When I Don’t Want to Be Saved

My friend Rob once saved me from a speeding bus. I was about to blithely step into the street and he said, “Look out, Rachel!” and shoved his arm in front of me so I couldn’t move. Only then did I see the bus, now passing inches from my face, going so fast I was caught in a whoosh of air as it departed.

What was my immediate reaction? Did I thank my friend for potentially saving my life? Did I burst into happy tears that I was still here and whole?

No. When the shock of the moment wore off, I turned to him and said crankily, “That wasn’t necessary, you know. I would have seen it coming and stopped.”

In a more private moment later that evening, tears did come, and they still weren’t tears of joy. I cried because I wasn’t sure I would have seen the bus coming and stopped. My tears were tears of anger at myself – I didn’t want to be the kind of person who could die in so stupid a way. I wanted to believe I was the kind of person who could take care of herself, who was too smart to walk in front of a moving bus, but deep down, I didn’t think I was.

I still struggle with not wanting to be saved. You would think I’d be happy about it, since we Christians love to proclaim we’ve been saved by Jesus. Central to my religion is the belief that salvation is a gift of God, not something you could ever earn, but pure breathtaking grace.

But the thing is, sometimes I still don’t want to be the kind of person who needs saving. I don’t want to have to depend on God so heavily. I want to be the kind of person who naturally does the right thing for the right reason, who is always getting wiser and better without having to ask for help.

But I’m not that person. I don’t have it all under control. My motives are mixed at best. I’m really selfish and really easily floored by suffering.

Sometimes this realization hits me anew like the proverbial speeding bus. For two years in a row now, I’ve been excited to start a new year on the right foot: make lots of goals, get my life on track, bring all my productivity and energy to the table. And for two years in a row, I’ve woken up sick. This year, I also strained my shoulder first thing in the morning. Was I doing aerobics? No, I was attempting to get out of bed.

Needless to say, I didn’t live my ideal day today. I wasn’t super productive. I didn’t get a lot of planning done. I took a lot of naps and popped a lot of ibuprofen. And I didn’t bear the pain well, either – I prayed for patience, but in the same breath, I also whined about having to spend a vacation day in bed.

I think Someone may be trying to tell me something, namely, that I am not a self-sufficient being. I can have all the ambition and great plans that I want, but ultimately, my life can easily be altered by forces outside my control. And that’s okay, because I am not my achievements. I can learn this now, or I can learn it when I start to get old and lose my ability to achieve in the conventional ways, along with my marbles and/or my mobility (if I make it that long without getting run over).

My job is not to be in control of everything. It’s okay to be small and weak and need saving. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who know how perennially messed up they are and suck at hiding it. Because when you realize that you don’t run the world, it frees you up to live in the Kingdom of God.

Oh, and Rob? If you’re reading this, I guess it’s time to finally say thank you.

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This Is My Story

Reading list

(Photo credit: jakebouma)

Once I was reading Strega Nona to a five-year-old friend, and he expressed genuine anxiety about how it would turn out.

I was surprised. He really thought this book about a friendly witch and her magic pasta pot might end with the entire town being engulfed by pasta? He didn’t see the connection between this story and other stories he knew? I told him I knew it would be okay, and he let me keep reading to the end.

The more you read, the more you learn to make predictions about what may happen next in the narrative. It’s a necessary skill for a fluent reader and it’s a skill that can’t be taught. You just have to keep immersing yourself in the stories over and over until you learn what to expect.

This is why I dive into the Bible again and again. The more I read, the more connections I see between different parts of the story and between the story and my own life. Liturgy does this too; when I attend Mass, I rehearse how to truly live a life centered on Christ. When I recite creeds with other Christians, I’m narrating the common truths that enliven our individual existences. Together, we find the courage to affirm crazy things – that our story won’t end with our deaths, that the poor and those who mourn are blessed.

