Three Reasons to Cherish Criticism

English: David anointed by Samuel

David anointed by Samuel

I was that little girl who cried if she got a 95 rather than a 99 on her homework. I was that girl who could hardly see the world through the tears and rage when I only made third place in the citywide spelling bee. I was the girl everyone approached very gently with even the smallest of criticisms, like an active volcano that would spew prideful drama all over anyone foolish enough to cross a certain line.

And I still am that little girl, way more than I would like to be.

I’ve known it’s a problem since forever, and I’ve been trying to find a solution since forever. “Just lighten up!” was most people’s advice in those childhood days. But I didn’t know how, not in the moment when I felt strangled by impending tears, when any harsh word felt like a weapon. And I’d never been taught the way of peacemaking, so I fought back with everything I had. And far too often, I still do; the years have etched those habits into me so they’re instinct now.

The more I learn about God’s ways, the more I realize I’m being called to completely turn this around.  Not just to endure criticism, but to embrace it. When someone tells me something negative about myself, whether they’re right or wrong, I have something to learn from it. If they’re right, I need to be grateful for the impetus they’ve given me to change. And even if they’re wrong…

Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.”

Uh, come again, Jesus? Leap for joy when people hate me and exclude me and insult me and call me evil – for no good reason? Sure, I’ll do that, right after I walk on water. It’s just one of those Scripture passages that never fails to shock me.

The book of Proverbs has a lot of crazy passages about taking criticism, too. It doesn’t mince words, either. This book contains such pithy phrases as “whoever hates correction is stupid,” and “whoever scorns instruction will pay for it.” Okay, okay, I get it, I think, but then I realize I obviously don’t, or I would be living my life differently. Then I read Proverbs a few more times and hope the wisdom will sink in sooner or later.

There’s one quote about criticism that seemed especially bizarre to me. It’s found in Psalm 141: “Let a righteous man strike me—that is a kindness; let him rebuke me—that is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it…” When I first read this passage, I thought, What does this even mean? Oil on my head? Why would someone put oil on my head, and why would that be a good thing?

And then I remembered: this is a Psalm, traditionally attributed to David. David the king.

And the lightbulb went on. That’s when you get oil on your head: when you’re being anointed as a king.

There are kings and then there are anointed kings, of which David was one. Meaning not only did he have earthly power, he also had God’s blessing. Despite his scandalous sins, David dominated the Jewish cultural memory as a king “after God’s own heart.” And posthumously, he received the ultimate blessing: God’s human form in his family tree.

So why would David associate a rebuke with his special anointed status? I think this verse has a lot to teach us about the value of criticism. Here’s what it said to me:

1. Criticism may mean I’m considered a leader. The more power I have, the more people scrutinize me, and rightly so. Like with King David and the prophet Nathan, someone may have noticed that I’m abusing my power. If I listen to their words, I can still apologize and turn things around to the best of my ability. Recognizing and owning up to mistakes is the mark of a great person and a great leader. When someone criticizes me, I can feel lucky that I have so much influence over them and that they think enough of me to urge me to use it for good.

2. Criticism may mean I’m loved. Being anointed didn’t just mean David was powerful; it meant he was chosen and embraced by God. Criticism, likewise, may mean someone cares enough about me to want me to change for the better. They feel safe bringing this complaint to me, trusting that I won’t think less of them for saying what they really think. They’re with me for the long haul. When a close friend or family member criticizes me, I can focus on the good intentions and trust behind their words.

3. Criticism identifies me with Christ. Jesus, as the Christ or Anointed One, was the King of Kings in the succession of David. Yet despite his many followers, Jesus suffered harsh criticism from the Pharisees, the Romans, and even his own family. People called him heretical, a glutton and a drunkard, demon-possessed. And of course, although completely innocent, he was executed as a criminal, crucified publicly as a way to shame and intimidate others. Yet Jesus didn’t try to defend himself. Though he knew and spoke the truth about himself, he was empty of ego, pouring out his life in servitude and accepting the shame of crucifixion, aware that even those who killed him didn’t truly know what they were doing. I am called to imitate his nature, to transform shame into glory by meeting it with humility and love.

