In suspense and incomplete

a rock climber suspended on the rope at Moab

Only God can say what this new spirit gradually forming in you will be. Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.  – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

The prayer above — that starts, “Trust the slow work of God” — has always just slayed me. There has never been a time when it didn’t speak to me about the deep things I was going through.

I have a printout of the whole thing tucked in my prayer journal, so I often return to it … when I’m using my prayer journal. But since my marriage imploded, I haven’t been writing my prayers. I’ve been praying. Oh, yes, I’ve been praying. But I let that longtime spiritual practice go. In its place, I’ve been resting.

Starting last summer, references to resting in God have come to me in waves. I did a silly post about it (Apathetic Prayer), but then they kept coming, which I experience as God trying to tell me something. So I’ve payed attention.

It’s not easy to come to God without an agenda, whether that’s a long list of prayer requests or the need for spiritual insight and practical assistance, but the truth I believe is that God loves me without any striving necessary on my part. It’s easy to get hung up on the striving, to get all into checking things off lists and feeling like I’m doing all I can to move forward, whether that’s practically or spiritually.

But for this time, God clearly wants me to rest in Him.

I’ve had some powerful experiences in prayer in the last six months. The 90-minute Garden Prayer on Maundy Thursday at The Revolution. And the contemplative prayer time at the Renew and Refine mini-retreat before the Festival of Faith and Writing. There have also been plenty of walks in the Calvin Nature Preserve when I let myself feel God’s pleasure. Plenty of times I’d breathe slowly in and out and ask God to be with me. Any word/impression I’ve received during those times has fallen into two categories: “You are my beloved,” and “Rest in me.”

So instead of berating myself for letting the practice of writing my prayers slide, I’m seeing this time as learning to experience the love of God independently from anything I may try to do to “earn” it or “deserve” it. Because God loves me. End of sentence.

It’s my way of trusting the slow work of God, and of “accept[ing] the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.” Because anxious and incomplete and impatient and suspended between old and new is definitely how I’m feeling. I’m trusting that a new spirit is gradually forming in me.

***

In case you need it, too, here’s the full prayer:

Above all, trust the slow work of God.
We are, quite naturally,
impatient in everything to reach the end
without delay.
We should like to skip
the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on
the way to something unknown,
something new,
and yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability–
and it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually–
let them grow,
let them shape themselves,
without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today
what time (that is to say, grace and
circumstances acting
on your own good will)
will make them tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of
feeling yourself in suspense
and incomplete.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.

 

May I have the courage to…

ribbons with prayers

This fall, I participated in an Art Prize installation by writing prayers on red ribbons for girls and women, both in general, and for those who have survived sexual abuse and exploitation (more about that later in this post). I wrote names of girls and women I knew were survivors. I wrote prayers that a girl would be rescued that day. I wrote prayers that assured the reader that she was worthy of being rescued.  Several times, I wrote, “May you have the courage to tell your story.”

And then: “May I have the courage to tell my story.”

I paused.

That was not what I’d intended to write. This was supposed to be about them. But in this area, there is no them. There is us.

I added my name to the next ribbon, because I am a survivor of sexual abuse.

When I was in grade 1,when I’d go to a neighborhood friend’s house to play, her father would take me in another room and touch me. It happened multiple times, although I don’t remember how many. I didn’t remember telling my mother, but credited our moving to Australia with stopping the abuse. It wasn’t until I was a parent, myself, and grieving that I never gave my parents the opportunity to protect me, that I found out that I had. I’d come home upset after a party at this friend’s house. My mother couldn’t get out of me what had happened, but she’d assured me that I never had to go back to that house. Ever. Later that year, when we were safely in Australia, she got it out of me, and she’d written to warn other families in the neighborhood with daughters who would go to this girl’s house to play.

Compared to the abuse suffered by other people I know, and how adults in their lives compounded the abuse by being angry at and blaming the victim, mine is a mild story. But it is mine.

It has been fuel to the fire of my anger against men. I used it to justify my poor treatment of men in my late teens/early 20s. But God did a mighty work in my life by convincing me that men are His children, too, and worthy of being treated as such — this paradigm shift made healthy relationships (both sexual and otherwise) with men possible.

