The Lord is With You

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 | Romans 16:25-27 | Luke 1:26-38 | Canticle 15

Advent is all about preparation. “Prepare the way, O Zion,” we’ve sung, and theoretically, that’s what we’ve been doing, preparing the way for Jesus Christ to be fully present. These past three weeks have given us clues. As we lit the first candle with a word of peace and heard the Gospel tell us to “keep awake,” we focused on being present and aware. We lit the second candle in hope that we’d be a part of making a straight pathway through the desert, that the pathway of God’s peace might be realized. We lit the third candle with a word of joy and the vivid image of John the Baptist proclaiming, being that voice in the wilderness for the one who stood among them but was not yet known, the one greater than him who would baptize not with water but the Holy Spirit. And today, we light a candle with the word of love on our lips, and we remember the Annunciation of Mary, to whom the angel Gabriel said, “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.”

http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/104384.html
The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898

If you went home today or sat in your favorite chair reading or watching a movie tonight and Gabriel appeared to you, would your preparations find you in a place ready to engage God’s will? Because Mary was apparently ready, though I do like the poems and paintings that show her hesitance, reticence, youth, and vulnerability. It is not lost on me that after Gabriel has told her not to be afraid and that she’s chosen to bear the Son of the Most High, her most pressing question is about how that’s to be? How can she be pregnant? Forget the logistics of gestating, birthing, and mothering the Son of God: let’s start with the basics. And she’s told that the power of the Holy Spirit will overshadow her, with her consent. Mary shows us who she is in her devotion, in her strength.

I mentioned that there was one more thing I wanted to share from Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness.

“All too often our so-called strength comes from fear, not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open. . . .” (quote from Roshi Joan Halifax at the beginning of Ch. 7, p.147)

I mention this because while we all take for granted Mary’s strength, we often hear her spoken of as meek and mild. Of course she’s that, too. God knows who she is and favors her. Surely she is one who loves God with all her heart, all her soul, and all her mind. She’s awake and aware. She anticipates the Lord’s presence in her life. Her joy is harder for me to see, so tied up in her love and her surrender, that it must be complete in being so implicated in God’s will. That Mary is all of this in her youth speaks to a wisdom beyond her years, a strength of spirit that even Zechariah failed to show when Gabriel appeared to him. She heeds Gabriel’s message not to be afraid, and her love of God remains steadfast. Zechariah, a high priest and elderly man, powerful in many ways, serves as a contrast to this our Mary in Luke’s telling.

Young as she is, dependent upon her family and now her betrothed though between the two households, and about to be pregnant…could she be more vulnerable?

“Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.”

God knew in Mary the strength of her spine, her strong back, not only to withstand the strain of childbirth but to endure the trials of raising a son who would have to go the way of the heavenly Father. He would break her heart in rejecting his earthly family. He would dismiss her when she called him out at the wedding feast, though she did not dismiss him. She would be close always to the news of him, as a mother does, and stand there even at his death. The song “Mary Did You Know” wrenches our hearts because we know that all this will come to pass, but how could she? God knows she’s strong of heart, and she has a strong back.

And she’s soft. Soft enough to swell with a child. Soft in her vulnerability, which means not only that she can be broken but also that she can break into newness of life. She’s not hardened to possibilities or unresponsive to that which is far greater than herself. Naive as it may be, she knows who she is and where she is in this world. She doesn’t have God’s approval like Zechariah and Elizabeth; she has God’s favor.

And the Lord is with her. Already. Before he was conceived. Before he was born.