The culture I live in tells me a different kind of story – a story where death wins, where all suffering is frightening, where illness and imperfection are to be avoided at all costs. It’s this story that makes me wig out over my smallest failures or judge other people. I grew up in a world dominated by this narrative, and it disturbs me how quickly I forget any other. To truly believe in God, I have to insert myself into the great Story over and over again until I learn to see the patterns.

Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” My heart must beat with God’s story so the words that spill automatically from my mouth in times of stress will be words of peace. My heart must learn over and over again that my struggles in this life are momentary, are nothing compared to eternal glory. My heart must tell itself over and over to truly love God and neighbor. That’s the backbone of this story.

That’s my new year’s resolution in a nutshell. Read the story. Learn the story. Share the story. Remember that it’s a story about love.

My Plan for a Red Letter Year

Happy Advent, everyone! Hard to believe it’s here already. It’s the beginning of a new year for the Church, a new cycle through the liturgical seasons, and the perfect time to discern where Jesus is calling me to go this year.

So I’m listening, trying to figure out how to follow him more closely. Lately, it’s become clear to me that there are a lot of voices easier for me to hear than his. I’ve been conforming to the ways of the world instead of being transformed by the renewing of my mind. I need to listen to the Spirit, a still small voice which is often so hard to hear, and not harden my heart to it.

I’m feeling called to do a few simple things intensely this year. I was just reading another wonderful book by Henri Nouwen called Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. The book gives guidelines for building a spiritual life that can move you from loneliness to solitude, from hostility to hospitality, and from illusion to prayer. The basic elements of spiritual life, according to Nouwen, are three:

1. Reading of the Word/Scripture

2. Silent prayer

3. Spiritual guidance/direction

Something clicked when I read Nouwen’s words. I’m being called to focus on all of these things right now, things that may seem basic but which I still struggle to embrace consistently and prayerfully. I want to form small, sustainable good habits this year (15 minutes of prayer, a psalm before bed, a letter written to a spiritual mentor) that can grow and invade my whole life like a mustard tree from a tiny seed, like swelling dough from invisible yeast.

I don’t want these guidelines to be burdensome for me. My New Year’s resolutions often are, often have a subtle tone of Be better this time! No, listening to Jesus in the Word, in silence, in the voices of respected teachers, should help me lay down my burdens and be healed.

Even as I work on basics, the small things, I’m also feeling called to stretch myself. Doing things that scare me is the true test of my faith, and I want to be engaged with the world, like Jesus was. So in addition to my more personal, internal efforts, I’m also going to try this year to engage issues of justice in a peaceful, respectful, caring way that embodies my Christian values.

To guide my thoughts and actions and writings about justice, I plan to use the lovely little book Common Prayer: Pocket Edition. Every month, this book gives a value of the New Monastic movement to focus on, to read about, and practical ways to put faith into action (as the book puts it, “becoming the answer to our prayers”). The value for December is “living in the abandoned places of empire” – a pretty appropriate meditation, I think, as we go deeper into that Empire-led season of consumerism.

Again, my aim in all this shouldn’t be political correctness or alleviated feelings of guilt, but rather a commitment to listen more closely to those red-letter words of the Bible, the teachings of Jesus, and not just to listen, but also to act.

I hope you’ll enjoy the ride this year, and as always, thank you for journeying with me as I seek to fall ever more in love with Jesus.

As we enter the season of Advent, do you have any thoughts about how you want to grow spiritually in the coming year?

Embrace 2013

embrace imperfection

(Photo credit: lonely radio)

A head cold. Working overtime taking calls from cranky customers in a windowless cubicle world. Discouragement, stress, the gray raininess of winter. All these things have smudged the first white page of this new year.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to paint a picture of tragedy. I know full well I am and always will be one of the lucky ones, globally speaking: life full of literacy and opportunity, food and clean water practically jumping down my throat. An embarrassment of riches. But sometimes it’s the inside of me that feels poor, gray, windowless. It’s my reactions to things that get me down, the same petty problems over and over, caught in the wheel of self-made suffering. My friend Joel thinks the little things are harder than the big things sometimes, and I think he’s right.

