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.

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.

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)

Trying to “be still”

Trying to “be still”

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One early memory verse in my Christian life was: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

I cannot underscore enough how much I am totally dismal at “be still.”  And yet?  I have been sick four times in the past three-and-a-half months, plus I was stuck in bed being very quiet for a full month with a broken shoulder that is still mending.  One dear friend once said something to the effect that I live life to the fullest better than anyone else she knows.  I love life, and I love life from having faced death so often for so long.  I love God, and I live to serve him with gratitude, love, compassion, creativity, imagination…and dynamic (fiercely dynamic) energy.  Soli Deo Gloria are great words to live by and to build life on.  Sometimes I serve quietly, but I’m nothing if not a force of nature (even if that force of nature manifests as a presence of peace).

All of which — for good or for ill (probably ill) — leads me to draw lines and equate my utility with my worth.  Thus, because I’ve spent better than two-thirds of 2013 stuck in bed?  I’m going nuts.

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Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, taken 12 MAR 2013, Los Angeles, California

I was actually supposed to begin my upper-division requirements for a degree in Theological Studies (to finish undergrad to prep for seminary) at an amazing (and prestigious) university in Los Angeles a couple of months ago — but, of course, the accident messed up everything, and unless I can find a cosigner for the private loans to cover living expenses (almost everything else is covered) I’ll be stuck out of school (but perpetually knocking on that door) for years until I can build enough credit to qualify for loans myself.  This is the most frustrating thing that has ever happened to me, and feels like absolute failure given how many doors I watched God swing wide to bring me to that place.  I’m not giving up, but I can’t fix this.

I read, I write, I try to keep in-touch.  I pray, I encourage.  I do what I can from afar.  It is really hard to feel “useful” or “needed” with one arm, or when helping me requires so much from those I love.

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Sylmar hill walk, 8 MAR 2013, Santa Monica Mountains

Cold weather, poor health, limited funds for “fun” transportation has kept me off the Metro and home more than out in the world, but I can’t help but think that every day I don’t get out of bed or don’t walk out my door is a day wasted for the Lord’s service, that somehow I am missing divine appointments by cutting myself off from humanity.  There is so much need and so many broken people in the city…surely  even the smallest kindness to acknowledge the forgotten and marginalized makes a difference in the balance of eternity for all involved — what can I say about the days I keep my bright smile indoors?

All I have is my words, are my words enough?

So this week it is the flu…and I’ve cleared my schedule and quarantined myself from friends, relatives, church family until at least next Wednesday.  My immunity at this point is shot to hell, and all I can do is “be”…and be quiet…and pray…and read.  In lucid moments I write.  I barely sleep.  I’ve been drowning myself in juice and Vitamin C in a desperate attempt to flush my ravaged system and clear my head.  I honestly don’t remember the last time an illness hit me so hard instantaneously.  I joke that when I am sick I’m a “germ factory,” but this is “germ factory” on the level of a germ warfare machine (impressive, but to no good end!).

Enough is enough.

I was blessed for a season to be called as a hospice volunteer to visit hospice patients (as I have faced death I do not fear it, so hospice is actually a very good fit for me in a lot of ways).  My longest-lived patient had severe dementia and congestive heart failure — he was dying by inches, and he was dying by inches nearly alone.  I remember one of his more lucid afternoons he commented how hard it was to be a blob.

I’m not a blob, but I definitely have days when I feel like one.

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Sylmar hill walk, 8 MAR 2013, Santa Monica Mountains

I have a window, a window that overlooks an alley and the street.  There is an auto body shop across the street.  People pass, children pass, dogs pass, cars and trucks pass.  I’ve memorized the trees and rejoice when pigeons fly close.  I have the guinea pigs.  Most days this is my world, confined to a 7’×9′ store room with no TV, no radio, no movies…just books and the internet…and God…and my thoughts.

The husband of someone I know from church asked me last Sunday how in the world I know so much [about the Bible and theology], did I study it at university?  I blurted out what is — basically — the truth: that I’ve spent much of my life in solitary confinement reading and writing too much.

I’m there again.  If St. Val wasn’t eccentric enough to begin with, she’s certainly moreso now.

So much is swirling about what to do with myself, with my life, how to manage, how to get by, what’s next…

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Sylmar hill walk, 8 MAR 2013, Santa Monica Mountains

I only wish I knew…but for now the only thing in the world I can do?

Be…still…

Wind in my sails

Wind in my sails

(This is painted on a cross hanging on my wall...)

(This is painted on a cross hanging on my wall…)

“When I stand before God at the end of my life I would hope that I would have not a single bit of talent left and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.'” — Erma Bombeck

I’m in a temporary small group study for Lent right now.  I am a demographic misfit — an unattached and unencumbered “young person” (Protestants tend to drive these people away, but that’s another discussion).  I was the elected leader of the young people at a previous church.  I was grumbling to a dear friend of mine last month that I would just as soon start my own small group study and volunteer to host and facilitate it if my life were in a better place just to get out of dealing with the seasonal misfit group.

