mr. Rogers quotation when I started writing this post:

“If only you could sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you many never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you will leave at every meeting with another person.” — Fred Rogers

because whether Zach knew it or not, we know it of his beautiful life. It is a challenge to us, however — for if we leave something of ourselves with all we meet and in the lives of all we touch, what are we leaving? It cuts both ways — positive and negative. Seek to be intentional that what you leave is positive (as Zach did).

Blessings – VKS

Post-script: I’ve been intermittently watching Zach’s video “Clouds” on YouTube all week as I’ve been writing this (always makes me cry):

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Love and light

Love and light

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Another excerpt from a letter to a friend…

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The root of so much that has so long been so broken in my own self is not that I rarely expend much time or energy in my own direction, it’s that as much as I deeply love so many, I just don’t have a place to love myself. I mean, surely I’m no longer knocking on death’s door begging to be let in (as I did for twelve years), but I also know that I’m not “fixed” and that this is the piece of myself that is far from “recovered,” and is the root of every ugly thing. It’s one of the horrendous things in that’s in The Hall Closet [a reference to My Heart: Christ’s Home], but you know that.
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But the thing is, my brain is just…broken. I only apply this standard to myself, but I absolutely equate “utility” and “worth.” I can argue the theological and ontological and everything else logical arguments for why that isn’t a valid perspective…for anyone else. I can’t make any of it stick for me. And it’s not just the absence of self-love, it’s the presence of self-loathing. And like I said…I can parse through the head knowledge beautifully, but I can’t make it stick on the soul level.

I can’t fix that, because in that case the problem is within. Only God can fix that one.

There’s a lot more to all of this on a lot of levels. I hear your words — as I have heard your words on multiple occasions — about me taking care of me. I don’t know how to do that, I just don’t. I don’t even know enough to know the pieces I’m missing to try to figure out what that would even look like without being off-balance.

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I generally love without expectation — e.g., I am not your friend because I’m trying to earn your love or friendship (I am your friend because I just love you). And I don’t work that way because I’ve spent too much time around miserable people who do. If a person appreciates my love or kindness, and expresses that appreciation in love or kindness in return, I am happy…but I am not happy BECAUSE they were kind to me, I am happy because they were able to receive my love. And even then it’s not on a level of “I am an acceptable person because my love was found to be acceptable by this person,” no. I am happy because the person I love was blessed by the love I intended to bless them. And it isn’t that I somehow did well for sending that love, but merely joy that love itself (not my part in it) “won” and my friend was blessed. When I play with my dear baby niece, my goal is to engage her (and if possible, delight her because it’s so sweet when she laughs). It’s not about my aim to be perceived to be delightful, it’s about spreading love and joy. I am still going to love her if she doesn’t delight in my presence.

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You know it makes me sad that there are people in my life whom I love dearly but who cannot receive or accept my love. It took a long time to get to the place of realizing that their reaction didn’t change the reality of who I am — I am not less because they cannot receive my love or love me. But that doesn’t stop me from weeping (often to God). Yes, I am sad that they do not love me and cannot receive my love, but only a little — because I know this isn’t how life was meant to be, broken families are not part of God’s best plan. What sets me to weeping and prayer is that love isn’t winning the day.

That’s really it.

Because I am a broken person, I see my brokenness, and I do not just not love what is broken within me, I hate it. And I absolutely live with (and live by) this question: “How can I live this day to bless others?” I’m still the same parts beautiful and wretchedly broken I was before I woke up and before I decided to be proactive about loving others, but whether love is accepted or reciprocated, love itself makes the world a less-broken place.

And isn’t that, essentially, one pretty big take-home point of the gospel?

I do take time to take care of me a little, and I don’t derive self-worth or merit or acceptance from my love and service. I just happen to have a cazy-huge servant’s heart. I really do love Merton’s metaphor of a crystal:

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When a ray of light strikes a crystal, it gives a new quality to the crystal. And when God’s infinitely disinterested love plays upon a human soul, the same kind of thing takes place. And that is the life called sanctifying grace.