The organization that used those ribbons is the Red Cord Community, helmed by my good friend Lorilyn Wiering. Here’s a photo of the Art Prize exhibit.

Photo by Red Cord Community of its Art Prize exhibit

Handling so many prayers while I helped tie the ribbons to the wires was moving. Seeing all those prayers fluttering in the breeze, bathing the heads of tall people who walked through the installation, was beautiful and powerful. Telling the story of the organization and the purpose of the ribbons, and watching people — children and adults — add their prayers and their stories was profound and lovely, and sometimes sad. But always a privilege.

Lorilyn’s tagline on her email, and her vision for the Red Cord Community is this: “Together we will become a community where all are givers and all are receivers.”

Yes.

As part of a community like that, sometimes I will be the receiver of stories and the giver of love and understanding, and other times I will give my story and receive love and understanding — thereby enabling me to give deeper and richer (and even holier) love and understanding.

I pray for you to have courage to do whatever it is that you feel God (or the universe) nudging you to do. And, frankly, I pray that I do not get a massive vulnerability hangover for writing this.

On Writing My Prayers

I’m thrilled to be doing my first guest post today, for my Renew and Refine Retreat for Writers friend, Emily Miller, over at emmillerwrites.com. I’m talking about the one spiritual practice I’ve managed to be consistent about: writing out my prayers. Regular readers of mine, I invite you to start here and click through to the rest of the post at Emily’s site. Readers who’ve come here from Emily’s site, I invite you to read this post (When Fear and Avoidance Mean You’re On the Right Track) with more details about how praying for compassion for my husband affected our marriage.

Whoever you are and however you got here — thank you for reading.

 

Thank you, Emily, not only for inviting me to talk about writing my prayers, but also for calling the series Spiritual Practices and not Spiritual Disciplines. I like the attitude of practice. As a spiritual director friend of mine likes to say, “That’s why we call them practices, because we’re not very good at them yet.”
I’m really not very good at being disciplined.

Ten or so years ago, I prayed through the Psalms. And then several years later, when God let me know I was acting like a child, he led me to read through the Jesus Storybook Bible. Both inspired sweet and holy times of prayer and reflection, but when each was finished, that was it; they were projects, not practices.

I’ve decided numerous times to pray every night before bed, but either the prayer would get me so charged up that I’d lose sleep or I’d fall asleep and lose prayer. Or my mind would follow one loosely connected path to another until I was in an imaginary interview with Terry Gross about the fabulous book I’d written, and prayer time lost to my daydreams of personal glory.

Determination to pray first thing in the morning was no better. It either cured the insomnia that woke me long before the alarm, or, if I managed to follow through, the children would get up earlier than I expected, and the amount of discipline it took not to snarl at them would sap my ability to stick with the prayer.

I prayed often, particularly when driving or doing laundry or awake in the middle of the night. But I resisted all attempts to be disciplined or intentional about my spiritual practices.

And then, in December 2010, a pastor friend suggested that I write my prayers down. You know, because I’m a writer. So maybe writing was meaningful to me and helped me process my world. D’oh.     keep reading

 

When Fear and Avoidance Mean You’re On the Right Track

sometimes your fear tells you that you’re crazy; sometimes it tells you when you’re on the right track. this was an example of the former. read on for discussion of the latter.

So a few months ago I got the impression that I needed to pray for compassion for my husband. I don’t remember exactly how. But I knew it was right because I stopped reading the Bible and writing my prayers for two weeks.

I’d prayed for tons of other specifics for my husband and for our marriage, but never for me to have compassion for him. Because compassion goes beyond understanding, or sympathy, or kindness, or patience, or tenderness, but is all of those wrapped up together with a big dose of “this isn’t about you.” Maybe I’m particularly skilled, but I’m able to pray for and practice all those other things while somehow keeping myself as the center of the emotional landscape.

* Look how understanding I’m being. Aren’t I doing a good job of not adding to his stress although I’m really angry?
* I’m gritting my teeth and acting sympathetic although I’m losing sleep and my general friendliness is suffering.
*  “God, you’re going to have to give me some of your patience and kindness, because I’m all out.”