I love it when I find an image that breaks through my lifelong issues and gives me a new perspective. I hope this one will help me live and love more boldly, accepting words that once drove me to tears as the oil of blessing on my head.

Do you struggle with taking criticism? What helps you overcome your fear of criticism?


Learning to Love the Old Testament

English: Moses Showing the Ten Commandments, b...

Moses Showing the Ten Commandments, by Gustave Doré

As I believe I’ve mentioned before once or twice, reading the Bible is not easy. Not in any sense of the word. Particularly not, for me and I think for many of us Christians, the Hebrew Scriptures.

For one thing, parts of it downright shock me. So much blood from so many animals. So many reasons to stone people. So many people getting struck dead for getting too close to the Holy, or getting killed in plagues or battles for wandering too far away.

And when I’m not shocked by these scriptures, I’m just as often bored. With all those lists of names and numbers, parts of it feel about as fun as reading the telephone book. Or there’s the wacky rollercoaster Israel gets on of bad kings and somewhat better kings, or those ever-popular descriptions of how to build and decorate things, conveniently measured in cubits.

So why, some would ask, do I keep reading? Why not just mentally assign the brutal or boring parts of Scripture to the recycle bin, especially since as a Christian I have the Gospels and epistles to read, action-packed and chatty by comparison?

Well, because you wouldn’t pick up a novel in the middle and read from there, would you? Reading the Bible that way doesn’t make any more sense. The New Testament is the Christians’ version of the end of the story of God and God’s people. Reading only the new part means you miss the full impact of the many Old Testament characters, allusions, and symbols woven everywhere into the text. Delete all of them and you wouldn’t be left with much.

Now, realizing this doesn’t necessarily help us enjoy the Old Testament. We might take it in like cod liver oil, faithfully, but with a shudder and a grimace. And that would be sad, because in those parts where our eyes are glazing over, there is beauty too if we have eyes to see.

Let me tell you what helps me actually enjoy the Old Testament.

I think about the fact that Jesus read it too.

I imagine child Jesus, with luminous eyes, soaking these stories in day and night. We know he came from a devout family. We know these words filled him like bread. No doubt, as Scripture itself teaches, his family talked with him about them sitting at home and walking along the road, while rising in the morning and lying down at night.

I imagine Jesus listening with total attention to these same stories, laws and histories and lists of names and decorating plans and all. I can see the wheels in his head turning. He knows, because of Who He Is, the beautiful way all this fits together. He knows it all points to his Father’s nature. But how to explain this? How to make people understand the intricacy of the tapestry, how organically all the pieces build a Kingdom?

I imagine him pondering these things day and night, on holy days and ordinary days, reading also the world around him, the signs that show up in wheat fields and fig trees and clouds.

When I can keep this image in my mind, suddenly every word becomes delicious. I long to read as Jesus read: hungrily, longing for his Father’s presence to be made known in the world. Jesus read these very words, the ones that seem brutal and boring to me, and he pieced them together into teachings that, along with his presence and his sacrifice, would lift heavy burdens from ordinary people, would set the world in motion following him wherever he led.

What I Learned from Antoinette Tuff, Ordinary Peacemaker

I’ve thought about it more than once, how I’d react on the bad end of a gun.

Jesus said you never know when The Moment will come and it’ll all be over, and that seems truer than ever these days. The shooting that really got me was the one in a shopping center not so far from me, where people dropped the Christmas presents they’d just bought and dropped to the ground and prayed for their lives. A girl I know came to work the next day deeply shaken, telling us how she’d been locked down for what seemed like a lifetime in Bath and Body Works. I told my loved ones that I was okay, that I’d been nowhere near it, knowing next time I might be.