The soul of a man, left to its own natural level, is a potentially lucid crystal left in darkness. It is perfect in its own nature, but it lacks something it can only receive from outside and above itself. But when the light shines in it, it becomes in a manner transformed into light and seems to lose its nature in the splendor of a higher nature, the nature of the light that is in it.

So the natural goodness of man, his capacity for love which must always be in some sense selfish if it remains in the natural order, becomes transfigured and transformed when the Love of God shines in it. What happens when a man loses himself completely in the Divine Life within him? This perfection is only for those who are called the saints — for those rather who are the saints and who live in the light of God alone.

— Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

Even before I read all of the various brilliant things Merton had to say on the subject, I felt that the best reflection of who God is through me is in my love and service of others. I love to love and I serve to serve because I am grateful that I CAN love and that I CAN serve. I seriously scrutinize anything that detracts from that, even if that “something” happens to be me.

Blessings for your Tuesday

Blessings for your Tuesday

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To the same friend as  yesterday’s post…

Oh, right, and yeah, for a long time I was aiming at being a math professor. Most of the teaching I have done in my life? Math. Very gifted at math, science, history, literature, AND theology????? Um, I love art and music too. #RenaissanceWoman, #loveHildegardvonBingen

Oh, right…and if you named one of your pets after Hildegard von Bingen that automatically makes you cool enough to be my friend!!!!

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My Dear Friend,

It has been my experience over many years of studying mathematics (still a love, but one I had to leave in a box quietly by the side of the road) that there are basically two temperaments in math professors: the ones who know and understand that math is a great game and a puzzle…and the ones for whom it becomes a religion. I am in the former camp — Calculus proofs are FAR more elegant and fun than, say, crossword puzzles.

My former Calculus professor for all three terms was of a similar mind, and just neat people. Professor, former missionary in Thailand, a pastor’s wife who sometimes preaches herself. She has a radio ministry, she’s mother of three grown sons, she’s grandma. She’s exactly the type of person you can imagine me falling in with because she is both “real” and interesting (I have no use for pretense, and narrowly conventional people generally can’t stand ME, nevermind that shallowness bores me to tears).

She has a great sense of humor, but maybe not as quick and wicked as mine. She is the professor, of course, but in proofs that take 3-5 boards to write out, sometimes minor mistakes are made along the way that get you stuck and backing up later (and you learn as much from the backing up, so it’s a good thing). The funny thing was that she would always have a stock-answer ready-made silly excuse for the mistake. My favorite habitual excuse was: “Because it’s Tuesday” — she never blamed any other day of the week but Tuesdays.
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If you’re reading this, good morning to you my friend — it’s Tuesday. Blessings and love to you my friend because it’s Tuesday. We don’t ever need any other reason to celebrate a day besides the fact that God made it and we’re living it (both of those being very good things to celebrate). The verse goes: “Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS,” no conditional qualifiers. I pray you can find joy and peace in this day, come what may, no matter what, and even…because it’s Tuesday. I love you my friend, and you are in my prayers. Know that you are loved — treasured by God and by many. No matter what else this day brings, I pray you find joy, peace, and rest in that love my friend.

May the peace of Christ be with you in all things this day, and may the Holy Spirit bring you strength. Hugs to you my dear friend.

Much love in-Christ,

Val

Love and blessings for your day my friend

Love and blessings for your day my friend

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Photo source and image copyright Curly Girl Designs http://www.curlygirldesign.com

Originally sent as an e-mail to a dear friend; it occurred to me it would make a good post as well.  The human soul is a fragile thing indeed, but that is one of the things that makes it most beautiful and precious. For it is, as Thomas Merton wrote, like a crystal: it is the light without — God’s light– shining through a soul that brings it to life. May you find hope and blessings this day. — VKS

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My Dear Friend,

Blessings for your morning — I love you, and God does too (know that on both counts).  Come what may (come all that may), if you are reading this, you are alive on a day and in a life that holds so much beauty and love.  Know that — take time to notice it.  There is no joy or beauty too small not to praise the Lord.