Compassion is different, which is why I was so afraid. Compassion busts through the self-righteousness that can give this gal a great big Martyr Complex. So after two weeks, I couldn’t avoid my devotional time anymore. Couldn’t avoid the call to compassion. And I wrote/prayed this:

I pray for the thing that has made me avoid coming to this forum: please, Lord, give me compassion to [my husband] — not lack of anger, not sympathy, but compassion. I have no idea what that will look or feel like, but you led me to pray that and I’ve been avoiding it, but no more. Please give me compassion for [him].

The difference it made was startling. And not at all what I expected.

I talked more about the situation that was plaguing us. Yes, more. Before that, I’d been biting my tongue so I wouldn’t make an already stressful situation even worse by constantly bitching about it (although I sure was in the privacy of my own mind).

And why did I talk about it more? Because I wasn’t complaining about my difficulties, I was outraged for him, on his behalf. I won’t go into details, but I will say it involves a work situation, so it’s nothing I have any control over, and my husband doesn’t always feel he has control over, either. But compassion for him gave me the courage to apply my analytical mind to the situation. The topic was no longer ostentatiously ignored, so it no longer kept us captive in its shadow. Compassion for him gave me the courage to shine light on the situation regularly, which helped him talk through some of the issues, which may have helped him take action.

I told him about this recently, although that first prayer for compassion took place 3 months ago. I told him because I’d used the prayer for compassion again. It was 3 a.m., and I was fuming about something (Big Nagging Issue showing its ugly face again), my mind self-righteously whirling, when I asked myself this question: “What would the compassionate view be?” No surprise, it was very different from what I’d been thinking. And led to an utterly different conversation about it in the morning.

He pointed out something later that afternoon: compassion is related to passion, and while passion can be great, unchecked, it can blind us to the other. As a prefix, com means “together; with; jointly.” I so quickly get all heated up and passionate about my point of view, throwing my arguments at him. Compassion forces me to look away from my agenda and look at him. After all, we are in this together, jointly. I’m with him in this struggle. It isn’t me vs. him. It’s us.

Are there any prayers you’re afraid of? Any prayers you’re avoiding? Pray them anyway.

Prayer Lives of Children

You know what they say about assumptions? When you make them, you’re making an @$$ of you and me? You know who most loves to mess with our assumptions? God.

So there’s a little dude in my children’s worship group, let’s call him Calvin, in homage to Calvin & Hobbes. Those of you familiar with the comic strip will have a good idea of Calvin’s general demeanor. If you don’t know the strip, Calvin is a 1st or 2nd grader who doesn’t follow behavior rules, has a gory imagination (which he uses often), and neither his feet nor his mouth are able to stay still for long. He doesn’t have the disdainful eyes of a kid who doesn’t recognize authority, he’s just got an excess of … everything (especially liveliness and mischievousness). I really like my young Calvin, but it’s work to keep him reined in so everyone can pay attention to the story. And so that wrestling doesn’t break out, which is not a choice in children’s worship.

Except once. Last year, in an activity before I told the story of David and Goliath, I had my preschool group try to defeat the giant (my 6-foot-tall teenage helper) by trying to push him down with their own strength. They couldn’t. Of course. But I digress.

This past Sunday was a pretty typical day for Calvin. I did have to break up wrestling once. The story was a little more conceptual, so I didn’t have to repeatedly remind him not to tell the story overtop of me, which was a nice change. Towards the end of our time together, we did some intercessory prayer. I took prayer requests (there were a lot of loose teeth, which I asked to see, because the kids were so proud of them, but which also made me a little queasy). And then a little girl said she wanted to pray.

I got everyone settled down, and then she whispered, “I don’t know how.”

To demonstrate that praying wasn’t a big deal, I shrugged. “Just use the same words you would to talk to anyone.”

But still, “I don’t know how.”

This happens fairly often. A child will volunteer to pray out loud and then get stage fright. “That’s okay, I’ll–”

“I’ll do it.”

