Life, such as it is

Life, such as it is

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Photo source: Guinea Pig Zone

Life has not been kind lately, and most days I honestly feel like every aspect of my life is an accelerated program for professional development for pastoral care.  It’s like job training via sadists, it’s &%$#ing ridiculous at this point.

Seriously.  &%$#ing.  Ridiculous.

And every day it’s some new thing — something on Facebook, an e-mail, something happening outside my door.  I can’t discuss any of it here, but it’s quite a list of people coming to me for random horrible things that also happen to be on my life experience résumé.

Really, God?!?!?!  Really?!?!?!?!

News flash: the whole “pastoral care” thing?  I’m not getting paid for this.  And I’m not putting myself out there as the random emotional dumping ground for the universe — it just happens that (when my best friends aren’t dropping dead) very many close long-time friends are coming to me for counsel…all at once.

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I don’t get a break from this, ever, except when I am at church, in church, actively worshipping or praying.

I love that the Roman Catholic church is OPEN 7 DAYS for prayer and worship, because guess what? I can’t “schedule” or “save up” my need to find a sacred space for prayer and worship for a specific hour a week on Sundays. Thank God a million times over for morning mass.

Add sweltering muggy heat on top of it all.

Sunday night I was struck by my life and that I can’t believe I ever considered anything but ministry.

I am overwhelmed. Tomorrow I am taking a sanity day.

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On life, glacial evangelism, and a Reblog: “Just Be…Normal”

On life, glacial evangelism, and a Reblog: “Just Be…Normal”

“Life isn’t always about being ‘out there,’ always with a smile on our faces and willing to give a measured account of Christ’s death and resurrection in fine-print detail.  Sometimes life is about — well, everyday life.  And just being ourselves — normal people — is enough to bring hope where it’s needed.”
— Tsh Oxenreider Simple Mom

I’m a born writer, and I love to write, but I am all too familiar with all life changing in an instant.  My own world started going down in flames a week ago Friday, but it turned into a raging inferno last Thursday afternoon.  It was just after four, I’d been passing the afternoon in a completely mundane way — my netbook has some “special” qualities (e.g., the screen only works when you hold it tilted 45° facing the keys and typing blind, the battery is on its way out and won’t hold a charge, and it won’t pick up the weak WiFi signal in the house because its antenna isn’t as sensitive as my NOOK tablet), so because of this it hadn’t been online for awhile…thus when I turned it on over visiting my mother and niece for lunch, it started updating everything.

Everything.

So much for my planned job search.

I made myself a cup of tea around four, was going to drink that and head home.  While I was waiting for it to cool, I had my USB cables and was going to move picture files of baby guinea pigs off my phone and onto the other two computers to upload to Facebook (easy, something to be done over a cup of tea).

Things didn’t work out that way.

When I pulled out my phone (still silenced from when I pit it on Silent Mode for the morning’s Bible Study class), I found text messages and missed calls about an emergency unfolding back home.

Dumped a perfect and beautiful cup of too-hot tea down the sink (I’m pretty sure tea — not blood — flows through my veins).  I am still sorry about this.

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Raced home the five or so blocks to take my place in the unfolding nightmare as “support staff” to the famiily I live with (and have lived with for the past two years).  Without much for details, suffice it to say that my role is somewhat one of an embedded missionary, kind of like Mary Poppins/care pastor in a family with three small children.  I love them all, they are family.

The advantage in this situation is that I am cool in crisis, have some background how to navigate what is going on (it’s on my résumé), and an already an established/stable/normal presence in this household.  “Miss Val’s in-charge” brings no drama, and Miss Val will probably take you on an adventure.

But the disadvantage is that my own life is now in the middle of a very big mess (prayers appreciated if you are so-inclined), which has put my own ability to write and every single plan and “To Do” List on hold.

So my own life and writing are probably somewhat on-hold at present, and I am going to have to let the wise and inspiring words of others carry me — and you, perhaps — for a little while until I know what’s what.

But I’m still reading and still thinking, still an absolute prayer warrior for intercession in the lives of all I love so dearly.

That said, the post I’m reblogging here with a link really resonated with me when I read it this morning . Now, you’ve heard of “elevator pitch” evangelism? That’s the speed-talking-close-the-deal-to-the-point-why-you-need-Jesus.

And I don’t think it works.

My evangelism style — especially with the Jonahs and burned-by-churchy-hypocrites God sends my way (I haven’t met an Ethiopian eunuch yet) — is more along the lines of “glacial evangelism.”

Because glaciers move very, very, very slowly…but have a profound and deep impact on everything in their path.

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Yes, St. Val knows this is the proper cultural reference

My personal philosophy is that the world does not need another Jesus freak who truly is a freak — no knowledge of how life in a secular society works, profoundly lacking social skills, not merely intolerant but downright hostile, and so ridiculously fake and polished as to be grating and abrasive. So many of the broken people God sends me have been burned by just such people.