—–

“There is not a flower that opens, not a seed that falls into the ground, and not an ear of wheat that nods on the end of its stalk in he wind that does not preach and proclaim the greatness and the mercy of God to the whole world

There is not an act of kindness or generosity, not an act of sacrifice done, or a word of peace and gentleness spoken, not a child’s prayer uttered, that does not sing praises to God before his throne, and in the eyes of men, and before their faces.

How does it happen that in the thousands of generations of murderers since Cain, our bloodthirsty ancestor, that some if us can still be saints? The quietness and hiddenness and placidity of the truly good people in the world all proclaim the glory of God.

All these things, all creatures, all graceful movement, every ordered act of the human will, all are sent to us as prophets from God.”
— Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

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I love you my friend, bless you. I remembered you and your family fiercely in my prayers this morning. I only wish I could give you a hug in-person to give you my love beyond mere words. I am currently reading The Ascent to Truth, which is Merton on St. John of the Cross (phenomenal book even as I am barely into it). I got into what — on my end — was a very interesting argument AGAINST “prosperity gospel” nonsense with G—– last week; she couldn’t wrap her head around the premise of The Dark Night of the Soul and I think thinks I’m completely nuts (and possibly evil or dangerous) for raising the question in the first place. I was also talking about that premise [with K—–] on the way home from church yesterday, that, no — this is not the place where you know things are bad but you know God loves you, this is the place where things are SO BAD you can’t see or feel God anywhere in those darkest of dark moments. And if your life with God includes NO blessings, is who God is ENOUGH to love him, praise him, serve him?

G—– cited that as a weird question. I was also speaking against one of Job’s friends who equated “lack of apparent blessings” with “secret sin” or perhaps some other deficiency of love or faith (as many today would accuse in similar circumstances). I reminded her that it is also the question raised by Job — if all life is without blessings, is who God is ENOUGH? That was dismissed too. I remain convinced, however, that it is a good litmus test for faith — do I love God because I LOVE God, or do I say I love God because he is “the god who gets me stuff”? Obviously my answer is the former (spiritually-shallow people do not take up with Carmelite mystics for “a little light reading,” and then take up with a Trappist monk for deeper reflection!!!!!).

You are loved, dear sister — by God, by me, and by so very many. May that sustain you this day, come what may. The grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you my friend.

Much love in-Christ,

Val

Blessings and storms

Blessings and storms

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Thus far it has been the most beautiful birthday weekend since 2001.

Today — the morning with my church family.

I will write more later.  For reasons that have nothing to do with festivities, I haven’t slept well in days; presently I’ve been up for hours after…maybe…five hours sleep (after a day of walking about L.A.. with friends — NOT adequate for my day!!!).  It occurs to me that I would live as a servant for the rest of my life if only I could have a truly safe place to rest each night where I could sleep in total and absolute peace, a place where I could attain true and real rest.

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I haven’t slept in complete and total peace since 2002.

That’s a definitive part of hell I think — no rest.  The fact that I haven’t slept in eleven years both with peace and without the occasional Benadryl for help is truly maddening.

It has been a beautiful weekend full of so much love and delight and celebrating life.  Still no baby guinea pigs to celebrate with, but I pray that all goes well and that Annie delivers safely and soon.

But even amid so much love and so much joy and so many blessings, the dark reality that we live in a very darkly broken world looms large in so many ways.  I see it well, but would go completely insane to focus or dwell on it.  And I really do mean that: completely insane.  I am, however, sane as sane can be to know NOT to focus on such things.  Still…scary stuff.

Part of what has kept me up this night is a very brief note from a very dear friend who is probably very much more ill than she would ever admit.  It renews a question raised in my mind last fall when her collegues were piecing together a story that involved years of silence on the subject — will I ever see her again at all, in this life or the next? (there has long been a question mark on the last point)

Forever is not merely a very long time, forever is forever — it means “always” or “never,” but “eventually” and “hopefully” and “someday” are just not part of the “forever” equation.

Is a chronic and progressive illness more than that is my question (one of so many questions).