I wasn’t even sure what I’d want to do, what I could do in such a moment. It’s hard to know what to say to someone to whom life itself has become meaningless. Many who’ve tried to be instruments of peace haven’t lived to talk about it. That’s the thing: real peacemaking involves risk, at least as much risk as joining the fray. Turning the other cheek feels more frightening than either fight or flight, and that’s why examples tend to be few.

I’m so glad to have an example in Antoinette Tuff, the bookkeeper who averted a potential school shooting this week by convincing an armed young man to surrender himself to police before a single person was harmed. Listening to the full interview she gave shortly afterward, I realized that although her actions in that life-threatening situation were extraordinary, she is really just an ordinary person who developed her faith, compassion, and love of enemies into weapons that protected the innocent children at her school and helped a man who could have killed her. If she can do it, I can learn to do it too. Here are the practical tips for peacemakers I took away from her interview:

She used her everyday suffering to identify, sympathize, and build trust with her attacker. When he told her he had nothing to live for, she recognized the pain she felt and connected it to her own. She told him about the breakdown of her marriage, the struggles she went through with raising her kids, and how she’d wanted to end it all too. She did so with respect for the pain he was experiencing as well. As she chose to enter the space of his pain with him, she practiced true compassion.

She offered him a different vision of himself and his future. Ms. Tuff saw herself and her family in this suffering young man, and she desired the best possible future for him. She told him that despite all she’d suffered, she had turned her story around, and he could too. She used her vision for him to help negotiate his surrender, telling him he had not yet harmed anyone and could still save himself from the worst consequences, even offering to leave the building with him to show police he hadn’t hurt her. When he finally did surrender, she told him, “I want you to know I love you and I’m proud of you. It’s a good thing you’re just giving up. Don’t worry about it.  We all go through something in life.”

Finally, and most importantly, she kept peaceful herself by turning to God. Tuff told interviewers that through her fears, she kept calm by practicing a technique her pastor taught her in a sermon series which she called “anchoring in God.” My first thought was, I want to go to her church, meet her pastor, learn whatever that thing is! But then I realized what she was referring to wasn’t some new or exotic technique. It’s right there in John 15, one of my favorite Bible passages: remaining in God’s love. For me, living in the sure knowledge of God’s love is hard even on a normal day with all its minor disappointments and distractions, much less in a situation where I’m fearing for my life. Yet Ms. Tuff credits all her accomplishments on that day to staying connected with God. Clearly pursuing a closer and closer relationship with God throughout my life would benefit not only me, but the world as well.

Antoinette Tuff says she’s not a hero, and I want to believe her. Extraordinary as her response to this crisis was, it could be ordinary – if people like you and me rejected the choice between violence or victimhood and embraced the way of peacemaking. I am deeply grateful that I, my nation, and my world can learn from her and people like her.

What are your thoughts on how these events played out? Do you have any resources for aspiring peacemakers?

Restoring Relationship

A bronze statue of a domesticated cat and her ...In a few weeks, I’m going to see my mother in person for the first time in about six years.

I can’t believe it. Six years.

The woman who let me live in her body for nine months (to say nothing of pushing me out). Who took me on my first trip to the library when I was just days old. Who let me taste the oatmeal chocolate chip cookie dough after each ingredient was added. Who introduced me to Deep Forest and Stevie Wonder and sang musicals with me in the car. Who cared for our ailing eighteen-year-old cat by cheerfully giving him subcutaneous fluid every day. I haven’t seen her since 2007.

It’s weird how comparatively easy my visit has been to set up, just a matter of train and hotel reservations and asking for a little time off from work. I could have done this sooner, but I didn’t.

Why not?

Well, it hasn’t all been car singalongs and cookie dough. I can’t and don’t want to go into detail here, but suffice it to say that my mom’s had lifelong struggles with substance abuse and mental illness, each of them feeding off the other, and it’s hurt her and everyone who knows her in a million ways. In my childhood and teenage years, I often felt afraid and unable to trust her.