Calvin offered to pray for us, and proceeded to do so, matter-of-factly, and totally comfortably. He remembered about half the things the other kids had mentioned, and I took over when he said he forgot the rest.

It was one of my favorite moments of the year (along with the glorious dog pile of a few months ago). When I was done praying, I thanked him.

“Oh yeah. I pray all the time. Pretty much, any time I’m napping, I’m praying.”

THIS is what I love about doing children’s worship — these little glimpses into the deep and real spiritual lives of children. I am so glad God dashed any assumptions I had about young Calvin.

I like to collect stories about children praying.

When friends of mine announced to their two sons that the mother was pregnant with a little girl, the younger son piped up, “I’ve been praying for that!” His parents had no idea that this had been their child’s fervent prayer. Don’t know if they even knew he had his own prayer life.

In a meeting with a pastor-friend, he told me about a member of his church who had recently come back from a tour in Afghanistan. He was in some kind of commanding position over there, and while he was gone, the Sunday School children were praying for himm. The leaders had the kids come up with what they wanted to pray for about this man. They decided on two things:

1. That people would use their words.

2. That he wouldn’t even have to fire his gun.

So the man returned and when they welcomed him back on Sunday, he said a few words about his deployment. He talked about how things ran really smoothly in his unit, how when they’d interact with local villagers, they’d manage to work through their issues through talking (which wasn’t the case for other units nearby). And then, offhandedly, he mentioned that he didn’t even fire his gun once. The Sunday School teachers were instantly weeping — nobody else knew that that’s precisely what the kids had been praying for.

I love these stories, but I’m a little wary about telling them, because there are surely many prayers of children that do not get answered in such dramatic fashion. There have certainly been prayers children have asked me to pray that I can’t and won’t. It’s the lesson of a lifetime that prayer isn’t about getting what you want, it’s more about communicating with the God who loves you, and about changing your heart. And being grateful when you do recognize God at work.

I don’t know whether my children have a prayer life outside of what we do together. I certainly encourage it. And we model praying in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons. Maybe I’ll ask. But maybe I’ll let it surprise me sometime. That seems to be the method God prefers.

Do you have any stories about praying children you’d like to share? I’d love to hear them.

 

 

Jesus the Toddler

This is not going to be about what Jesus was like as an actual toddler (although it’d be fun to imagine what a prayer to Jesus-as-toddler might be, a la Ricky Bobby’s prayer to Jesus-as-baby, “Dear Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus, in your golden, fleece diapers, with your curled-up, fat, balled-up little fists pawin’ at the air.”)

Instead, this is about flipping the usual parenting analogy. Most spiritual analogies that involve parenting have God as the Heavenly Parent and us as the unruly, slightly stupid, and really stubborn children. Here, we’re the parent and Jesus is the toddler.

Let me set it up.

I was reading Isaiah last week (in my 3-year-long journey to read the Bible from beginning to end, yes, I’m only up to Isaiah) and came across this from 59:9,10,12:

So there is no justice among us,
we know nothing about right living.
We look for light but find only darkness.
We look for bright skies but walk in gloom.
We grope like the blind along a wall,
feeling our way like people without eyes….
For our sins are piled up before God
and testify against us.

And the image of our sins piled up before God struck me. I imagined a tower of blocks — childhood toy blocks. Probably because those are the kinds of tall piles I’ve made, over and over, while playing with children, both mine and others’.

I stack the blocks and the kid knocks them down — gleefully. And cries, “Again!” I race to build as much of the tower as I can before the kid knocks it down. And then we do it all over again, and again, and again. The kid has endless energy for knocking that tower down.

Isn’t this like Jesus? We’ve got this tower of sins that blocks us from God and Jesus knocks it down. That’s what Christians celebrate at Easter.

I have a vivid mental image of a particular little boy I had in children’s worship last year who’d let me build a tower of blocks as tall as him before he’d bust it down with the most delicious belly laugh and victorious jumping up and down. I like this image for Jesus scattering my tower of sins because it punctures my angst and navel-gazing with a KAPOW!

But I’m not done.

Here’s where the analogy stretches a little, because it isn’t Jesus begging us to build up the tower of our sins again, it’s us. We take the things we’ve already been forgiven of, things that are laying scattered on the floor, and stack them back up. We cannot give them up.

