When You’re Trying to Measure Up

When You’re Trying to Measure Up

I was at the gym yesterday (a minor accomplishment in itself), and I took a pure barre class. I think of it as “Ballet for Dummies and Non-Dancers.”

We didn’t have a barre on the wall; instead, we used folding chairs, balls, and elastic straps for balance and resistance. I hadn’t been there for awhile, and it showed.

The full-length mirrors made it possible for me to check my alignment (or lack thereof) during each exercise and, like three-way mirrors in department store dressing rooms, they dispelled any illusions I had about my physique. Further, the rubber bands we used proved that my arms are not as strong as I thought they were.

In short – I’ll just say there is work to be done. And I am loathe to do it.

But I made it through the class, vowed I would be back, and trekked off to the locker room to shower and get on with my day.

That’s when I heard her crying – a woman in the aisle of lockers adjacent to mine. She was on the phone, upset, and angry.

“I’m at the gym, God damn it!!” she said. “I’m trying!!”

I’m not sure what the conversation was really about. Whether it had to do with fitness or myriad other things. But I could tell her spirit was depleted. For whatever it was that was bothering her, she needed reassurance. She needed help in letting go of expectations – her own or someone else’s. She needed to know unconditional love.

This world would have us believe that we are measured by our output. That we have to perform every day. That these things determine our value. But that’s not the Truth.

We are loved beyond measure, simply because we ARE, by One who calls us “lilies among thorns.”

Today, as I tend to my sore spots, I will rest in that.

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Holy Moments – Day 31 – New Year, Painful Start?

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So we’re two days in to 2016 and maybe you’re feeling like the words, “Happy New Year” are more of a threat than a good wish.

Maybe your heart is heavy because all you can see from where you sit is that this year is already bringing in challenges, or heartaches, that you just don’t want to face. You’re not that excited about a new start, because you’re in the middle of something you never wanted to experience, and January just doesn’t feel ‘fresh.’

Some time ago, I wrote “How to Sleep Well,” about my first experience of surrender. And in that holy moment, when I was utterly exhausted and thought I couldn’t go on any more, I was given a new perspective. A clearer mind.

The problems weren’t solved. The struggle didn’t end right away. I wasn’t healed in an instant. But by dropping to my knees and asking for help in trusting whatever it was that controlled the universe, I found that the churning inside stopped. Not permanently – oh I would still take back my desire to control a thousand times over after that – but for a moment, I let go.

If you are holding on tightly, clenching your fists in anticipation of the thing you fear, today might be the day for you to open your hands and ask Love to come in, and give you peace.

This surrender will not guarantee that the road will be smooth, but you’ll gain the same assurance that I did – that indeed, I am not alone. And never was. And the same power that brought me relief that first time I asked for it, is available to me every single day of this new year.

I heard this song today. It’s one of my favorites from last year, and it’s what prompted me to write. Just close your eyes and listen. And may you be graced beyond measure in 2016.

“Tell Your Heart to Beat Again” by Danny Gokey

 

 

 

Holy Moments – Day 26 – Come Clean

I love my dishwasher. No really. I LOVE my dishwasher. You can have all of my other appliances. I’ll even go to the laundry mat. I’m keeping this one. Forever.

We’d had so much trouble with the last dishwasher that I took a very long time picking this one out. I did tons of research and finally settled on – a Bosch. Not the fanciest model, but a basic Bosch – which still costs more than most other dishwashers, so I wanted to be very sure of this purchase when we made it 7 years ago. So sure that I carted my dishes into Sears and loaded them into the floor model to make sure they would fit the way I wanted them to. You should have seen the sales guy’s face.

Anyway – imagine my dismay today when last night’s gravy had become a gelatinous adhesive on the pots & pans, and the racks were decorated with spinach-leaf polka dots. Huh? This never happens. My machine does NOT let me down. Never in seven years had I seen such…such…ick when I expected sparkles!

I investigated. The culprit? A wooden chopstick jammed at just the right angle to block the lower wash arm. A little hold-up, and the mess remained.

Dishwasher

This got me thinking about what it takes for me to feel clean. To truly feel washed clean before God.

I know that I am a child of God, and that when I turned my heart toward Christ, the power of His love and mercy washed me clean of all my impurities and I stood before Him as if I had never done anything wrong. With my life, I want to show Him that I love Him. I want to thank Him for creating me, sustaining me, and saving me. But I still sin. And though I know He always loves me, in order to stay close to Him, in order to see His will for me most clearly, I have to clear away the debris that clouds my vision of Him – and that’s the stuff that I allow to get in the way of my relationship with Him. It’s my arrogance, my selfishness, my pride, my ego, my gluttony, etc. My sin. My sin might look slightly different from someone else’s, but it’s all dirty. And there’s no way to live a life of holiness when you’re sitting in muck.

So – what to do about that?

I was raised in mostly non-denominational Protestant churches. I’d heard about Confession. One of those things Catholics did. It sounded scary. And weird. Sit in a tiny dark box and talk to a priest about all the bad things you’d done? Hmm.

But then after a long spiritual journey, God led me to RCIA – the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults from 2006-2007. It’s the process by which adults join the Catholic Church. In the course, I learned the Church’s views on Confession, also known as Reconciliation. And I came to believe that there could be grace bestowed in this sacrament. And so, near the end of the course, on a Wednesday night, I made my first confession.

I wish I could say it was easy – that I was cool as a cucumber. Nope. I was 35, I wanted to be as thorough as possible, and had made a very long list. So by the time I walked out of the confessional (which was actually quite spacious and bright), my mascara was smeared all over my face and my hair was a total wreck. I vaguely resembled a raccoon riding a motorcycle.

I was totally, utterly exhausted. I drove home and went right to bed.

The next morning I woke up and realized that something had fundamentally changed. An enormous burden had been lifted. I literally felt lighter. And miraculously – somehow – healed. 

What I didn’t know about Reconciliation – or rather, what I’d been told, but didn’t believe – had actually happened. It was mind-blowing. Powerful. For the first time ever, I felt CLEAN. 

The chopstick of doubt (so to speak) had been removed, and not only did I feel clean, I felt closer to God than ever before.

God will forgive me when I tell Him my sins – whether in this sacrament or on my own. But it is altogether different to vocalize my sins to a priest who helps me determine my culpability, and gives me guidance and hope. The sacrament also confers grace which strengthens me to resist the temptations that have mired me and led me away from the Lord. Most importantly, I know that yet again I have drawn close to the heart of God, and that this is what He wants most.

I can’t say that every Reconciliation experience is a powerful as that first one. But each one has enough amazing grace to keep me coming back.

Holy Moments – Day 18 – Brooding

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This fall has been so filled with to-do lists that I feel like I’m living in a perpetual corn maze. There is no satisfaction in checking items off the list, because once an item is completed, another one is added. And the stuff on the list feels dead to me. Life-less and soul-sucking.

Don’t get me wrong. There have been many happy moments, like watching my daughter revel in the fellowship of her friends at her 10th birthday party. Like receiving more frequent hugs from my ‘tween’ son, who has seemed especially intuitive and sensitive lately. And like listening to my  kindergartener read his first words. “Mommy – It says, ‘I can go.’  See? ‘I can go!'”  Yes, indeed. Look at them go.

But so much of my time is wrapped up in doing for them that I often end up feeling depleted. I know that what helps more than anything else is to sit still and talk to the Lord. But sometimes, even then, I find myself offering up a litany of requests instead of praises. Praise and gratitude are the keys to re-turning my heart in the direction of all that’s Good and Pure and Loving…all that’s coming from Him Who is greater than everything in the world, and in me.

Yet, this is very hard when I just feel downtrodden, and put upon. Like I’m being pecked to death. If I’m not careful this kind of mood can really get away from me and I can become a fairly unlikeable wife and mother. Not that you’d know it, if you don’t live with me. But I have suffered bouts of depression and carried others down with me. It’s a brutal state, and a slippery slope. And it’s dangerous because it can be hidden. And for me, it starts with too many days passing like this.

Mind you, like most people, I can get myself dressed, fix my hair and makeup, and put on happy mask. I can smile at you in the supermarket so you’ll end up thinking, “She’s got it together today.”

But He who sees it all knows what’s really going on.

I cried out to him for the second time this morning, well after my regular prayers, and after I’d spent a couple hours at the computer and around the house, slogging through tasks as if a heavy bucket of woes was hanging from my neck.

I asked him to use my Bible. To please, speak to me.

I dropped it open and read where it fell, frantic for a message. As my heart raced and I scanned the page, I read over a section in Sirach Chapter 31 that just didn’t seem to apply at all. Growing frustrated, I heard that whisper. “Look again.”

Just one column over, in Chapter 30, under “Health of Soul and Body,” the Word came alive for me:

Do not give in to sadness, torment not yourself with brooding;

Gladness of heart is the very life of man, cheerfulness prolongs his days. 

Distract yourself, renew your courage, drive resentment far away from you;

For worry has brought death to many, nor is there aught to be gained from resentment.

Envy and anger shorten one’s life, worry bring’s on premature old age.

– Sirach 30:21-24

I realized, I was given this Sacred Scripture as my prayer for today. Perhaps you need to pray these words too.

Heavenly Father,

You are all powerful. You are All Mighty. There is literally nothing You cannot do.

You breathe Life into the dead and heal the afflicted.

Please save me from sadness and brooding.

Renew my heart with gladness and joy.

Strengthen me with Your Resurrection Power.

Drive my worries far away.

I trust in You.

I believe in You.

You are sovereign over everything – seen and unseen.

You are Lord. 

 

Holy Moments – Day 17 – Findings

Why do we keep stuff? Have you ever been unsure about why you’ve kept an item from your early life, and yet, the idea of parting with it has always seemed wrong?

I have this book….

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I think it was my parents’. Copyright 1972. According to Amazon, there are two million copies in print, but I think mine is a first edition. There are no other printings listed on the inside cover.

This morning, I read it again for the first time in decades. It was in a dilapidated box we keep in our storage room labeled “Gretchen – Childhood,” as if the sum total of those formative years can be held within crumbling walls of cardboard.

The things we choose to save reveal something about us. Or about where we were at a moment in time.

I was totally captivated by this book as a child, even though I knew I truly did not understand it.

I remember reading it at age 7 or 8 – thinking it was a pleasant story about how two caterpillars become butterflies.

At age 11 or 12, I was perplexed. See, in the beginning, two caterpillars, Stripe and Yellow, are in love. But after awhile, they stop gazing only at one another and spend some time in a pile of caterpillars climbing over one another to reach something high in the sky. Sometimes caterpillars fall to the ground, and once, a caterpillar who briefly survives the fall whispers a mysterious message about “the top.” This feeds Stripe’s compulsion to climb. So he heads back into the pile, leaving Yellow behind.

By age 16, this book disturbed me. I distinctly remember trying to read it and then putting it aside. Partially because Yellow seemed insecure and too timid. I didn’t like her.

[S]he just couldn’t believe that the top was worth it all asks to get there…. 

She also felt stupid and embarrassed since she could never put her reasons into words that his kind of logic would accept. 

Yet somehow, waiting and not being sure was better than action she couldn’t believe in. 

At the same time, in the pile, on dark gray and green pages, Stripe is “determined to get to the top. He especially avoided meeting the eyes of other crawlers. He knew how fatal such contact could be….He disciplined himself neither to feel nor to be distracted.”  I didn’t like this guy either. He seemed insensitive. Eventually, he realizes his pile is just one of many and asks, “Something is really wrong but…what else is there?”

I was left confused. What did this all mean? Yellow was floundering and yet the pile was such a dark and dreary place.

Truth be told, I mostly avoided the book in my college years. My earlier experiences had made it subtly threatening. And then there were passages like this one, when Yellow meets another caterpillar who has opted to build a cocoon rather than climb. She has this troubling conversation with him:

How does one become a butterfly?” she asked pensively. 

 “You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.”

“You mean to die?” asked Yellow, remembering the three who fell out of the sky.

“Yes and No,” he answered. “What looks like you will die but what’s really you will still live. Life is changed, not taken away. Isn’t that different from those who die without ever becoming butterflies?”

In my late twenties, when I was newly married and my life happily consisted only of my husband and my work, I could see that Yellow’s decision to become a butterfly was a courageous leap into the unknown. But I was reaching…for something. That’s probably why, when Yellow (as a butterfly) meets Stripe at the top of pile, my heart was not moved like Stripe’s.

Looking into the creature’s eyes he could hardly bear the love he saw there. He felt unworthy. He wanted to change, to make up for all the times he had refused to look at the other. 

He tried to tell her what he felt. 

He stopped struggling. 

The others stared at him as though he were mad.

It can be read as a sweet exchange between lovers. And I think that’s what I thought. But I also had enough maturity to see this book as a metaphor for many of life’s experiences. Good enough, right? I was settled in that knowledge. I figured there was no need for me to think any more about it.

However, deep inside, I kept this book knowing it was not for sentimental reasons. The story had taken me on an emotional ride for my entire life. Nevertheless, it went (in its box) into storage.

That was about fifteen years ago, when I was blind to this story’s application to my life. But as the years passed, both of Stripe’s and Yellow’s feelings described me.

Feelings of unworthiness? Check.

Desire to change? Check.

Shame that holds you back from the tender gaze of Love? Check.

Inability to describe the inner struggle? Check.

In my thirties, I did what Stripe ultimately does. I ignored the voices who told me I was ‘mad’ – some of them internal, some of them not – and climbed down from the pile to build a cocoon. And in the space of submission and quiet, I allowed myself to be led on a process of growth that included letting go of my preconceived notions about success, a confession of all the ways I had done wrong in my life, and a surrender to Perfect Love. Real Love. The Grace from above, freely given. Sacrificial. To the point of death. On a cross.

And somehow, in becoming less, I became more of who I really am. The person I was always meant to be.

So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.

– 2 Corinthians 5:17

Hope for the Flowers has a new home: on my shelves of old treasures.

Holy Moments – Day 16 – Les Jacobins

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My daughter asked me last night why we have to sleep. (This kid would absolutely forgo it, if she could.)

I told her that I didn’t have a detailed answer for her, but that scientists tell us we need to relax our brains – to give them a rest from everything they’ve been processing all day long. If we didn’t get a break every night, our minds wouldn’t function well. They would just be overloaded with too much information that would become a tangled mess as we tried to sort it all out.  Our minds need time to throw out garbage and put important items into long-term storage.

Whether this made sense to her or not, I don’t know. But this morning, in my studies and on FaceBook, one name kept popping up: Thomas Aquinas. And once again, I was taken back to that pivotal year in my development: 1992-1993, my junior year of college when I studied abroad in Toulouse, France. I often think that if I had been forced to process everything I was exposed to in that year, in the time I was experiencing it, my brain just might have exploded. The lessons I was taught – academically, interpersonally, and spiritually – have lasted to this day, and more is being revealed to me as the decades pass. I have needed time, rest, and maturity to take it all in. If there is one year of education I haven’t thanked my parents for enough – this would be the one.

So, for the duration of this 31-day series, don’t be surprised if I’m revisiting France a few more times. I’m not trying to relive my past. The Lord just keeps bringing it back, because there were holy moments there. And I was aware of them the time, but I didn’t have words to speak about them. And He was taking me on a journey…

Now – me and Thomas Aquinas.

It was September 1992 and my fellow students from the Dickinson College study abroad program were with an art historian preparing to enter a church near the town center of Toulouse, Les Jacobins. It dates from 1350, and from the outside, it looks like this:

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The floor plan is unusual, and that’s the first thing you notice when you get inside. In 2011, there was some extensive work done on the church to secure its foundation, so I’m not sure where you enter now, but when I was there, you came in at the door above the letter ‘C’ on the floor plan pictured here.

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At the far end of the nave is the Jacobins’ famous column, admired for its architectural originality. Ten palms cascade out from its center. Here you can see the church’s narrow space and some of the green and red detail of the palms in the column.

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In this quiet hall, under the altar, lies the tomb of Saint Thomas Aquinas – one of the ‘doctors’ of the Catholic Church, an exemplary thinker and saint whom many, if not most, consider the preeminent theologian of the Catholic faith.

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I was nineteen when I entered this room in September 1992.

I was captivated by its beauty.

And intrigued by its complicated ceiling.

And it’s here that I realized I was ignorant.

Truly, ignorant.

When I arrived in France, I knew next to nothing about Catholicism or the growth of the Church in Europe.

Our art historian teacher was passionate about this building. She talked about the stones, the stained glass, the Dominican Order, the history of the attached cloister, and its enclosed garden. We would come to spend a great deal of time with this lady, and though she never professed faith of any kind, I came in time to understand that what she was describing in each church we visited was an unfolding story of a people giving glory to God.

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I visited many, many churches in Europe that year.

Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur in Paris.

Chartres Cathedral.

Midnight Mass in the Cathedral at Strasbourg.

St. Peter’s in Rome.

The Duomo in Florence.

Westminster Abbey.

Each one of these masterpiece cathedrals is worthy of a long visit and is a cherished artifact of history.

But Les Jacobins is the church that has stayed with me. I think of it more than any other.

Why?

Perhaps because it was where I realized there was so much I didn’t know. And in the silence of the rooms, which I came back to on my own throughout my time in Toulouse, I realized that not knowing was acceptable.

At a time in my life when I was anxious to figure it all out, to have the answers to life’s biggest questions – Who am I to love? Who loves me? What should I be doing for a career? Where will I go? How will I make it? What will become of me? – At this soul-searching time, my soul found respite here.

It was here that I could sit still. That I could listen to a concert. That I could just stare. At a ceiling. At the arches. And enjoy it.

By calling me back to revisit Les Jacobins time and again, God was opening His arms and saying, “Come. Rest in me.”

Holy Moments – Day 13 – Mac Cam

I lived in Manhattan from 1994 to 1996 – the two years just after college graduation. It was a paycheck to paycheck existence, and I was fairly creative with ramen noodles. But that’s not the point of this post.

One day, I was crossing Fifth Avenue at the foot of Central Park, near the Plaza Hotel, when I noticed a high fashion model doing a photo shoot on the island at the middle of the street. It was late summer, and she was dressed in a brown wool coat and coordinating hat, tights, and stiletto boots. