Lenten Love Stories #5: The Slow Falling

In telling the love story between me and God, I’ve been sharing the big dramatic moments, like you do. You tell your friends about the moment you looked into your beloved’s eyes and knew, or the first time you put words to your feelings, or your first date or your wedding ceremony.

But love is so much more than the big memories. It’s the things that seem tiny at the time, but bring a smile to your face whenever you think of them. Yes, that too was love.

Jesus sent his disciples out to harvest what others had sown. The disciples watched people fall in love with Jesus over and over, but they’d already been falling for a long time. Other people had planted the seeds that would slowly grow green toward the light, would flower and bear fruit, would someday become ripe.

So many people have sown tiny seeds in my heart. Some of them are not around anymore to see the blossoms. Some of them I’ve fallen out of touch with. Some of them I never even met. I’m sure most of them are ignorant of any beauty they birthed in me. I know they didn’t see it happening at the time. As I’ve said many times, I’m a really slow learner spiritually. I’m sure watching for the seeds to sprout in me would have been about as much fun as watching actual grass grow.

One of the sowers was my dad, who told me stories about Jesus he heard from his mom, who heard them from Rose DeWitt, a middle-aged black lady who was once their neighbor in the projects of New York City. Heirloom seeds from this home-grown theologian who never held a degree but taught herself Hebrew, who invited my Jewish relatives to her Christmas feast, eyes shining from gazing on the face of Love.

One of the sowers was my mom, who dragged me to church in those early days, got me hooked on singing Psalms and the strange rituals of liturgy. Who responded to my urgent (and foolish) spiritual questions with a grace that never discouraged me from faith.

One of them was my first boss, Becky, who in addition to showing me some really great reading material really showed me what the Holy Spirit looked like in someone’s life during my teenage years. Endlessly patient through all my teenage screw-ups, honest and kind while sharing her faith, she was a true role model for me.

One of them was a young Christian I knew casually online named Trevor, who responded to my first public confession of faith not with shock at my rough language but with joy and excitement that I was so close to belief and a little friendly pressure to make a decision for Jesus.

One of them was my college Chaplain, whose office I visited at least once a term to sob out my life issues, anxieties about my family, my romantic prospects, and my purpose in life. She gave me a lot of great advice, too much of which I ignored for too long, and mostly she just listened, providing a safe place for me to wrestle with things I wouldn’t have told another soul on campus.

One of them was a woman I met online named Lasa who eventually invited me to stay at her house. She is the one who convinced me, somehow, that I wasn’t going to choose the wrong life path and end up on God’s bad side forever. As she put it, “God loves you too much to let you go.” Plus, she sent me my very first study Bible.

So much sweet fruit in my life now (such as there is) ultimately comes down to these people, who broke ground for my faith, who nurtured and protected it in the early days like a precious sapling. I hope one day they’ll get to know what those thousands of tiny moments meant, how all the love they lavished on me made harvest even possible.

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Lenten Love Stories #4: The Spirit Electric

Image Credit: aggieerin, Flickr

Image Credit: aggieerin, Flickr

May 23, 2010

I always tell people I rebelled against my parents by staying in school and not taking drugs. Let’s face it, I’m not the adventurous type. I don’t even like legal supersensory experiences, like rollercoasters or horror movies or nitrous at the dentist. In most circumstances, the feeling of being out of control is just not one I seek out.

Yet being sober all the time takes its toll, and it seems to come out in my dreams. Sometimes I’m sick of being me, so I dream I’m someone else completely. Once I dreamed I was a beautiful young woman being randomly attacked by two strangers who completely overpowered me physically. They knocked me unconscious momentarily and my dream-self awoke smiling, saying with genuine warmth, “You know, I bet you are wonderful people. I’m sorry I had to meet you this way.” My assailants exchanged a shocked glance, dropped me, and scuttled away.

I remember the rush of waking up, thinking, Who was that I just got to be?

One spring morning I had a dream unlike any other I’ve ever had. I don’t even remember the context, but suddenly I felt electrified. There’s really no other word for it. Like the electric shock that used to travel up my arm when I pushed the metal button wrong on my family’s ancient dryer, but all over my being. I felt like my hair was frizzing out cartoonishly. I could move, but it felt more like I was being moved by this current of energy rushing through me, its chosen conduit.