I guess I’m assuming things about you, but I can tell you with full confidence that there’s a lot I have a hard time giving up.

  • Any stupid or unkind thing I’ve said.
  • Confidences I failed to keep.
  • Plans to help someone that I never acted on.
  • Disciplines I haven’t been able to keep up.
  • An unwise decision I made in college that I asked forgiveness for several times because I kept forgetting whether I’d done it.
  • Excessive use of sarcasm with my children.
  • Irritability with my family.
  • Anger and bitterness that I can leave on the floor for months before letting them sneak back up into a wall.
  • Crippling disappointment — I say “crippling” because there’s plenty of fleeting disappointment, but I’m talking about that Job-level of complaint, “I’ve done so many things right. Why isn’t X going like I want it to?” Which is really this in disguise: “I’d run my life so much better than you, God!”
  • The need to both be right and be acknowledged as right. About way too many things.
I ask to be forgiven and Jesus knocks down my tower, KAPOW. Then, while we’re laughing and gleeful, I scoop a few blocks back and stack them. Jesus knocks them down with a karate kick this time. I try to hide the tower, to prevent him from knocking it down, so I build it behind me. But he finds it and body slams it. Even while I’m smiling at some of those blocks that flew all the way across the room, out of my reach (for now), my fingers scrabble for other blocks and…. You get the picture.
In real life, I, the adult, get tired of this game long before the toddler does. Loooong before. Similarly, Jesus does not tire of knocking down my tower of sins. He’ll do it every time I ask.
What kind of difference might it make to pray, “Jesus, I’m tired, so tired of building up this particular tower. Help me keep that block on the floor”?
My prayers are getting simpler as I get older. And I tend not to dictate as much to God exactly how things should look or go, at least as far as my spiritual life goes. Because I don’t want to limit God’s creativity. Maybe, if I notice the tower I keep rebuilding and admit my exhaustion and ask for help, instead of just knocking it down, Jesus will shrink those blocks, a little more every time I ask, until they’re so small that I go to rebuild it and can’t find them. There may be new blocks, but at least Jesus will have taken care of those old ones.
What’s in your tower? Are you as tired as I am of rebuilding with the same $%*^ blocks, over and over again?

 

Prayers of Children

Sunday was our last day at our church. They said “see you later” (not “good-bye”) beautifully, with tears and hugs and prayers and gifts. We served them one last time in music, dance, prayer, technology, and children’s worship. Handed in our keys. Now we start our summer of rest, when we actually get to sit together for the entire service, to hear my husband sing the songs right next to us instead of through the speakers. We will arrive at church at the same time, in the same vehicle, even. It’s been nine years since that has been possible on a regular basis.

I’m not going to belabor the leaving after this, but I do want to talk about one thing I’ll miss: praying with young children.

I loved it. You never knew what you were going to get: could be sweet, serious or silly. I accepted it all. Prayed for it all. There were a few sticky situations over the years, of children asking for a baby brother or sister (when I knew that wasn’t happening) or wanting me to pray that their mother never die. I would pray for God to shower the family with blessings, pray for a long and wonderful life together.

While cleaning out my office, I found sheafs of notes I’ve taken of the kids’ prayer requests (so I wouldn’t forget them while we prayed). They are so dear and such a reflection of what children are concerned about. Indulge me as I list some below.

brother hurt his chin
people in New Orleans
brother with surgery on his head
Nana died
Mama’s baby
a big dog
burned myself
sister crying
me and Mommy playing
brother got shot
Aunt Susan is going to have a baby, so he doesn’t die
that I make the basketball team
blisters on my toes
sister, Mommy and dad and friends at school and help me be nice to them and play well
Mom and Dad pick flowers
falling off my bike
happy to play video game at friend’s house
boo boo on Daddy’s braces
friend burned her hand
grandma died / grandpa died
little girl hit by a car
the Lost Boys
my tooth came out
my cough go away
my friend who doesn’t have a home
scratched myself on my face
that I have a good time at my dad’s today
that I can do something special with my dad
my grandma needs medicine
my brother is having bad dreams
stop my sister’s biting

There was a lot of concern for family members and friends, and very few requests for God to give them specific items (although my children would periodically want prayer for “Mom and Dad going shopping,” which is odd, because we almost never go shopping together. Maybe we should?).