I’ve always found refuge in words, so of course I’ve been wondering which word to scrawl over this year. And the one that keeps rising to the surface of my mind is: embrace. I need to embrace all of this, gray walks to cubicle world with a cold and all, every moment of my only life. I need to look past the dirt of the glass and glimpse the truth of the matter.

This year, I want to embrace my relationship in a new way. Several years into what is, God willing, a lifelong love, it’s eerily easy to become the one half-listening from behind the laptop screen.  Surrounded by the stresses of our daily lives, it’s easy to forget the joy all the mundane moments build toward. I want us to be the great Love writ small. I want to do her good and not evil all the days of our lives. I want to pour my life out in moments of serving, healing, listening, celebrating.

This year, I want to embrace my church in a new way. Several years into the adventure of living in the same congregation, it’s too easy to take for granted the fact that I have a home. It’s too easy to think I know every person, every tradition, and every song. I want to show up, sing loud, take risks, talk to strangers, ask nosy questions, and savor each moment of the wonderful worshiping community into which I luckily stumbled about this time in 2009.

This year, I want to embrace my friendships in a new way. Several years out of college, it’s too easy to forget how bad I am at keeping touch with faraway friends until I’m writing them a holiday card and suddenly wonder whether we’ve even exchanged emails since I sent the last one. My loved ones are scattered throughout the world like dandelion seeds, and while sometimes this makes me feel wonderfully rich, I don’t want to assume I can always pick up where I left off. That’s part of why I write this blog: to take what I generally keep locked away in my head and my heart and unleash it on the world. I want you to know me, really know what’s important to me, and I want to know you in the same way.

And this year, I want to embrace suffering in a new way. Perhaps that sounds a little morbid to you, like I’m one of those masochistic Christians, like the Catholic Guilt Monster is lurking just around the corner. Not so. It’s just that, as the Buddhists so succinctly put it, life is suffering. Even when it’s not That Day that the earthquake comes or someone you love dies, there’s a lot of painful stuff around us all the time, and we cannot participate in life without choosing either to touch it or to ignore it. Even if we don’t watch the news, there are people around us who are drowning in their pain or trying to drown it out.

Henri Nouwen said, “Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to places where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.” No kidding. I want to embrace others in their suffering, and (what is often harder for me) let them embrace me in mine.

So here’s to embracing it all in 2013, not in a perfunctory or awkward way, but with sensitivity and wholehearted care. Whether sweet or bitter, I want to drink this cup to the very last drop.

What words are calling to you this year? What do you hope to embrace in 2013?

I’ve Already Broken All My Resolutions

night sky

(Photo credit: Dave Young)

First day of a new year and I woke up too late, spent a lot of my day cleaning up literal and figurative messes I can’t blame on anyone but myself, whined to my partner, made a dinner that wasn’t worth the effort, screwed up some other things that aren’t worth going into right now, cried, and now, look, I’ve stayed up too late.

I give up on all those wonderful resolutions I made yesterday (well, technically the day before yesterday now). I’ve already broken all of them. I love making resolutions; I love self-improvement, checking off boxes, feeling accomplished. But it’s all vanity. I know me. I do self-destructive things, stupid, disgusting things. I return to my vices like a dog returning to its own vomit. I neglect all the best things, choose sleep over sunrise, a wooden idol over a living God. The wildly beautiful universe calls my name, and I’m holed up in the windowless room of my ego, throwing a tantrum.

I hereby give up trying to pretend I’m so great and if I just follow the instructions everything will be okay.

But the thing is, that admission makes the weight on my shoulders lift. It’s only when I realize the limitations of my own power that I can look to a higher one. When I admit I hate my dingy ego-room, I can fling the door open and run into the arms of the sea and the stars. When I stop trying to examine my soul for perfection, I can see the beauty all around me.

So here’s to admitting I have no one to be but who I truly am. Nothing to do but glory in the Good. Nowhere to go on my own, but every hope that I can follow my Teacher’s footsteps to freedom.

Bring it on, 2013. If you need me, I’ll be out trying to get his dust on me.