What I am advocating is not a policy of being soft on Jesus in the least. The truth is that if you are truly a Christian, truly empowered by the Holy Spirit, your life will be radically different starting with the way you think and view the world. That’s not to say you will be a socially inept separatist, rejecting the world wholly…it just means you will be a little more mindful of your choices, values, how you spend your time, and how you live your life.

But it doesn’t mean you can’t still be a normal person.

Because the truth of the matter is, unless you are a “real” person of character and integrity, no one in the world is going to care to listen to what you say anyway. The truth about evangelism is that if you can make a friend, you can “do evangelism,” because the entire process is profoundly relational.

Which is why I think the whole crusade model and elevator pitch evangelism is garbage: no follow-through.

Because life in-Christ, a life of discipleship isn’t about “say the thing, pray the prayer — *poof* — #HolySpirit!!! No, there is much more to living a life of Christian Discipleship not covered in any ither way but…living a life of Christian Discipleship. That really is the beginning and end of it. And it may draw ire to say I’m soft on ire for saying it, but by no means am I insinuating that the only thing necessary for Christian evangelism is to be a nice person and hope people notice. Sometimes the everyday nitty-gritty details of what effective witnessing requires is the street cred of normalcy and just being ourselves (in-Christ) to witness that Christianity isn’t something open for application only to supersaint separatists.

Submitted for your consideration: (in)courage — Just Be…Normal

Blessings for your Sunday (so glad it’s Sunday, I really need to spend some time with my church family in all that swirls!!!) — VKS

On prayer, vocation, mission, purpose, faith, friendship, and faithfulness

On prayer, vocation, mission, purpose, faith, friendship, and faithfulness

Edited from a letter to a friend, originally written on three different days. Footnotes with explanations to give context for certain comments are indicated and referenced at the end of the letter (among them the explanation of what is keeping me stuck out of school) — VKS

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I always count myself blessed to be able not only to worship our great God, but to be able to worship him in the company of those who are both dear friends and beloved saints. I am always so bewildered when people who claim to love God get “dutiful” about churchgoing such that their worship becomes unworshipful. Who is their god anyway? Worship isn’t a “got to,” it’s a “get to.” I am sometimes tired and come to God very empty, but in those dark times when I seemingly have nothing left of myself to give, that God can work beautiful and wonderful things from even the crumbs of my broken soul if I fully offer all of those crumbs to him for his glory and his use? That’s an amazing grace indeed.
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And I am praying, for so many things and for so many reasons I am praying. I usually pray lastly for myself, but I assure you that I no longer ever come to God with my laundry list. I could be classed as “terrible” at prayer because I am not eloquent at public prayer. I am beautifully eloquent in written prayer because I can wait until the words come and just turn them over meditatively before I ever write a thing. My prayers are simple, they have become simple. I have said I am praying for my own situation — and I am — but I very much hesitate to say too much about what I am praying for. I certainly am somewhat discouraged by some of the stuff people report they are praying for my sake. Actually, no, I am very discouraged. I got a detailed laundry list from one of my most frustrating friends this morning. She means well, but she often gets me so worked up drilling down on all the hypothetical details. As detail-oriented as I may be, there is great wisdom in running life like an admin. assistant’s “To Do” list. Write down everything that needs doing and when it’s due, reassess and amend throughout the day, the next day look at the previous day and create a new list based on what was done and undone the day before. It does no good to try to make a “To Do” list in great detail for weeks and months ahead, only to be mindful of the short-term vs. long-term and chip away at the long-term. I’ve honestly never found a better way.

It does no good to obsess over things beyond one’s control, but why it is that people think they need to co-opt and micro-manage my worrying because I’m not doing it enough I can’t tell you. My long-time friends aren’t breaking a sweat over this one — they know God is great and his providence is amazing. I have no idea how this will turn out, but it will work out somehow. As my best friend from college mentioned in a message this morning, I always land on my feet.

And God-be-praised, she is right.

But there are two questions no one is asking that maybe someone should:

1.) Why am I crying?

2.) What am I praying?

As for the former, certainly the toxic reality of my present living situation is certainly part of it*. The fact that I’ve lost contact with Annie and Wentworth is definitely part of it,** but I’ve never stopped knowing that I am a girl on a mission. It is not my job to save anyone, this I know, but I also know that it is my job to love (and love deeply I do!). My heart is breaking over the coming transition. Maybe I’m n supposed to worry, but even though I turn it to prayer, I can’t help a fierce love paired with a feeling of total helplessness.