“How can we give and accept care with strong-back, soft-front compassion, moving past fear into a place of genuine tenderness? I believe it comes about when we can be truly transparent, seeing the world clearly–and letting the world see into us.” (rest of Halifax’s quote on p. 147)

We see the Virgin Mary, in her youth and vulnerability, in her obedience and devotion, in her strength and love beyond her years. The Lord’s favor was with her, indeed, radiating to all through the generations, this most highly favored lady. But before all the generations called her blessed, she had to brave the wilderness of her wild-hearted response, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary’s “yes,” Mary’s consent to participate in the will of God took her further into vulnerability, the wilderness of walking a way alone. Like we said last week, though, when we take a light into the darkness of the wilderness, we tend to find others who have also ventured into a way that was right even if it wasn’t popular, a way that is true even if it’s uncomfortable. Mary makes it to Elizabeth’s house. Mary makes it to the birth with Joseph. The Lord is with her all the while.

We may not get Gabriel visiting us today or ever. Our calls are not as dramatic most of the time as we navigate our jobs and vocations, our lives and loves, but the decisions we make are often life-altering. When we approach a precipice having done the training in mindfulness and presence, with knowledge of our story and stories, and with a strong back and soft front and wild heart . . . what does our decision look like if we not only believe but know that the Lord is with us?

Beloved, the Lord is with you.

How do our decisions make space for the presence of the Lord to grow in our lives? Are we responding out of fear? Are we putting up a shield to defend ourselves from what is uncomfortable, terrifying, or different? Or are we showing our soft front, our wild, open hearts? Can we take that step into the wilderness even if it’s dark and unknown but we feel it to be true?

With this kind of walk in faith, the Light grows, and we make way for the Incarnation.

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Dearly Beloved

Exodus 32:1-14 | Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 | Philippians 4:1-9 | Matthew 22:1-14

Thanks to my carefully created Facebook content/echo chamber, I get friends or ads sharing really great videos and articles. I don’t watch/read all of them, of course, but one caught my eye this week. It’s an interview with Sister Teresa Forcades in the UCOberserver. She’s a Benedictine nun, a physician and feminist theologian from Catalonia, Spain. In the interview, she speaks about her social activism, and there’s an embedded audio where you can listen to her views about deliberate democracy. It’s her story I found compelling. A woman who wasn’t raised in a religious household, found a calling to a religious order. When she told an abbess she wanted to join the order, she was actually laughed at and told to go to Harvard–where she had been accepted–and then to come back if the call persisted, which it did. As a feminist, she doesn’t deny the patriarchy of the Catholic Church. She strongly believes the structure needs to be undone, particularly the clericalism that only allows males, and she has in her mind that it could take another thousand years, saying that just when it seems the Holy Spirit is going to break through, something happens to set the Church back. Also, Sr. Teresa acknowledges that she could be deluding herself in her sense of “calling.” She says,

“My foundational experience — whatever it was that happened to me — this is why I am where I am. It has nothing to do with the church being patriarchal or not. It’s simply about a human being who was touched by God.

“If you were to ask me, ‘Are you sure it was God calling you?’ I would say, ‘Yes, I am existentially sure.’ But my intellect tells me I could be deceiving myself. It might have been a psychological need that just developed into this idea. Sometimes I imagine that when I go to the final judgment and I’m face to face with Jesus, he might say, ‘No, Teresa. It wasn’t me.’ But I will tell him, ‘Okay. Fair enough. You know better, but I thought it was you. And that was enough for me to give my life to this.’ I think he would like this answer.”

I love her honesty. As she’s telling her story, I imagine the voice coming from the image of the face at the top of the article. I think of friends who exude similar auras of kindness. Listening to her voice in the audio clip, in clear English with Spanish accent, I get from her story, her sharing, a glimpse of something true, something honorable. Something just and pure, pleasing and commendable. Something Christ-like which is definitely worthy of excellence and praise.

So what is it about her story that evokes a sense of the presence of Christ, not only in her being but also in her work, that isn’t in the guests of the wedding banquet in our gospel reading today?