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Thunderstorm viewed from the back side of Pine Mountain over the Lockwood Valley and Frazier Park, taken 30 SEP 2010

Storms loom in the distance.

I can feel the air changing, I can see the thunderheads building.

There is no peace in this.

Last night, before I went to bed I wrote:

“What I wish from life is not much, or shouldn’t be.  I wish for peace and stability enough that there may be room and provision for me to continue to exist in the world while I remain in the world.  I wish to love and serve God with everything I have while I am in the world.  There may be a problem with this, and it is making me ill.  May God’s favor and provision be with his humble servant, I have no answers.”

Because provision is the open question at this point.

I wrote more at-length to a few friends last night when I got home.  The subject line of that e-mail was: “Wishing for the kind of faith that would make anxiety attacks impossible.”

So much looms and so much is wrong, even on this bright and beautiful weekend filled with joy.  I am not focusing on the darkness, but neither am I ignoring it.

God help me, only he can fix this.

The intro to the backstory to Casting Crowns’ “Praise You In This Storm”:

The full song:

On my knees

On my knees

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Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, CA

So, when I finally got home from the hospital Monday afternoon — exhausted from basically NO sleep the night before — I crashed for a few hours while “Mom” in the family of the household where I live went out with the kiddos because the littlest miss had an appointment.  Lovely time for a nap.  It was insanity when they got home though, as it was *one of those days*, the house is a wreck, and no one got naps.  Saw the Cathedral advertising a special mass on their Facebook feed as I scrolled through, and it did not take a lot of thought to know I wanted to get the heck out of Dodge Monday night.  On some level I think every week should be Holy Week if only for the opportunity to worship so much more often.

I raced downtown, of course praying all the way down…which, of course, also had me in tears.  Maybe you can understand how it is to be the kind of person with whom the conversation does not normally stop at the “How are you?” / “Fine.” level.  To be fair, I do pretty regularly check-in with folks via e-mail or text message or Facebook.  When people I love respond to my prayer request inquiries, it’s complicated.  I wouldn’t say that my friends count on me, they don’t per se, but what they count on is — as one of my very best friends, a dear prayer partner, and the only human God has graced and blessed me with the honor of walking with at the start of her jouney of faith put it the other night — a “spiritual constant.”  Well “constant” is a good word for me anyway, I can be cranky sometimes, but I have a pretty even emotional keel.  “Spiritually constant” is a label I will take, but it keeps my inbox full.  These are not prayers on the “please pray I will do well on my board exams” kind of prayer requests.  These are more along the lines of folks with crazed relatives out to kill them, people captive to eating disorders and mental illness, people with children not only far from God but sometimes in a lot of trouble and missing (and grandkids missing with them), people with struggling marriages, or friends who profoundly love Jesus and cling tightly to God but who live in living situations surrounded by profound darkness closing in on them from every side as they sit like a backstop for Christ between those they love so dearly and all the furies of hell waiting for an opportunity to unleash with power to destroy everyone and everything in their path.

When I ask: “How can I pray for you?” those are the types of answers I get.  Those are the prayers that keep me in tears.  I don’t care where I am anymore, but the long stretches of time spent crossing the San Fernando Valley or headed downtown seem to be a perfect opportunity to pray, as I have nothing else I “need” to be focusing on at the time.  So that was Monday night just as much as it was Monday morning.

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St. Peter's Basilica, The Vatican, Rome

So, there was not a lot of thought or intent for WHY to head downtown other than wanting to get out of the house, and worshipping God among God’s people in a beautiful sacred space seemed to be a good way to do that.  If you are my friend, you understand that my default plan for “how to spend free time” includes “going to church” in some capacity and “art museums”; it does not include such typical perennial favorites as “let’s go see a movie” or “let’s stay home and watch TV” or “let’s go hang out at the mall.”

I got there barely “on time,” but “on time” just the same.  I actually earned an Order of Mass from someone who decided that me singing “Church of God, Elect and Glorious” (think “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee…) with my whole heart and pulling out the stops for what my voice had to offer because Beethoven’s 9th is GLORIOUSLY in-range for my voice — and singing this while desperately trying to read the words of the hymn off her friend’s Order of Mass — meant that I wanted or needed that piece of paper more than she did.