There was actually a period of about a year and a half, starting just before I turned eighteen, when I didn’t speak to her at all. I didn’t answer her phone calls or return her letters. I more or less tried to pretend she did not exist.

Then, about a year after my conversion, when the Midwestern spring finally burst through the snow, it was like Jesus tapped on my shoulder and said, Honey? It’s great that you accepted my forgiveness. Now it’s time to pass it on.

I think he’d actually been trying to get my attention for a lot longer than that. I can be really slow on the uptake.

At this point, we talk on the phone at least once a week. We mostly talk about little things: the latest cute thing my cat did, what I’m making for dinner, what she watched on TV, her roommate’s annoying antics. There are still topics I don’t bring up with her, but things are so much better than they used to be.

Until recently, I was feeling pretty awesome about this. I am such a great daughter! I call her every week without fail! I never bring up all that nasty stuff that went down in my childhood! Good job, Jesus, mission accomplished.

It’s taken me six years to realize that’s not the end of the story. I said I was slow on the uptake.

I have come a long way, and I don’t want to minimize that. But the mission is not accomplished. Calling once a week doesn’t mean we have The Best Relationship Ever and I can now check off the “honor your mother” box.

She lives in a group home, her daily needs in the hands of underpaid, overworked caregivers, and she hasn’t had a hug from one of her kids in years. I have not physically been there to celebrate a holiday or her birthday, to make a meal or take her out to dinner, to just sit there with her and be with her.

I had to get this out there in the open, readers. How can I say all this stuff about other believers being my family when my relationship with my blood family is still so messed up? How can I glibly talk about loving your neighbor when I’m not sure how to love my own mother some days? How can I say I believe the love my heavenly Father has for me is too strong for any other force in the universe to tear down, but still shrink in fear and distrust from my earthly mother?

These things are not unconnected. Relationship is relationship is relationship. Love of God and love of neighbor are echoes of each other. If I can’t or won’t offer myself in the fullest kind of relationship to my mom, I’m refusing a part of myself to God as well. Likewise, if my relationships with other broken people overwhelm me, I’m not leaning on God like I should.

There is room for compassion in these realizations. Jesus knows every childhood hurt that still lives in me. He was physically here for us on Earth, got to feel firsthand all our human emotions and the brokenness of our bodies. He knows choosing to be in full relationship with God and people is hard. And he knows it’s the only thing that allows us to fully live.

So, you praying types, will you please pray for me as I visit my mom over Labor Day weekend?

A Lesson on Privilege Learned Through Tears

I remember staring down at scuffed gray linoleum floor, slumped against the flimsy wall of the work bathroom stall, and crying my heart out. More than anything, I cried for shame. I felt my own privilege like original sin, something I had never consciously chosen that nonetheless lived in me. And now it was out there, and I couldn’t believe how ugly it was, this thing that had been inside me all along, like how I might feel about watching my guts literally spill out of me.

I had said something insensitive to a coworker – not out of meanness, simply ignorance. I’d misremembered the country in which she was born, out of which I later learned she had been carried as a small child, a refugee too tiny to walk. I might as well have said, I know you’re one of those people, they’re pretty much all the same, right?

She corrected me, her voice a little bitter, but mostly very resigned. And instinctively, like flinching, I tried to cover up what I’d said. “Oh, I’m sorry! I knew that! I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings…”

And then it hit me, the tiredness I’d heard in her automatic response. She’d heard this many times before. She knew I didn’t mean it, but that didn’t matter. My comment showed, more than anything else, that I wasn’t thinking. I had never thought about the  place she came from. I had never had to think about it. I’d have been utterly shocked to discover she knew nothing about my home state, but I realized her entire home country was a blank in my mind.

And it dawned on me that that was the definition of privilege. The privilege of not knowing, not caring, not needing to understand the things that shape, often painfully, another person’s life. The ability to leave them blank in my mind. The ability to hide that fact for years until I slipped and made a careless remark. The ability to get away with it.