Yet unlike the burn of real electricity, the energy filling me in the dream felt wonderful. It felt so good I almost felt guilty. The word “possession” flashed through my mind. I struggled momentarily with my old fear of losing control of myself, the thing that keeps me away from roller coasters and risky behavior, but I realized I didn’t want to escape the current, even if I could have. How bad could it be to trade myself away to become a tiny part of this gloriousness? How could I choose to camp out in the tiny tent of my body, ignoring a view of the endless stars?

I woke up abruptly, jolted back to reality. It was Sunday morning. I was late for church, but I decided to go anyway. I hadn’t been for weeks, choosing to spend the day making bread or soaking up sunshine instead, but for some reason I wanted to be there.

I slunk in late and noticed a change from our Sunday usual. Red banners hung from the ceiling. Everything glowed with the colors of flames. A feast day? Wasn’t Easter over? Stupidly I looked down at my program.

Pentecost. I’d had no idea.

Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit first rushed through the Apostles of Jesus, busted them out of the confines of their tiny hick lives, made them start speaking foreign languages they’d never uttered before.

Pentecost, when the dreamers became the dream, but some people scoffed and called them drunkards.

Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit consumed the people like wildfire.

Lesson learned that day: even for timid little me, erstwhile worshiper of my own safety, the last kind of person to play with fire, there is room for the Spirit. Even if only in my dreams so far. God is tempting me to experience more of the divine nature, and I am the moth to the proverbial flame.

Lenten Love Stories #3: The Three-Legged Cat and the Trickster God

July 11, 2011

The six-pound cat limped into the room on her three remaining legs. She threw her head back and made a sound like an old door slowly creaking shut. She was halfway bald, having been shaved twice for surgery in the last week. She still had stitches in her stump.

I looked at her and thought, Perfect.

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After all, I was getting a cat because I wanted to take care of something. I needed an outlet for my thwarted instinct to nurture and coddle. That’s why I told the humane society volunteers not to rule out special needs cats. I knew three-legged animals usually did fine, and this cat was even missing a back leg, which would be easier to adapt to than a missing front one. But technically, she did have a special need: to stay indoors due to her lessened ability to evade dogs or cars, and by golly, I was ready to step forward and meet that need. It’s meant to be! I thought, carrying the mewling cardboard box to the parking lot. I don’t even have a backyard! I felt pretty great about myself as we drove home for opening my heart and home to an animal who had had such a hard life and clearly needed me.

Soon, it became apparent our cat wouldn’t need much special care at all. There were some milestones in those early days as she built up the muscles she needed to get around. First time on the bed! First time on the couch! She made it to the kitchen! She jumped into the bathtub! But soon she was running laps around the apartment, scaling a six-foot cat tree with ease, and jumping to bat away toys we threw for her like a goalie in a World Cup match. The only thing she couldn’t seem to do was jump onto the kitchen counters (not such a bad thing, come to think of it).

As I’ve since discovered, her true special need is love. This cat meets me at the door every day, screaming like I’m Paul McCartney, or maybe she’s just so glad I made it home alive from the dangers of the urban jungle. (She also routinely does her joy-screaming routine when I leave the apartment to get the mail, a process of about thirty seconds.) Sometimes she wakes me at four in the morning just because she’s lonely. And sometimes I’m making dinner or doing the dishes or watching TV and I catch her just looking at me and purring.

Maybe I’m making her sound too needy, but seriously, isn’t this why people get pets? So they can see themselves through the eyes of another creature who knows nothing of betrayal, duplicity, or even subtlety, but just loves without apparent limits?

I began to realize I was the one with special needs. God, knowing my deep compulsion to feel useful and do-goodery, clearly put this cat in my path to show me how little I know about love, how much more I am loved than I ever imagined. Who would have guessed anyone could just stare at me adoringly while I make dinner? Who would have guessed I merited tap-dancing enthusiasm just for walking in the door on any given day? Can it possibly be that this is only a shadow of the joy God feels when I turn around from whatever sin entangled me and head back home?