I can’t save anyone, I can only pray, but in the face of spiritual poverty I feel like prayer is a completely inadequate response to the incredible need. I can’t save anyone — neither body nor soul; I can’t help beyond love and prayer. Is that enough?
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I know not to fight whatever is happening with my life, though I find it all very bewildering. Technically, I could go to school in the fall if I can fund it.*** I need my taxes to be done first so I can get all my financial aid information to figure out what the numbers are. It is a big long-shot, but I have to at least explore this. The plan is to work, but if the door opened to school, you know I would take it.

I really just don’t have enough information to know for certain where I am going or what I will be doing with my life. The part that most people don’t “get” (but I hope you can appreciate) is that I am actually generally pretty okay with not knowing all the details of what is next.

Which comes to the bit about what I am praying…

In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola has this line that is both challenging and convicting:

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 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 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.

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That’s a hard word, but it’s also one I take very seriously. The longer I live, the more firmly I’m convinced that what this life is about is responding to the various vocations in various seasons of life, and paying attention to keeping my divine appointments (I had several transit-related ones today).

That’s really it, life isn’t really much deeper/harder than that. Now, I won’t say that is necessarily EASY by any means, but it really is just that simple. If I really believe all I say I believe and truly confess that most basic and primary creed — Jesus Christ is Lord — then it is “Lord” he must be.

I’m sure you have some idea of what a terribly hard sell that is. Francis Chan has an extended bit in Crazy Love about the profound wrongness of giving lip-service to loving God while living our lives as if he doesn’t exist. To say: “Jesus Christ is Lord” are simple enough words, but by no means is it simple to do. But I think — for the weight of the measure of what is at-stake in terms of eternity — we at least owe it to God to try and give him our best as a gratitude response.

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So what am I praying for? To be sent out somewhere else where I can offer my best to bless others for God’s service where I am needed to love and bless others. And the part that my long-time friends get well — the crux of why I am totally not freaked out right now — is that God has a really big imagination and takes my assignments as seriously as I do. Someone made the cheeky sarcastic remark a few months back to the effect that it isn’t like we go out into the world telling people: “I’m on a mission from God.”

It was a general remark to no one in particular, but I got even more quiet than usual. Because, actually, that pretty much is EXACTLY what I do say. There really, actually, is no other possible explanation for my life. People believe its truth, and most somehow find something positive in it.
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Visionary leadership isn’t my deal, but nurturing leadership is. You’ll never find me at the helm of an international NGO, but if you need someone to walk you through a mess, I might be your girl. I can’t ever imagine myself as a foreign missionary, for example. Folks have been bugging me about international short-term mission trips since 2001. I don’t feel a call in that direction and never have. That said, God does like to send me places because I just GO without asking a lot of detailed questions about “Why?” or “What’s in it for me?” So instead of a laundry list of prayers wishing a bunch of stuff for myself, I’m begging God to find me a place to go where I can somehow bless others.

By the standards of just about everyone I know, this puts me on the spectrum somewhere between “odd” and “insane.” And yet “send me” and “use me” really are among some of the best prayers that can be prayed. But maybe you already know that?

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Cleaning, sorting, packing, and caring for my sweet baby guinea pigs (still at my sister’s) has eclipsed my life in the past week-and-a-half, but you have been much in-mind and in-prayer my friend. I’m ever mindful that giving a person room and space to be my friend as they wish is better. Maybe that’s how God sees things too — being undeniably present in our lives, but ultimately leaving it up to us how we respond to that? So often I wish I could just stop time to give those I love the ear and attention they need and deserve as my friends. Because it really is possible to die of loneliness somewhere in “How are you?”/”Fine.”
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And I know as well as you do that you are nowhere near “Fine,” but I am also mindful that re-hashing stuff can be exhausting and even harmful. Sunday mornings are my own life’s sacred space where I bring those broken crumbs of myself before God, where I gather enough strength to (almost always) make it through the next week as “Fine” enough to be able to love and serve others. There are weeks — and this one might be one of them — where I hit “done” with my life long before Sunday morning. I’m pretty much always “done” with my life these days actually, but press on to keep going because so many find strength in what is of God within me. That’s hard too. But now, maybe more than ever, I have to keep on — I’ve got a baby guinea pig in trouble: Benwick needs me.**** Lots of people need me actually.

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The incomparably adorable charmer, baby Benwick Wigglewhiskers at five days old

I wish I had an answer to your own questions of what God is doing in your life life. All I have is an ear, a thinking mind, and a loving heart. Is that enough? You have my love; you have whatever of my friendship you will accept; you have my ear to listen for whatever you wish. I love the Thomas Merton quotation from The Seven Storey Mountain:

It is a wonderful experience to discover a new saint. For God is greatly magnified marvelous in each one of His saints: differently in each individual one. There are no two saints alike: but all of them are like God, like Him in a different and special way. In-fact, if Adam had never fallen, the whole human race would have been a series of magnificently different and splendid images of God, each one of all the millions of men showing forth His glories and perfections in an astonishing new way, and each one shining with his own particular sanctity, a sanctity destined for him from all eternity as the most complete and unimaginable supernatural perfection of his human personality.