In this parable (the climax of the three, in this sections where Jesus’ authority is questioned and where he comes back with stories of judgment), the King/God has invited guests who ignored the invitation. The early prophets–Isaiah, Elijah, Ezekiel, etc.–have been ignored. More slaves/prophets are sent, proclaimers of a new Way (like John the Baptist), but they’re persecuted. And the would-be guests are preoccupied with their earthly toils/farms and worldly occupations/business. This infuriates the one who has everything prepared, even his son. Ultimately, it’s not the A- or even B-list being invited. Everyone is gathered–everyone, the good and the bad–by the last round of servants. There’s no preliminary screening. Yet at the banquet, one man is singled out, and we realize how ludicrous this is. “Hey, you invited me; I didn’t have to come,” we can imagine him saying. But what started as a relatively straightforward parable becomes a scene of final judgment here in Matthew. The one who came to the kingdom without the proper attire, without righteousness and a pure heart, was cast out because he wasn’t one of the chosen, one of the elect.

Lest it sound like we believe in predestination, let me clarify what this language of chosen/elect means for us. Chosen is reciprocal, in a sense: choosing to follow Jesus meant salvation was theirs. Those who accepted Jesus’ message were considered “chosen,” even though it meant they apostatized their Judaic tradition. “Chosen” and “elect” are used here interchangeably, and the note of this last sentence is one of warning against self-righteousness. Matthew is writing to the insiders here after the Great Commission’s already given, after 70 CE, when they are actively waiting for the Final Judgment. As M. Eugene Boring says in his commentary, those who are chosen “depends on manifesting authentic Christian faith in deeds of love and justice” (Boring, New Interpreter’s Bible, 418, emphasis added).

So how does the nun and the good guests differ from the absent or the bad wedding guests? What makes one chosen? I believe it has something to do with manifesting authentic Christian faith in deeds of love and justice. It has something to do with how we respond to the given that we are all chosen.

And that’s what we do when we are called. We live into an authentic Christian faith, the Way of Jesus, the Jesus Movement. Like Sr. Teresa, it may come from a genuine encounter or experience with God. It may come from living deeply into our faith. We use our baptismal covenant as a guide and know it’s not only our faith but also our actions that clothe us in righteousness, the necessary garb for all of us baptized into the priesthood of believers (Ps. 132:9). Right actions are good works, deeds of love and justice, and we each have gifts and talents suited to the work we are given to do. Sr. Teresa realized her gifts, has worked with WHO. Those in positions of leadership are gifted with opportunities to make wise decisions. At home, those with children do our best to raise children in the way of Christ, and we all strive to make conscious decisions about our purchases, about our food, about our care of creation. Maybe we knit/crochet hats for babies, make stuffed animals for traumatized children, pick up stray animals, donate money to Puerto Rico, tend our gardens…we make a choice to be aware so that when the times comes to make a decision that is either right or wrong, we see it clearly. If we’re too tired, we might not have the wherewithal to say no to the third or fourth drink, to go stand with the people of color, or  to stay after our representatives in government to do what is right. This is hard work.

When Paul is writing to his beloved Philippians and telling them to persevere in unity and imitation of himself, he isn’t terribly explicit about what hard and thankless work it is, that it might get you jailed or killed, that it likely won’t win you hundreds of friends or followers. That it might get you fired or ostracized. Sharon Salzberg, a columnist for On Being, wrote recently: “I don’t believe we can survive for long in a state of constant agitation. Our bodies and hearts need rest to replenish stores of energy. This is something best done from a place of love.” She’s absolutely right.

We don’t just do deeds of justice. We do deeds of love and justice. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is adamant in saying that whatever gifts we have, whatever work we do, if we don’t have love, we are a clanging cymbal, we are nothing, we gain nothing (13:1-3). (This happened to be the Epistle reading for Morning Prayer Saturday.) In his interview with and the writing of Krista Tippett, the legal and racial scholar john powell shares that we don’t consider enough our connectedness, the importance of belonging, and he says “we don’t have confidence in love” (Becoming Wise, 121). We think love is wimpy or emotional while anger and hate and rage are more powerful, better able to fuel movements of change to get things done our way. Impatience and fear motivated the anger of the Israelites, leading them to make their own idols while Moses conversed with the Almighty. Instantly the people became Moses’ people. “Go down to your people,” the LORD said, for the people had become corrupt and were no longer the LORD’s. Moses reminds the LORD of His promise, the greatest expression of love and relationship, and God reclaims His people, once again showing infinite grace, tremendous love. God showed us how to transform anger to love.