My life is not in a better place.

Some of the reason I’d happily avoid the whole thing is a particular difficult personality.  I’m not a gossipy person, not gonna go there.  To steal a line from the late pastor friend of a pastor friend of mine: we are not called to be “fruit inspectors.”  I’m a strong personality too…moving on.

And yet, for various reasons, my cranky butt keeps showing up every week.

Last night’s topic was “Spiritual Gifts” — what are our gifts and how can we best use them?  I know what mine are, I use them.  A hiccup has been the accident that required me to resign from all of my various ministry activities because I am no longer in-charge of my own transportation to church, but I’m working on trying to figure out “What next?”

Because unless you’re dead?  There is always something in God’s kingdom to be done, even if it is just the dishes (which I totally ROCK at, by the way).

I was writing to a friend this morning (and she will know who she is when she finds this):

Last night’s class didn’t go well for me (and yet I keep showing up…), but was a great session for others.  I really am lost at trying to explain to people that if the Holy Spirit is the wind in your sails it doesn’t matter what you “can” or “cannot” do, because it won’t be YOU doing it.  It just baffles me how many people can’t wrap their heads around “Lord, make me an instrument if thy peace.”  It’s not that hard, it really isn’t, you just need to make room for God to move and let God be God.  Maybe I really am foolish in the same direction as St. Francis of Asissi?  I feel sorry for the next human who intones the name of Mother Teresa in the context of “someone so unattainably great I’m off the hook,” because I am going OFF on that person.  I’m sick of it.  People say she was a living saint.  So what?  She doesn’t get to carry the torch for all humanity, she is just one example of what is possible if a person takes seriously the call to do God’s work in the world.  I think if I went so far as to declare that we are ALL called to be living saints, I’d be run out of most churches.  Because it’s true, and because we are…though how that call manifests in the lives of each of us differs.  I just don’t have an answer for this frustration.

And I don’t.

Many years ago a very dear friend of mine wrote in a letter to me that if we don’t use the gifts God gives us, it is like spitting in God’s face.  She’s right.  There is a big difference between talking about how and where “it might be nice” to serve and actually making the inquiry “How can I be useful?”  If the communion of saints is God’s cheering section, there are no positions for the vocation of keeping the bleachers warm in the Kingdom of Heaven (sorry to disappoint — the job classification doesn’t exist — try hell…).

Life is a matter of life and death, it is not a matter of muddling through.  I have heard some people say that “God grades on a curve.”  Actually, no just God grades on a curve, not really.  You can still be fully acceptable to God with imperfection, but God isn’t going to change your grade on the grading scale by throwing perfection out and grading on a curve.  Grace?  Totally.  Mercy?  Absolutely.  Just?  Unquestionably.  Our imperfection will stand as our score, it’s the judgment as to whether that score of our heart (whatever it is, low or high) is acceptable (Christ as intercessor helps here).

We are doomed to imperfection, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try our best.  I am having a series of small battles with one of the small children in my world who will ask for help before she tries.  That doesn’t work with Miss Val, and trying to scrape through life without trying or applying ourselves doesn’t work with God either.  If the toddler in my world scribbles on a coloring page and declares it “done,” it’s great because scribbling is all she can do.  If the kindergartener in my world scribbled the same scribble it would be unacceptable to turn in to his teacher because he was being lazy and can do better work.  In the Kingdom of Heaven, the perfection of the work is not the thing…what matters is the effort and motive behind the work.

And so yes, I have the argument with Christians quite frequently (I have it so often it’s starting to become an essay): “God is not calling me to be Mother Teresa.”

Really?  Hmm…you don’t know much about Mother Teresa, because, yeah…he kind of is.

Her line was “do something beautiful for God.”

She didn’t set out to become Mother Teresa either.  She was a nun, she saw a need, she asked a question: Can I leave the convent to help the people?

They thought she was a nut (this is NOT DONE!!!!!); the Vatican had to get involved.

She left to help the forgotten, invisible, discarded, poorest of the poor…one person at a time.  She had two hands and two feet and a loving heart and the power of the Holy Spirit, what else could she need?

How about the courage to walk out the door and follow God?

What I say to people is that all Mother Teresa did was do what she could (the best she could) with what she had where she was…with the power of God.  That’s all God can ever really ask of us.

And what happens when people heed the call to follow God outside their cozy, comfortable box?  They “do something beautiful for God.”

Because the truth is that if Jesus Christ is Lord, he can’t be “Lord” without submission to his authority and our service to him: this is the backbone of Christian discipleship

Post-script: As I think on this — just to be clear, this is a general frustration with humanity, not any particular individual or group per se, but so many conversations on this topic have happened over the years. It never really changes. I also certainly don’t have it all figured out. — VKS