She kept working, but I fled to the bathroom to cry. The patterned floor blurred under me and I wept for her, subjected daily to a river of ignorant, callous remarks like mine. And I wept for myself, for the depth of my ignorance and apathy and wretchedness. Because I hadn’t meant to hurt her, but I did. Unknown even to myself, I was part of the problem.

I confessed my sins on that bathroom floor and I felt it more than anything I’d ever mumbled in a church.  And I all but heard the voice of God saying to me: Let me mold you through this. You have to change, and I can help you.

I felt the significance of the moment, of actually realizing I had something to learn from my pain even in the thick of it.

But then I did two things wrong.

First, I went back to my coworker and apologized through all my snot and sobs. I told her, once more, that I had meant no offense. She hugged me, expressed concern over the disproportionate drama of my reaction, tried to laugh it off. I realized belatedly that this tearful apology came from a selfish place. I was trying to get her to say it was all okay by upstaging the hurt she felt.

I went back to my desk and finished the workday, and then I did something even worse.

I put it out of my mind. The pressure of the moment over, I forgot my sin against my coworker that had so broken my heart. I let myself slip back to the old way of thinking, where my worldview was the normal one and anything else was weird. I didn’t hold on to that tension, that discomfort, that could have moved me to active compassion. I hardened my heart to the voice of God.

I know it’s not too late. There will be many moments in my life when I see myself clearly and can accept the divine invitation to change. Looking back, I’m grateful for that moment on the bathroom floor when I realized what ugliness I held inside and how little I usually cared about it. I treasure the memory of those tears, and I treasure the voice that still sometimes tells me, So you just looked inside yourself and felt terrible? Stay with the feeling. Keep your heart open to the pain others feel, keep your ears open to the words you’d rather not hear. I can give you the strength to change, and you can be part of my renewed world.

“The kind of sorrow God wants makes people change their hearts and lives. This leads to salvation, and you cannot be sorry for that.” 2 Corinthians 7:10a, New Century Version

Parables and the Insult of Grace

English: Parable of the Workers in the Vineyar...

Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Codex Aureus Epternacensis

This post is part of a synchroblog about parables.

Your mom gives you an ice cream cone because you’ve been crying, and she also gives one to your sister who kicked you and made you cry in the first place.

You pull an all-nighter on that group poster project and get an A, and so does your classmate who just printed out the illustrations.

You get a good performance review and a raise, and so does your coworker who constantly shows up late and leaves early.

Face it, who would be happy with that?

These are the kinds of examples Jesus uses in many of his parables to illustrate the kingdom of God. Those of us who grew up hearing these stories often think of them as… well… stories. We see them as hypothetical. We forget to insert ourselves within them. And if we do, we end up realizing how blatantly unfair most of them are, how contrary to our own typical views of justice.

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) is a perfect example of this. A landowner hires a group of men to work in his vineyard early in the morning, promising to pay them each a denarius, a standard daily wage for such work. Then he hires another group at 9:00. Then he hires more people at 12:00, 3:00, and finally, almost at the very end of the working day. Each time he promises to pay them “what is right.” And then, at the end, he pays them all the same, a denarius.

Of course, those who were hired first and have worked the most are outraged, even though they are receiving exactly what they agreed to earlier. Suddenly, by comparison with the others, they feel they should be receiving much more. “Can’t I do whatever I want with my money?” asks the landowner. “Or are you just being envious because I am generous?”

If I honestly insert myself into this story as one of the first workers, I have to say my reaction is shock, followed by anger. I think the reaction those workers have is a very natural one. From their perspective, this story is unfair to the point of being insulting.

It would be a mistake to conclude from this that God doesn’t care about justice in a here-and-now sense. Even a cursory knowledge of Scripture clearly shows God’s desire for workers to be treated fairly, for people to care for one another and to work for justice. Isaiah 58 is one strong example among many (“On the day of fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers… is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”), as is James 5 (“The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you!”).