It is love for one another that can fuel righteous anger, a powerful agent for change. “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention,” I’ve seen on bumper stickers. Why are we angry? Is it because we’re afraid or because we’re in beloved community, and injustice abounds? Jesus overthrew the tables in the temple because people were being taken advantage of. Jesus chastised his disciple who violently struck a guard. Our tradition teaches us that we are accountable for our life and love and that violence is not the answer.

You don’t have to be a modern-day Freedom Rider or a nun to be loving and just. If someone were interviewing us, though, would they hear our story and recognize one who is beloved of God? Would they see in us what is true, what is honorable? What is just and pure? What is commendable? Would they see in our life not only faith but also good work, surrounded by God’s grace?

The good Christians, the good people who embody Christ, aren’t always going around with the fanciest cars or clothes, the biggest churches with the largest Sunday attendance, or even collars or monastic habits. The good guests of the kingdom are those who are known by their love, the wedding robe we all wear in our lives when we manifest our authentic Christian faith in deeds of love and justice, surrounded by the grace of God.

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Beyond Balance, To Thrive

daisies_base_79679_l.jpgI’ve mentioned before the topic of balance, the importance of prioritizing aspects of our time and delegating it appropriately.  This is necessary.  What has been brought to my attention since then is the notion of thriving, going beyond being balanced, finding what it is our soul yearns for and going full speed ahead to make sure we attain what it is we most desire.

Be very aware, for this shouldn’t be taken lightly.  In fact, my husband’s life coach was guiding him (and indirectly me, too) through the process.  You have to find out what it is you truly need, what your values are, what your true interests are and which of those are what you feel your soul’s calling is. 

If each of us have a purpose, I like to think that discovering what it is we want to thrive for will give us a pretty good sign of what that purpose is.  Maybe it’s teaching art classes to children in your community, helping at a local clinic, tutoring, writing novels, opening that cafe, having a gathering center or intentional community, starting a business with your unique ideas.  We all have gifts.  The universe has room for and welcomes what we have to offer. 

Our time is precious.  Get your plan in action for how you can do what it is you dream of.  You have to take care of necessities, but when it comes time to take that leap of faith, if it’s meant to be, the universe will help carry you through.  It’s not as easy as simply finding balance (and who said that was easy?).  But I’m sure the reward for the soul is manifest in more ways than one.

May we all find a way to thrive truly and thus bring fulfillment to our souls and richness to the universe.  Think about the wonderful example it sets for our children, too, as they grow up knowing that dreams aren’t always hokey, that even Mom trusted enough to follow at least one of her dreams.  Maybe the rest will have to wait until the kids are in college . . . or have kids of their own.  Be realistic.  Give yourself time.  Allow your soul to thrive.

* * *

I wrote this meditation last year.  A year ago, let’s just say we were putting all our eggs in a basket for a business that didn’t take off like it was supposed to according to our plans.  How often do you hear success stories from Plan A or even Plan C?  Who knows what plan we’re on now, but I feel great about where I am now for several reasons.  Perhaps this will help you, too.

I know, I’ve mentioned it before, and I know it seems hokey . . . if you’re not ready for it.  Apparently I was ready for it.  The realizations that I had a year ago (above meditation in mind) are reiterated in the book.  It’s just that in reading the book, a new level of clarity was attained for me, which is just fabulous.  But I can’t be attached to that.  : )  Others are having similar experiences.  Read on.