If, since the fall, this plan will never be realized in millions of souls, and millions will frustrate that glorious destiny of theirs, and hide their personality in an eternal corruption of disfigurement nevertheless, in re-forming His image in souls distorted and half destroyed by evil and disorder, God makes the work of His wisdom and love all the more strikingly beautiful by reason of the contrast with the surroundings in which He does not disdain to operate.

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Merton is right, and there is a power of truth in his wise words. You are a beautiful saint and a child of God. He who has begun a good work in you will what? (see Philippians 1:6) You are a quietly delightful person with a beautiful soul. I am wrestling right now with a life that doesn’t seem to have room for me in it, but what keeps me faithful and getting up in the morning is that – though it is very hard for me to find God’s path out in this mess of a life that no longer seems to have any room for me in it – I know that God IS in this somewhere, and he loves me and – no matter how bad things get – he is with me at all times and in all things (whether I can feel it or see it or know it or not).

That same level of faithfulness applies to you my friend.
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I wish I could fix this, all of it. Can you forgive me a little, however, for being slightly distracted from my total and uninterrupted sympathy for your situation because I am curious in wonder for what amazing new thing God may have in-store for you in your life? Because the truth about ANYTHING in this life is that if you are in alignment with God, he will be glorified through your life no matter what. As you are such an amazing person anyway, do forgive me for wondering how God will be glorified in all this.

Because he will, and he will use you to do it. In the truest and most literal sense of the word: that’s awesome.
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I wish I could give you a hug my friend. I wish I could carve a safe place of rest out for you in the world. I wish I could give you peace. I wish I could fix all that is broken in your life right now. Of that list, all I can offer is the hug, but the good news is that God can give you the rest of it. All I have to offer you is myself – my love and my friendship. It is (and always was) an offering, what you do with it is entirely up to you. I will love you no matter what though.

My heart and tears are with you my friend. I hope and pray you are well. I look forward to seeing you soon. I count myself blessed to know you dear friend. Please hang in there and take gentle care. God’s blessings to you in all things – Christ’s grace and peace be with you my dear friend.

Much love in-Christ,

Val

*A reference to post-fumigation clean-up — literally toxic — and an experience I do not recommend!

**All the guinea pigs had to be shifted to my sister’s house related to the fumigation and clean-up; they are still there.

***It’s complicated, but because I’ve spent the last eight years paying down $20K debt — and I don’t care who knows that, because I’ve worked insanely hard and sacrificed much to do the honorable thing and am down to the last partial payment of $80!!! I was living within my means, not using credit I couldn’t afford — so what happened? My credit score is amazing — or was before the accident — but is too clean; school is almost totally paid for, but I don’t qualify to take out the small bit of private student loans above and beyond the Stafford and institutional loans and grant money from the school and the government to cover my living expenses. Bottom line: unless I find a cosigner or stay out of school 3-5 more years working and building credit, I’m stuck out of school because they can’t prove I’ll honor the debt because I’ve spent the last eight years honoring my debt (even when the bank that acquired the account “lost” the original note on the repayment plan from the first bank and refused to honor the agreement…adding THREE MORE YEARS of payments and setting me back three years). Honors student, amazing transcripts, amazing ministry resume…I’ve now waited thirteen years to go back to school, and this sets me back still further. If you know anyone who might want to help, let me know. I’m a Theological Studies major working to complete undergrad to prepare for seminary to go into ministry. As Pedro Arrupe’s phrase was: “to become a…woman for others.” (the full phrase is “men and women for others,” but I am just a woman). I have to move in August anyway. All of this nightmare could go away — literally — with one signature; references available.

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At six days old a typical view of Benwick: at the milk bar.

****I was worried about little Benwick, he was socially and developmentally “behind” his siblings, and wouldn’t play with them or eat “big pig” food, but only wanted to nurse and hide under Annie 24/7. I was very disturbed on 15 May 2013 when I put him and his brothers in with Wentworth and he was too terrified to interact with any of them and just stood in the corner screaming while the other three played and tried to console him. He was doing much better on 16 May 2013.

Bright Prayers in a Dark Garden

Bright Prayers in a Dark Garden

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Olive Trees in the Traditional Garden of Gethsemane, Photo source: http://eternalscheme.com/getting-to-the-story/olive-trees-in-the-traditional-garden-of-gethsemane/

I was sitting in church at the local parish church up the street Thursday morning, waiting for a special prayer service to start with the kids from the parish school.  I’m Presbyterian, but the Roman Catholics worship God every day, so it’s with the beautiful and faithful parishoners of the wonderful and dynamic church up the street that you’ll find me many mornings.