And can I, with all my handicaps, learn to love God the way my cat loves me? Can God’s presence with me make me happy, even when I’m watching TV or doing chores? Can I wake up every morning and say, “YES! Another twenty-four hours with God!” Can I run in God’s direction, powered by joy despite my spiritual limp?

Yep, that’s my God. The one who is always lavishing love on me despite my weakness and my unworthiness and my utter unpreparedness. The one who teaches me through a three-legged cat. The one who made this whole weird, wonderful world and tricked me into loving it in the first place.

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Lenten Love Stories #2: The Mysterious Kiss

May 23rd, 2004

Just another Literary Guild meeting, I thought. I brought pumpkin bread to share. Officially I was Guild president, but that was just a title to put on my (now already accepted) college application. We were really a glorified book group, some nerdy friends who worked together at the community college’s Writing Lab.

We sat at the beautiful oak table in Pat’s dining room. My boss at the Writing Lab, Becky, sat to my right. She’d picked out the month’s reading, just one chapter of The Brothers Karamazov. Usually we tackled things like Homer’s Iliad, but the summer highs had already crept above a hundred degrees, so Becky had suggested something short, something light and summery by our standards: “The Grand Inquisitor.”

Three hours we sat there and talked about that chapter. It was nine-thirty by the time Becky drove me home, and I remember how the stars looked as we bounced down the dirt road. I was giddy with energy. I was newly in love.

The chapter (spoiler warning!) takes the form of a story told by one brother to another. Ivan is the skeptic, Alyosha the one with the childlike faith, and Ivan tells Alyosha a story about Jesus. Jesus coming back to earth during the Spanish Inquisition and meeting the Grand Inquisitor, the head of it all. Actually, the Inquisitor has Jesus thrown into prison.

Visiting the captured Jesus, the Grand Inquisitor stares at him and exclaims: “Is it Thou? Thou? … Don’t answer, be silent… Thou hast no right to add to anything thou said of old.” Jesus obeys, looking on in silence as the old man rants about how Jesus ruined everything during his encounter with Satan in the desert, when he denied the temptations of “miracle, mystery and authority.” Jesus refused to manipulate people into submission to him – he left them with their freedom to accept or reject him. The Inquisitor explains that people are too weak for this freedom, that they need control, that no one can live up to the standards Jesus taught, that the church is now controlling the masses and fixing these mistakes Jesus made.

He concludes his indictment of Jesus by saying that he will burn him at the stake as the worst of heretics, and the same people who worship him today will rush tomorrow to throw more kindling on the fire that consumes him.

Alyosha interrupts the story at this point, horrified, saying his brother is misrepresenting Christianity and that the Inquisitor clearly doesn’t believe in God. Ivan admits the old man’s atheism, but says it’s actually compassion for humanity that drives him forward, his sincere realization that the average person will never be able to carry the burden of morality Jesus has placed on his or her shoulders.

Around that oak table, we asked ourselves and each other, Is faith a sign of weakness or of strength? Is religion inevitably cruel and oppressive? Are people really too weak to follow the hard teachings of Jesus?

I took Ivan’s side in these questions. I couldn’t help but see the ugliness of religion, how it was so often used for cruelty, how the teachings of Jesus seemed often to burden people instead of setting them free. I was grateful for Ivan’s boldness in asking questions, his frankness in admitting he couldn’t believe in God.

But when we got to the end of Ivan’s story, something happened to me. I’d read through the thing quickly by myself, but discussing it with my friends around the table, the words jumped out at me as if for the first time.

Jesus looks at the old man in silence. The Inquisitor wishes he would say something, anything at all, no matter how terrible. But then Jesus silently comes forward and kisses the old man on his wrinkled lips. That’s the only answer he gives.

The old man shudders, opens the door to the cell, and lets him go. Ivan concludes the story, “The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea.”

A kiss? That was Jesus’s idea of an answer to this torrent of words? The thought almost offended me, but at the same time touched me in a way I couldn’t explain. My own mind, so full of doubt and argument, bumped up against a love so great it didn’t have to explain itself.

The kiss glowed in my own heart as I came home under the stars. I didn’t yet understand what was happening to me. That night God called to me and I heard, a moment as mysterious and irresistible as suddenly falling in love.

What This Lent Is All About

Now is the time to say to Jesus: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace.”