So to me, this story clearly doesn’t tell us how God feels about actual workers and bosses. But somehow, it doesn’t seem right either to say, “Oh, this is a story about Heaven, it has nothing to do with the here and now.”

I read this story as a story about God’s nature of generosity. Rather than being fair in a human context, God chooses to be more than fair, rewarding us with grace, with second and third chances even when we screw it up. And that’s not all: we are called, also, to be generous rather than fair. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your father in Heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In a similar passage, that last line is a little different: “Be merciful, as your heavenly father is merciful.”

So this is a story about God, and it’s also a story about us. God’s ways are not our ways, but they should be. Our feelings of anger and indignation at the injustice of grace are natural, but with supernatural help, we can learn to love grace and strive to mimic God’s mercy. Just as God loves us through all the worst things we do, God wants us to love our enemies and desire the best for them. Even when they kicked us in the shins and made us cry. Even when they’re lazy and undeserving. Even when they flame our blog posts, hold political views we abhor, or disrespect us. It’s natural to want to give people what they deserve, but God wants us to give them what they don’t deserve, to be generous instead of envious.

And that’s the brazen beauty of Jesus, drowning his insults in love through his stories. Those of us who have ears to listen past the first shock, let us hear.


If you liked this post, check out some other great pieces people wrote for the synchroblog!

Jesus’ Parables are Confusing? Good! – Jeremy Myers

Parabolic Living – Tim Nichols

Seed Parables:Sowing Seeds of the Kingdom – Carol Kunihol

Parables – Be Like the Ant or the Grasshopper – Paul Meier

The Parables of Jesus: Not Like Today’s Sermons – Jessica

Penelope and the Crutch – Glenn Hager

Changing Hearts Rather Than Minds– Liz Dyer

Young Son, Old Son, a Father on the Run – Jerry Wirtley

When It’s Hard to Hope

Recently I spent a Saturday night playing a board game called Is the Pope Catholic? It’s a humorous trivia game best suited to those who grew up in pre-Vatican II Catholic schools. You know, where you’d memorize the entire Baltimore Catechism under teachers named things like Sister Michael of St. Peter. Since I’ve grown up in a Vatican II-happy bubble my entire life, I suffered a crushing loss. It’s not just my generation, either. I couldn’t name the five sorrowful mysteries of the rosary. I am a terrible Catholic, you guys, dorky board game nights notwithstanding.

Honestly, I don’t even remember the answers to most of the questions I got wrong. However, there is one that stuck with me. The question was What are the two sins against hope?

Apparently, one of them is despair and the other one is presumption.

I still don’t know the theological explanation for this. I’m sure there is one. I’ve just had those two words ringing in my head in the weeks since the game. Despair and presumption. I’ve been thinking about what they mean, not just in the context of the Catechism, but in my everyday life.

I realized I know despair pretty well. It’s that moment when I know I’m screwing up but I say to myself I give up, I’m in too deep anyway. Then I keep running my mouth or mindlessly stuffing my face or otherwise indulging the same old destructive patterns. I think despair is the root of a lot of my passive aggression, and honestly, a lot of the cynicism and snark of my entire generation. We don’t dare to hope, because secretly we’re convinced we’ll inevitably be disappointed.

Then there’s presumption. At first I wondered, How is that a sin against hope? Isn’t it an excess of hope or something? But then I realized that another way to say “presumption” is “taking things for granted.” Not realizing what enormous gifts I’ve been given, and thinking that they’ll always be mine. Forgetting to tell people I love them. Not calling or writing old friends and assuming they’ll always be there. Shortsightedly wasting my money, my time, my attention, because in my blind entitlement I think they could never run out. When I’m presumptuous, I sin against hope because I lack gratitude and I fail at seeing the big picture.

Hope often seems a fragile thing, my hold on it tenuous at best. It’s easy to get lost in the moment, see only the painful and the unfinished, and give up. When someone tells me their depression is coming back, when I realize it’s been months since I called a good friend, when old temptations suck me in like a whirlpool, it’s good at least to know the names of my enemies, despair and presumption.