  • Purpose

The above book focuses on inner and outer purpose, your life’s purpose.  Everyone’s inner purpose is to connect to the Divine, in whatever lingo you prefer, with your ego diminished and out of the picture.  Great.  Now, with the ego gone, you’re more receptive to the Greater Calling.  Consider your gifts and passions.  How do they mix?  This will lead you to your outer purpose if you’re still enough to listen to that still small voice that speaks to your heart.  I’ve been wondering about how my spirituality, connection to women, writing, mothering all work together.  Well, here I am, writing almost daily on this blog I love, loving my children without owning them, and developing a role in the birth activist realm.  I’ve published my first article to DivineCaroline.  Read it here.

  • Thriving

God only knows the potential of the Universe.  If your ego is out of the way, you are tapped into that energy.  On days like yesterday and mornings like today where the wind is blowing and the sun is shining (at least most of the time), I feel like the energy overflows without and within my being.  I feel like I am that conduit of Divine Love and Potential.  I can’t do enough to share this with others.

  • Work

To my husband and to many others, all I do looks like a lot of work.  Looking at my lists, it looks like a lot to me, too!  But I LOVE all I am doing.  I feel like this is good stuff.  I tend to feel guilty, like I’m having too much fun, meeting too many wonderful people, receiving too many blessings.  BLAH!  This is GREAT!  No ego here.  I’m just tapping into the wonder that is Life.  Don’t worry.  I have bad days, too, when I don’t feel the connections so strongly.  But today, right now, is where I am, and now is good!  Echart Tolle mentions that the outer work might look like stress, but when you’re passionate, “in the zone,” (you know what I’m talking about), the vigor of your work is perfectly healthy.  With awareness, you know when your time comes to rest, and if you miss the clues, you wind up sick.  We’ve all been there.

hand_blue_light_796135_l.jpgThank you for sharing this journey with me.  I cannot wait to see what is to come.  While I cannot carry you or show you your purpose, I can inspire you to connect with the Divine.  I can carry the Light, a reflection of the Light that is within you if the real you chooses to see.

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Finding Our Calling (in case you want more)

How many comic strips have been done about the many roles a mother performs?  “Mother” at once also implies nurse, baby-sitter, chef, server, chauffer, social planner, chief home officer and sometimes even parole officer — to name a few.  If compensated for our time and duties, our pay would exceed $100k in our current era.  So why do so many of us want more?

It could be societal recognition.  We want a title, aside from mother, that is recognized and monetarily compensated.  That would be nice.  Yet I know for me it is something more.  I love being a mother and feel it is a worthy calling in and of itself.  I will always be a mother.  Yet I feel I have another role to fill in this life; I have something else to offer for the universal good.  I know that being a mother is part of my role and will enhance whatever it is that I do.  I’m sure few mothers can say that motherhood has left them unchanged as a person (major understatement, I know!).

So even after having four children, I wonder which path I am to follow.  I would like to go to my spiritual director and ask, “What am I to do?”  Actually, I already did.  She’s told me I’m doing the right things as I begin my process of discernment.  That’s at once frustrating and encouraging.  It’s frustrating because like everyone else, I would rather know sooner than later what my life holds.  It’s encouraging, though, because at least I know I’m on the right path.

What is it that I’m doing right?

  • I write (almost) daily in my morning journal.  In it I vent, ask for guidance, express my thoughts and sometimes experience little awakenings. 
  • I give myself space to listen and to talk safely and openly.  In this space, I hope to hear my heart reveal my calling. 
  • I also have the luxury of a companion whom I have journeyed with for several years along our creative paths.  Personal check-ins reveal how you’re treating yourself, what your dreams are telling you and where you are right now.

Basically, as I seek to find what role I will fill in addition to motherhood, I give myself space and time, which we know is a gift itself.  The answers will come quietly in their own time.  May I listen well and love deeply in the meantime.

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