– Pope Francis I, Evangelii Gaudium

Lenten Love Stories #1: How I Came Back to the Church

October 2008

I woke up one day with this song in my head I hadn’t heard since childhood. A song they used to sing sometimes in my church when we went up to receive Communion. But I’d stopped going to that church ten years ago. I couldn’t believe I still remembered it.

Do not be afraid; I am with you / I have called you each by name / Come and follow me, I will bring you home / I love you and you are mine

I had just moved to the city from my small-town college, still slept on my friends’ living room floor. After months of applying for jobs, I’d landed one at a cookie factory, what I called “my I Love Lucy  job.” Workdays, I woke up at three in the morning, ate plain oatmeal, and went to wait for the train in the dark. When I left work, it was dark again.

The day I woke up with the song in my head, though, was Saturday, a day off. On Saturdays, I woke up and tried to meditate, perhaps trying to convince myself there was something romantically monastic about my spartan lifestyle.

I opened the book of devotions I was using to a random page, and the same words jumped out at me, the beginning of Isaiah 43:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
    I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
    they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
    you will not be burned;
    the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

I blinked. How weird, I thought. Well, maybe I had seen this page on another day and that was what got the song into my head. I did my usual sad attempt at meditating and went about my day.

The next day, Sunday, I decided to try out a church. I’d never really stuck with one in college, preferring to make brunch for friends on Sunday morning. But now, in this new place, I’d decided it would be good for me to have a church of my own. It would help me meet people. I’d heard about this church before, seen its beautiful picture online, heard great things about its welcoming atmosphere.

It happened to be a Catholic church, like the one I’d grown up in.

When I came out as a Christian to my father in my late teens, the first thing he asked me was, “Does that mean you’ll do everything the Pope says now?”

“No, Dad,” I said, with a great show of patience. “That’s Catholics. I’m not specifically Catholic anymore, I’m just a Christian.”

During my college years, I’d never felt a draw back to my childhood church. The churches I shopped were Episcopalian, United Church of Christ, nondenominational.  I’d attended maybe one Catholic Mass since my conversion, and I felt completely unmoved by it.

The one thing I’d really missed about Mass was Communion. Some of the churches I’d attended only shared the bread and wine occasionally, and that never felt quite right to me. So as the Mass went on, I started to get excited about receiving Communion again. After all these years of getting it sporadically at best, I guess I was hungry.

Finally the moment approached. People started to sing the Communion song.

I started to laugh. Then I started to cry, covered my face and sobbed right there in my wooden pew.

It was the song that had been in my head for the last two days: “You Are Mine,” by David Haas.

As I went up to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, I was crying so hard I couldn’t even think of singing. On my way back to my seat, a stranger swept me into her arms and gave me a huge hug.

Things like this don’t happen to me. You should know that. I am not a magnet for miracles, or even remarkable coincidences. But after all my wandering and all my doubting, that day I got a sign I couldn’t ignore. Don’t be afraid, it said. Come on. This way is home.

Lent 2014: Returning to My First Love

Let’s get real. Isn’t it easy to neglect love, to forget to love, to chase after shiny pleasures instead of love, maybe even to love yourself more than anything else? And isn’t that what sin really is?

Mornings and evenings, stumbling along in the rain, I mutter to myself or chant inwardly: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”

I’ve learned these words and trained myself to repeat them, but inside I’m often wondering: Love God with everything? Can I even do that? Have I ever loved anything or anyone that way?

God has loved me my whole life and more, but I only realized it ten years ago. Still, ten years is more than enough time for love to get a little cold. You let the air stale between you. You forget to call just to say I love you. You give gifts, you make promises, but your heart isn’t in it.

I don’t want my love to die out. I don’t want ritual and obligation and worry to choke it out. I want to fall in love all over again. I want to remember the giddiness of those first moments when I realized something special was happening, that Something bigger than me was drawing me in.

That’s what I feel called to do this Lent: to give up the things that are choking out my love, to make more time just to be with my Holy Beloved. More time to tell the story of our love. More time to find new things to love.

Today, let the ashes on my forehead remind me that I am nothing more than dust touched by the breath of Love. And let me learn again, these forty days, to cling to that Love which is my life.