We love Jesus, I have no apologies.

I only grabbed my J.B. Phillips New Testament in Modern English to take with me as I scooted out the door (quite literally — there was a Razor scooter involved as my primary mode of transport up the street).  Service was sweet, though not particularly deep — it was like a typical little kids’ chapel service.

In flipping through to compare Last Supper and Passion narratives, I found no traditional, liturgical “Last Supper” narrative in the Gospel of John, but I did find John 17…and in the “fresh” voice of Phillips breathing life into this text, I was absolutely blown away — how could I have somehow “missed” this chapter?  This was what I read, in the translation in which I read it, in a chapter titled Jesus’ prayer for his disciples — present and future:

When Jesus had said these words, he raised his eyes to Heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son now so that he may bring glory to you, for you have given him authority over all men to give eternal life to all that you have given to him. And this is eternal life, to know you, the only true God, and him whom you have sent — Jesus Christ.

“I have brought you honour upon earth, I have completed the task which you gave me to do. Now, Father, honour me in your own presence with the glory that I knew with you before the world was made. I have shown your self to the men whom you gave me from the world. They were your men and you gave them to me, and they have accepted your word. Now they realise that all you have given me comes from you — and that every message which you gave me I have given them. They have accepted it all and have come to know in their hearts that I did come from you — they are convinced that you sent me.

“I am praying to you for them: I am not praying for the world but for the men whom you gave me, for they are yours — everything that is mine is yours and yours mine — and they have done me honour. Now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world and I am returning to you. Holy Father, keep the men you gave me by your power that they may be one, as we are one. As long as I was with them, I kept them by the power that you gave me; I guarded them, and not one of them has been lost, except the son of destruction — that the scripture might come true.

“And now I come to you and I say these things in the world that these men may find my joy completed in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them, for they are no more sons of this world than I am. I am not praying that you will take them out of the world but that you will keep them from the evil one. They are no more the sons of the world than I am — make them holy by the truth; for your word is the truth. I have sent them to the world just as you sent me to the world and I consecrated myself for their sakes that they may be made holy by the truth.

I am not praying only for these men but for all those who will believe in me through their message, that they may all be one. Just as you, Father, live in me and I live in you, I am asking that they may live in us, and that the world may believe that you did send me. I have given them the honour that you gave me, that they may be one as, as we are one — I in them and you in me, that they may grow completely into one, so that the world may realise that you sent me snd have loved them as you loved me. Father, I want those whom you have given me to be with me where I am; I want them to see the glory which you have made mine — for you loved me before the world began. Father of all goodness, the world has not known you, but I have known you and these men now know that you have sent me. I have made your self known to them, and will continue to do so that the love which you have had for me may be in their hearts — and that I may be there also.”

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I still question how in the world I lived and loved God so long, and yet somehow “missed” this chapter. These seem like simple words, but are powerful words for the intercession of Christ on behalf of his disciples…past, present, and always. These is always a lot to think about in all the events surrounding the Garden of Gethsemane, but this chapter takes it to a whole new level.

Blessings for this Good Friday. I’m on my way Downtown for mass at the Cathedral. Presbyterian though I may be, those Roman Catholic roots run deep, and NO ONE does Good Friday like the Catholics. — VKS

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)

A letter to a friend

A letter to a friend

A letter to a friend, somewhat edited to remove various contextual details. It occurred to me as I re-read what I wrote that there could be something within edifying to others, for in most things the introspections are specific to me and not to us, per se. Soli Deo Gloria.

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Pine Mountain storm looking over the Lockwood Valley from Pine Mountain Summit, 30 SEP 2010

My Dear Friend,

There is much to be said for a Sunday afternoon nap, but I woke up this afternoon absolutely beside myself in a puddle of tears that seemed to be the collective emotional response of many weeks or months of being far too brave about far too much while being entirely discouraged about everything else.

Everything…else.

I come from very dark places, and there are dark days when those places I won’t let myself go do whisper to me from those dark corners of the world where God’s light is not easily found…I don’t REALLY think I belong in the light, do I?  No, I’m not sure I’m any more comfortable in the light than the roaches that have completely taken over my life, but God says I belong in the light whether I think I do or not.  That is my “Sunday School” answer, but there are six other hellishly in the week NOT Sunday.
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I was going to say that some of what tempts me is a lot darker than envy, which is true, but then I was reminded that envy has it’s grip on me too…just in a completely different area, regarding something I’ve — essentially — been required to give up.

I don’t know if I will ever be trustworthy to be given it back, truly God only knows.