Incidentally, I was/am blown away at the beauty of the words to “Church of God, Elect and Glorious.”  Seriously.  Beautiful and powerful.

I was stuck rather close to the beautiful processional in, for by the time I got there people were still flooding in and it was standing room only in a packed house in one of the largest cathedrals in the world.

That’s a moment.

It was a Chrism Mass (but what do I know of such things, I’ve never lived near the seat of an Archdiocese before…).  That crowd…it was like being at a wedding full of people whose primary objective was loving Jesus and worshipping God, and whose secondary objective was sharing the joy of this in prayerful support of their fellow saints (per se, in the Protestant understanding of the word).  After the processional, I was able to make my way across and up and ended up spending most of two hours ON MY KNEES behind the row if pews that mark the center aisle.

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Photo source, Compassion International

That’s not for everybody, I understand, but there is something much more intentional (and far less comfortable!) in worshipping God on your knees rather than sitting.  You have to want to be there, every moment is present-tense not only for what is going on with your knees and lower back, but drawing you back into what is going on everywhere else.  Kneeling through a worship service is not a spectator sport, and it would be impossible to, say, fall asleep doing it.

There was a lesson there.

I ended up not in my usual spot, but across and under St. Cecilia, St. Stephen, and St. Ignatius of Loyola (I can work with that, for nothing in the world against any of the other tapestries, I love them all, but if I have a choice for “who to sit by” in church, I pick familiar friends who, in this case, inspire me).

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Communion of the Saints, Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, CA

I was next to a girl from Reseda who sings in her church choir as much as I should sing in ours (which I would if I could reasonably make rehearsals).  Our vocal range was similar, which is very fun.  She was about my age, maybe a bit younger, and she and her friends were very nice; it was beautiful and fun to worship with her, singing songs (bilingual ones) that are — by now — very familiar to me.

Now, to be sure, as a resolute Protestant, in any mass there are those “yup, I don’t believe that” moments, but I am disinclined toward the notion of a “seating chart” in heaven.  But apart from blessing the oils there sat hundreds of priests publically reaffirming their faith and their vows before a room of people who turned out to love and prayerfully support them.  And we were also called to renew our own commitment to faith which — on your knees in a giant beautiful cathedral amid so many joyously faithful saints, standing under tapestries depicting the lives of so many who lived beautiful lives that inspire ME — was a powerful thing.  There is so much that is truly beautiful wrapped up in the idea of “the communion of the saints.”

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Archdiocesan Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Monday, March 25, 2013. (photo: Victor Aleman / vida-nueva.com)

I’ve “passed through” various ecumenical places on my way to Geneva (and Calvin), as it were.  I’ve been in various churches and denominations where an alter call was fairly normal, and certainly at the single Christian camp experience I had many years ago, there was the call to not just merely commitment to faith but a renewed commitment to faith.  I’ve had the weird pleasure of having to really come to terms with the parameters of my own faith twice in the last seven years as I made the very public profession of faith to join two churches.  Certainly most days I wake up with the attitude: “Good morning, Lord, bring it on,” but there are other moments.  Occasionally there are also moments — and I know Monday night was one of them — where I am more of the mind of: “Lord, I have no idea where we are going, but before heaven — let all these people be my witnesses — I’m all-in, so, yes…bring it on, and where are we going tomorrow?”

But with an “on my knees” intentionality.