Radical hope is what I’m called to cling to instead. The life of Jesus Christ, if you leave off the resurrection, was utterly hopeless, a crazy tragedy. But I believe in ludicrous hope, in taking it one step further. And it’s not enough just to believe it; like any belief, it will take on meaning only when I live it. When I encourage my depressed loved ones and pray for their healing, when I make time to pick up the phone and call friends, when I take a deep breath and summon compassion for those who push my buttons, that’s my belief and my hope in action.

Whew. There is so much to learn on this Jesus Way. When I’m done with this, I guess I’ll get to those sorrowful mysteries…

Do you place a high value on hope as a belief and as a way of living? What makes it hard for you to hope?

Twentysomething Jesus

Sleeping office worker.I’m sure it will shock no one to hear that sometimes, sitting in my gray cubicle with the angry ringing phone, I get a little discouraged. Honestly, it’s not that the pay is low; it is, but I have enough to provide for my modest needs (and many wants) and not so much that I can’t sympathize with those in true need. It’s not that the work is boring and there’s no room for advancement, although those things are true too. More than anything, it’s feeling lost, irrelevant, hidden away in the windowless building like so much obsolete office equipment. Are my gifts wasting away in there? Shouldn’t I be using them for God? Will I ever figure out what I should really be doing?

I think many in my generation feel this way. As kids, we were told to dream big. As college students, we looked forward to our futures. Then, on our own in a precarious economy, we realized sometimes it was hard enough to keep or get any job. I know I used to feel like my horizons were unlimited, and when I hit the job market in 2008, I felt like I’d walked into a sliding glass door I’d never known was there. There are exceptions, of course, and many of us have rallied beautifully, creatively pursuing our dreams even when they look different than we thought. But for many of us, keeping the vision alive through the daily grind is, let’s be honest, hard.

On those kinds of days, I like to imagine what Jesus was doing when he was my age. Nothing too interesting to the outside world, apparently, considering all we know about it. We do know he worked with his hands, probably for the family business. It’s clear from his later life that he read the Scriptures and thought about what they meant a lot. He also no doubt spent a good bit of time watching the subtleties of nature, their slow cycles: storms telling the weather, fig trees blooming, grain growing – or not – from scattered seed.

I love thinking about those years of his life, hidden from the world, but known to God. Jesus never spoke to his disciples about that time, or if he did, the words were not preserved, making the experience doubly lost. But I know he didn’t see them as lost. He often speaks of secret things as precious to God, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount. He says God loves the prayers we pray in secret, with our door shut, and the fasting we hide from the world, and the money we give so sneakily even we barely realize it. Those who want credit for their acts of devotion, he says, have already received their reward. They can either have it now or later, and they’ve chosen now. But they’re going to miss out on the surprise God would have kept for them, something more beautiful than they could ever request or imagine.

So maybe I’ve learned something from my twenties after all, even though they haven’t gone the way I’ve planned. Realizing the meaninglessness of the dreams I used to nurture is surely a kind of meaning in itself. Maybe God is slowly teaching me that it’s not that I used to dream too big, but that I’m still not dreaming big enough.

Or maybe that’s just what I tell myself to get through days in the cubicle.

But I’d like to think Jesus is right there with me.

Grace: Not Just Something You Say

I didn’t grow up saying grace over food, not even in the old days when my family went to church together. Well, we memorized the standard Catholic grace-before-meals, but we never said it consistently. I learned a few graces, too, in Girl Scouts, upbeat little songs that seemed silly compared to the stern grandeur of the Catholic prayer.  In either context, not only did the graces said not penetrate my heart, but they never even shaped my mind, never became one of those good habits moms drill into you like buckling your seat belt or brushing your teeth.