We always thanked God for our snack, and I let any kid who wanted to do the prayer to do it — if 4 kids wanted to pray, they each got to do it. It never failed, at least one kid would give a heartfelt request that nobody would have to be sent upstairs and that they’d all stay downstairs. So sweet.

I will miss this little window into their lives.

The last story I told was the Ascension, a version that includes the line: “This is the mystery, that Jesus went away, but somehow he is still with us.” When I asked how Jesus could still be with us, a few children said, “In our hearts.”

I told that story on purpose, so I could tell them that it was that way with me: I was leaving our church, but I would always be with them, because they were in my heart. They are.

Wonderful: Holy Laughter

I don’t always appreciate puns, but I love this book title: Between Heaven and Mirth. Appropriately, given the title, it’s about Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. I requested this book after seeing the author on the Colbert Report. It’s wonderful: full of jokes, but also discussion of why Christians have often thought they needed to be dour, and analysis of Scripture to restore what would’ve been funny to the people at the time.

It also reminds me of one of the best prayers I’ve been part of. When we lived in New York City, we belonged to All Angel’s Episcopal Church and were part of a great small group that met once a week for talk, Bible study and prayer. This night, we’d broken up into smaller groups for prayer. I was with two friends in a little hallway by the washing machine. One friend was praising God for His sweetness, which was lovely, but when she went on, “for your sweetness, your gooeyness, your frothy goodness,” we cracked up. Our friend was trying to give up sugar and, momentarily related all goodness to desserts. We couldn’t stop giggling and ended up thanking God for laughter and calling it a night. That prayer makes me happy every time I think of it.

Several years ago, on a tough Sunday of children’s church, unstoppable laughter during prayer was exactly what I needed. It was the first Sunday for a new three-year-old. A sweet little girl who didn’t care at all about what we were doing. She just wanted to do her own thing and explore the room and talk constantly about what she was experiencing. Which would have been fine, except that I also had to deal with 9-year-olds in the same group, and try to tell the story and keep order. I also believe no teenagers were in church that Sunday, so I didn’t have a helper. By the end of the service, I was frazzled. And then, during our intercessory prayer time, that same little girl burped. It was such an adorable little noise that I laughed. And, of course, the kids laughed. It was a cleansing laugh. I thanked God for it at the time, and I still do.

More recently (and before I read Between Heaven and Mirth), I went against type in my portrayal of the prophets in the David and Saul book. The usual image of an Old Testament prophet is of an angry man yelling at people to repent. My prophets are lighthearted and quick to laugh, not out of frivolity, but out of security.

David has escaped out his back window in the middle of the night and run away from King Saul, straight to the prophet Samuel. Saul figures out where David is and sends soldiers to capture him, but things take a surprising turn:

Samuel and Caleb strode towards the well, gathering other men along the way. There were fourteen of them by the time they reached Ramah’s outskirts. As the soldiers got closer, all the prophets did was stand arm-in-arm in a circle and sing. David couldn’t tell what they were singing, but snatches of melody made their way back to him and raised the hair on his forearms.

The army commander gave the signal, and the soldiers spread out in formation and unsheathed their weapons. The bronze and iron glinted like lightning in the sunshine, but the prophets didn’t acknowledge the soldiers in any way. When Saul’s men were mere steps away, the prophets broke apart and formed a line, but it was like no defensive line David knew of. Some of them stood with their arms raised to the heavens, others fell on the ground, pounding the earth with their fists, and still others whirled in wild circles, the hems of their robes flashing above their knees.

David watched, slack-jawed, as, one by one, the soldiers dropped their weapons and joined the men of God in their worship. Tears fell unchecked as he watched these rough soldiers be overcome by the Spirit of the Lord.

And then he laughed – not because the soldiers were making fools of themselves, but out of utter security in the Lord’s protection.

Anyone got any funny church stories to share?