So I may not have had any deep motives for why to head to the cathedral Monday night, but God did…which became very clear to me as I — on my knees and singing my heart out — found myself amid a liturgy focused on vocation, service, and faithfulness.  It was a beautiful thing.
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(Click here for the link to the YouTube video for the Homily of the March 25, 2013 Chrism Mass given by Archbishop José H. Gomez)

Transfiguring the world with joy

Transfiguring the world with joy

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As most who know me know, expressing an intriguing idea in my presence always carries with it the risk of me thinking deeply on the matter and then giving you my $0.02 (and by “my $0.02,” I of course mean $0.02…with about $17.98 in spare change to go with it).  In an e-mail to another Christian — one I admittedly do not know well, but know well ENOUGH to know that both Easter and Lent are on his radar screen — I closed with a cordial word of hope and a reference to the resurrection:

“As we, with all our brothers and sisters in Christ, progress through this holy season and prepare to celebrate the grace and mercy of the crucifixion and the glory of the resurrection, may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in your faith, that by the power of the Holy Spirit, your whole life and outlook may be radiant with hope.”

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His response was:

“Maybe joy of the resurrection transfigured our whole world”

Which, of course set me to tho thinking…and thinking…and thinking some more. What follows is my response…

[I preface the following with the reminder of my intent toward Theological Studies as a major…and that I have had more time than normal American humans to read/write/think about theology; normal American humans watch TV at night instead]

I thought about it, and maybe you’re right and the resurrection did transfigure the whole world. Maybe it’s like C.S. Lewis in The Last Battle where we come upon the dwarves who are in Aslan’s Country but think they are still in the stable and actually came to a place of such total resolve to self-reliance that they were blind to the truth of reality? Lucy begged for compassion for them, but they were not able to receive it because their own perspective was too warped. Or perhaps it is like all the “ghosts” in The Great Divorce — the ones who wouldn’t get on the bus, the ones who wouldn’t get off the bus, the ones who headed back to the bus, the ones who couldn’t be persuaded to stay and preferred the awfulness of the place from whence they came? That place that may or may not have been heaven was available to anyone if his or her heart and mind were in a place to be able to receive the beauty and blessings that were on offer…yet many either left that offer on the table or else were so damnably self-absorbed they never knew the offer had been made. The joy of the resurrection may or may not have transfigured the whole world, but even if it did I can tell you truly that not everyone in the world has noticed. There is a lot of dark brokenness in this world trying to mess things up and distract people away from the glorious joy and truth of the promises fulfilled by the crucifixion/resurrection/ascension. Those three are inseparably co-dependent on each other to fully complete God’s great rescue plan, and while I think I need to think about this a little more before I’m comfortable to give what I’m about to write status as my “final answer,” I’m leaning in the direction that — of the three — the ascension was and is the one that has had the biggest impact for transfiguring the whole world because the transforming power of the Holy Spirit is “present progressive.”
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Christ is truly awesome in every sense of the word, but in life the gospels are replete with stories of desperate people following him in great thronging crowds for just the chance to MAYBE encounter this Jesus. And though his resurrected body apparently had cool abilities like being able to walk through walls, there was still only one of him. A pastor friend of mine preached a very good sermon last fall as part of a series on The Nicene Creed where he ran through a very amusing “What if?” on “What if there was no ascension?” as the intro. It was imaginatively funny, but drove home the point in a way I don’t think I’ll ever forget, because without the ascension we wouldn’t have the Holy Spirit. And it’s the Holy Spirit that makes possible Christ’s power in plurality across the whole world and all time. Christ set his immediate world ablaze, but the Holy Spirit set the WHOLE world ablaze (and being at least 7/8 filthy gentile scum in ancestry, thanks be to God for THAT!). And while God is God is God regardless of person, and while the Holy Spirit’s primary function is to point to Christ, the Holy Spirit enables Christ’s power to transfigure the world in an amazingly unique (and present progressive!!! 😀 ) way.
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So while the crucifixion and resurrection began the transfiguration of the world, I would argue that the best news of all is that the Holy Spirit has been/is/continues to carry the torch for the transforming power of Christ in the world. But I reiterate, even such a great and glorious manifestation of Christ’s power still — on some level — requires notice to be appreciated; notice of God and Christ is inversely proportional to degree of self-focus (and my brain with its Calvinist bend is of the view that the primary operating gear of humanity in its post-fall “natural” state is “self-focus”).

So all that to say that I think I agree with you, but with some corollary modifications to your original statement (mea culpa, it’s the mathematician in me).

Blessings to you in all things