My conversion at age 18 didn’t sell me on grace either; as I wrote at the time, I thought “churches and ceremony” gave people “a false sense of security.” Even through college, I scorned most spiritual disciplines, didn’t attend church regularly, didn’t pray or read the Bible. Though I called myself a Christian, I could almost forget about my faith for days at a time. I certainly didn’t find my three square meals a day occasion to remember it. Grace seemed too superstitious, inorganic, almost insincere.

Only within the last few years have I come to see the value of this ritual. Strange, because food and shared meals have always been core symbols of the faith for me. The transition from hunger to fullness recalls the Beatitudes. Sharing a meal with loved ones and guests echoes the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples and his instructions to remember him “whenever you do this.” Scripture actually invites us to “taste and see the goodness of God,” like it’s a feast we can sink our teeth into, like it’s tempting us to take that first bite. And I’ve always loved feeding people, expressing my love through a loaf of pumpkin bread or pizza from scratch, my little way of echoing the love of God in the concrete.

We all need food. Sharing food fosters friendship. Giving food shows love. I understood all of this without words.

But now I know that words are valuable too.

I started to learn this in my junior year of college, when I was part of a dinner co-op with six friends. We’d all trade off making dinner in pairs five times a week, then fend for ourselves on Fridays and Saturdays. On the whole, it worked well, and we all learned a lot about cooking (my tablemates patiently bore with me through some memorable botched meals, including mouth-scorching chili and a truly disastrous first batch of pizza).

My friends Katrina and Anna are wonderful cooks and hostesses, and night after night when it was their turn, they’d set the table meticulously, set out some steaming, succulent dish plated beautifully… and ask us to wait. Then Katrina would read out loud a poem she’d selected beforehand, maybe something by Mary Oliver or Wendell Berry, and we’d chew the words over, looking around at each other’s faces. When the poem was over, we’d take a breath before digging in, and the food would somehow taste even better for the ritual.

They graduated and left, and I began tucking into meals without pausing again. It took me years to figure out that I missed it, the moment of silence and the carefully chosen words, to make a meal something more. So I started taking a breath, taking a moment to pause thankfully before sating my hunger, and in the act of doing it, I’ve realized what grace really means.

Why is it called grace? Because the definition of “grace” is “a gift I don’t deserve,” and I don’t deserve my food. Sure, more often than not I’m the one who cooked it, bought it at the supermarket or the farmer’s market. But could I feed myself entirely on my own? Absolutely not. By the time my food reaches my lips, so much energy has already gone into it that my own act of cooking seems like nothing.

Could I make meals like I do if I had to grow my own wheat and grind my own flour and make my own pasta? My lifestyle wouldn’t allow it. Could I enjoy the bounty of foods and the variety of ingredients and cuisines I do without the help of others? No. These things have nothing to do with my merit; they’re a gift, and they should inspire my gratitude. So grace is a way of remembering where my food comes from and a way of honoring those whose hard work went into its making.

And even if I did grow my own vegetables and mill my own flour, would I not be dependent, as all farmers are, on temperature and rainfall and other earthly processes that nourish seeds and make them come alive? Could I ever truly say I made my food myself when its growth depended on so many things beyond my control? Agriculture itself is a gift. The security it provides us with is surely a gift, since I doubt I’d do better at hunting deer and gathering berries than I would at farming. In a sense, my entire existence is a gift which the gift of food makes possible.

Sharing food with others I love is also completely undeserved. It’s a wild blessing that I’m alive, that they’re alive, and that we’re together. It’s worthy of celebration, just like the meal Jesus shared with his friends. It’s a holy moment every time, and the ritual of saying grace reminds me I’m on sacred ground.

Honestly, a few words and a pause before a meal don’t even do all of this justice. But it helps me to keep it more in mind, to pause my whirling brain for a moment and try to comprehend the degree to which I need to be thankful. And then, like the energy in my food fuels my actions for the day, that moment of thankfulness can fuel the sharing of my blessings with those around me, can help me view my life as bread to be broken, a little at a time, meal by meal.