Because cars are easy — no one is going to question your sanity, your humanity, and your wholeness as a human being for lack of a [specific very fun sports car]  (and if they do, question theirs).  [Many in my world] are so materialistic I’ve been all but innoculated against greed for what their greed has cost me in my life.  Truly, whatever it is in this world, whatever “thing” I have, if you can give me a compelling reason why you need it more than I do, it’s yours.  Envy is, of course, in lock-step with setting up idols.  Better your idols be things than relationships.  Because a life lived in battle with God and self over relationships can look a very lot…like mine.

And there is nothing in this world that sounds sane about my extended 2011 conversation with  God over why the answer to  the long-time prayer for a conventional life was not necessarily “no” for always, but is clearly “no” for now.  There is a lot “to” that conversation, and there were certainly conditions and terms on both sides (not an ultimatum per se, but more along the lines of an explanation for why things need to be the way they are as they are, instead of the way I would wish them).  School, actually, is part of it…so there really was no possible sane emotional reaction to the idea that — after wrestling for a year to give up pursuit of the possibility of children of my own issue — any thought of any life BUT solitude was just automatically extended for no good reason by a block to getting to school.  The dream, the plan, the vision was stair-steps.  That’s not a dream deferred, that’s a door resolutely shut and locked.

And [yet I watch one friend] in a place so dark that she’s basically given up on her own life and family.  The darkness of her mental illness and war with God rules (and attempts to destroy) the house and everyone in it.  Watching what this is doing to [her family] is wearing me down.  Only God can fix this.

Echo similar sentiments with what [another person I love dearly] has been given and blessed with…and watching everyone’s mental illness curse that as well.

In all cases prayer seems so inadequate.

I am firmly disquiet in the knowledge that those I love –some already gone…forever — are in separation from God…  And you almost lost me this morning in the same moment you wavered a bit yourself on the question (well, not a question) of eternal condemnation (I notice these things, sorry, and I was among the closest in proximity).  If the question is whether I love people as Christ loves them, yes.  I’m not even sure where God keeps all my prayers and tears…some great otherworldly ocean perhaps.
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The dark side comes that I truly love others FAR more than I love myself.  I am quite certain I do not “deserve” or “merit” any of the grace or mercy that has been given to me.  But I am the girl who jumps in-front of snakes and would happily give away anything to those who need it more.

Grace and mercy are non-transferable.

I have met so many darkly broken and shattered people in my life — many of whom touch my life daily — that maybe you can see how it would be that I would give up everything for the sake of not merely those I love who are close to me, but for the strangers I meet even briefly who so desperately need, want, long for and seek (in all the wrong places) the love and peace I have in Christ.  The dark truth is that lack of peace for the love of these broken people erodes my own peace.  By no means do I hold for a moment  the idea of the intercession of the saints, but you better believe I recognize St. Monica as a kindred spirit in all this mess that is my life: to keep praying forever and NEVER give up on those you love.

I hope it goes without saying that part of my praying forever and NEVER giving up is praying for those you love too…because, I do.

And it was a hellish week that found me standing before God on Friday completely empty (my rather dark take on my dark week to be found here).  I’m still pretty empty, most days I just feel so lost.  Every day I feel very “done,” so completely drained as if I have nothing left to give, while at the same time so achingly desperate to serve God I’m all but inconsolable.  I feel so…useless.  I have so many gifts and so much to give I’ve been cut off from giving and using, it’s horrible.  It’s like the opposite of apathy — please, God, use me…I don’t feel like a blessing to anybody.  All I have right now are words, are my mere words enough?  I won’t lie that I feel good to help people in the world, but I feel good to have been useful to God that he could somehow use me, not because I’m stuck on myself and get off on an ego trip over it.
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I didn’t bless a single person on Friday.

Bless YOU my friend, and bless you for being my friend.  I think maybe you “get” where I come from and how I see the world better than many, but I’ve known that well for the past year.  I do cherish you my friend, know that…but also know that I am desperately ever-mindful to keep perspective to not…over…cherish you (and so many I love).  Because the truth (perhaps unfortunate…perhaps a guised blessing) about loving all we love so dearly in this world, is there is not a single one of us — no matter how close or how intimate the connection, be it friend…relative…spouse…or even child — who truly “belongs” to another: we are only stewards, custodians, and beloved recipients of love for each other in a clouded reflection of Christ’s love for us.  For the unfortunate element is the “not yours” element of it…which is arguably also the blessing in disguise, for “not yours” also absolves us of bearing the full weight of responsibility of and for those we love (though, as I’ve previously mentioned here, I’m crazy enough to think I’d want to sign on that line).  And as for that, the truth is that most days heaven is more than I can handle because my focus isn’t so much on looking forward to promised glory as it is looking around at those I love so desperately without any such hope…to the point that there have been moments of doubt as to whether I can handle heaven at all for the sorrow of those I love so desperately who are “missing” from the roll call of the saints.  If one were to go categorically with respect to mortal sins, I’m as absolutely and unquestionably ( and irredeemably) damned as any can be.  Hence putting down ecumenical roots in Camp Calvin, well part of the reason anyway.  I’ve argued through the argument of how God isn’t God and Christ isn’t Christ if one can fall out of salvation.  But I have no delusions why I deserve grace or mercy any more — or less — than so many I love so dearly.

And it was good to see [your husband] this morning, though it did NOT seem the thing to say: “I don’t really KNOW you, but please know you’re always in my prayers” (it’s true though).

I miss you my friend as I treasure your company.  We should do something sometime, don’t care what, my treat even.  Your call, your terms.  Let me know.  I’m very free.
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Blessings for your week my dear friend.  Yes, valleys are hard, but at the very least know that the crazy and frantically-waving creature of questionable sanity with the Bohemian hair waving down from the far hillside of yours (when she gets a rare break from being in the dark pit of her own) is cheering you on with as much love as any human can give.  Hugs to you sister, hang in there, and know that you’re loved and you’re in my prayers.

Much love in-Christ,

Val

P.S. — Eleanor was a very special little pig, and Wentworth is her only child.  He was always the most special little pig: I was there when he was born, I taught him and Eleanor how to nurse, and I have been almost his whole world since he was three weeks old (when he was separated from Eleanor without a friend or sibling in the world).  Annie is a very special pig because her tiny baby self was trying to get out of the cage at the pet store to get to me when every other guinea pig and rabbit in the place was hiding.  She is not like any other sow I’ve ever had because even though she is within days of having pups (I will be separating her from Wentworth tonight), she is still DESPERATE to be held and touched and cuddled.  Annie has never been alone a day in her life, this may not go well.  I may be quietly and desperately heartbroken on a dark level not easily understood by many for childless solitude (yet immersed in so many beloved children doubly labeled “NOT YOURS!!!”), but you better believe that there are many children in this world less loved and less blessed by the parents in their lives than these already-loved baby pigs already are by me.  That’s a horrible thing to think and say, but my prayer for all children is that they never in their life for a moment doubt that they are loved.  I have not been given children, but if even small guinea pigs are what has been trusted to my love and care, with everything I have to give, I will honor that until death do we part (and Eleanor had the most heartbreakingly beautiful death yet).  And hey, you may or may not be super gifted at visiting folks, but that’s one of the things I love best (and miss terribly), and though it takes me to the razor’s edge of perceived sanity in the minds of many, I don’t draw a line between my commitment to the people and the creatures in my care.  Tonight?  Care is going to be noisy and traumatic.

Bless you my friend, in all things.  I love you. — VKS

Vanities

Vanities

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The artist’s caption on “Healing in New Light,” by Imaculate Heart High School student Katie Ganz, reads as follows: “We all bear scars, whether they are from childhood accidents, surgeries, or even from self-inflicted injuries.  From these scars, no matter what their source is, we learn.  Scars are a sign of healing: new skin covers the wound and protects it from future harm.  The scars in my piece are from self-harm.  They show suffering, while also symbolizing healing and new life.  The water, both in the hands and on the scars, represents healing and the washing away of pain.  My piece symbolizes new life, healing, and rising from pain and suffering, as Jesus did when he was resurrected.”

The image of the scars, the hands offering the rosary — which could represent prayer, but which also contains a crucifix — combined with the water stopped me in my tracks as I walked through the cathedral student art galleries; it’s a powerful symbol regardless of whether or not the viewer is Roman Catholic.  The power of this image haunts me on a level that only one who understands it intimately can be haunted. — VKS

“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity…I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” — Ecclesiastes 1:2, 14

I’ve not stopped thinking, but my health still really isn’t quite what it ought to be this week, so it’s been a lot of “resting quietly” as my body has finally allowed me to sleep for more than an hour or so at a stretch (thus there were some days when I was too exhausted to do much else).  Sleep can be a grace, but only dreamless sleep, for sleep is the place my mind goes where all of the unspeakable evils it works so hard to block all day (to keep me sane and functional) no longer have a conscious “block” to keep them in-check.  It’s not always or every day, but nightmares can certainly play a bold part in making my attempts at sleep anything but restful.  It’s my body at war with itself and the devil; illness and roaches don’t help.

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There is living, there is thriving, there is merely existing. Life is a rich and beautiful thing, precious and not to be wasted. We are not called to muddle through, we are called to live.

I am not living, this is something else.

There may be a difference between “resting” and “losing days,” but in many ways they seem the same. I can’t get the days I’ve slept through back, and no one was blessed for them, not even me. I can’t answer for them, only that if we who are human are composed of both “soul” and “dust,” it was my “dust” that failed.

I’m Type-A. Type-As don’t take failure well…nor easily.

Things were in a lull for awhile, but the promise of aid has faded before my ability to work has been regained. Not that I was particularly desirable as an employee before the accident, but presenting a newly more broken version of myself as a candidate for employment is not a winning plan. There are thousands of applicants out there for the entry-level stuff I’m fully-qualified to apply for — no one in this job market needs to extend a single bit of grace to accomodate me, there are only to many behind me happy to fill the spot without exception. I am a number, not a name.

At least I’m not “just a number” to God.

I am fully-capable to do better things, but the requirement of a four-year degree keeps me barred from much. I am gifted, yes, but what in the world good to me are gifts I’m not allowed to use?

The neighborhood was on lockdown again the other night — three-and-a-half hours of helicopter patrol, cop cars galore. Not sure what happened or if they ever found who they were looking for. The key problem is again. I am very blessed to have a place to be, but when there seems to be no place safe in that place, it doesn’t always seem like a blessing. Roaches don’t help, they are the vilest sort of company. Guinea pigs do help, but it is dangerous to pin so much hope and love on such dear little fragile creatures.

Hard news seems — once again — to be coming from every quarter. I pray much for those I love, and God does hear my prayers, but my poor petitions seem so small compared to the very great and dire needs, the profound physical and spiritual brokenness, of those I so dearly love. My cranky Calvinist self holds no belief to the intercession of the saints (Christ alone is our intercessor), but that does not make me shy in the least to fall down and weep at the feet of St. Monica when I’m at the cathedral (as a bonus, she is standing next to Francis and Clare of Assisi). Monica in real life would understand the prayerful tears shed for those I love — tears for wandering souls, broken spirits, broken relationships, broken bodies. Francis would understand the kind of crazy love that can make loving others in the name of Christ seem like an insane proposition.

Friday afternoon I did, in-fact, retreat to that place in the Cathedral downtown, but I was so completely drained I couldn’t think, pray, or have an emotional response. I could just “be”…and no more.

Does the fact that I took the time to take myself out of my life — with the intent to go “be” quietly in a place where I went to seek God’s presence — “count,” even though I was too tired to function when I got there? Normally I would have found a quiet corner for a nap before prayer, but there isn’t one in a place like that.

In my day-to-day life, there isn’t a quiet, well-rested corner for God anywhere. In my day-to-day life, there isn’t a quiet, well-rested corner for me either. I love life, I just don’t happen to love my life.

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Broad Museum of Contemporary Art, LACMA. 21 May 2012

I feel like a horrible person to have argued against my friend about this, but I did…she commented on a dripping-with-discouragement social networking status the other night:

“Remember your gifts, Val. You have much to offer. Healing will come, then you’ll reach out again. Maybe God has granted you the gift of time to gather your thoughts and count your blessings. You are a bright, intelligent woman with insights many people twice your age don’t possess. People love and support you. Keeping you in my prayers every night my friend.”

And while she is right on many levels, I still feel like — on some level — it isn’t quite that simple. My reply to her was:

“You can’t eat time my friend, and as I have had many long years of forced solitude, “time” really wasn’t something I needed. I have spent most of the last seven years in solitary confinement. “Time to gather my thoughts” is kind of like telling someone in Seattle that they need more rain. All of this is also serving to cut me off from ministry, and that is certainly not from God. I understand your point, but those insights only serve to further alienate me from people. Every day I say the way I am I become more irredeemably odd and alienated from people. Bless you for your prayers my friend. If you have any prayer requests, send them in a private message or e-mail if you wish.”

I also added as a bit of post-script:

(And what good are gifts I’m cut off from using????)

I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to that one, because it’s been bugging me for a long time.

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St. Val the Eccentric with a very dead bear at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, MLK Jr. Day 2009

In-case you were wondering? In-case it was not already clear? This is the blog of “St. Val the ECCENTRIC,” not the blog of “St. Val the Socially-Acceptable.” Irredeemably odd, unfortunately intelligent on levels that make people back away slowly. I was recently accused of a tendency to “irritate people without realizing you’re irritating.” No, I was not brought up on a planet without social cues, I know, but my sanity and your civility very often depends on me pretending I don’t. If I didn’t know, I’d probably never shut up actually. My “silent mode” exists because I know.

But sitting home reading mystic theologians and learning yet more when I arguably already know too much for anyone’s good in the first place?

And gifts I can’t use really are no use.

I sometimes feel like the author of Ecclesiasties, that all is just…vanities.

It was a dark and frustrating week with little promise and less hope. I had a picture in my mind, that what this feels like is that day when a ride was supposed to pick me up and is really, really, really late…with no explanation.

Still here, God…scars, prayers, and all…still here, waiting…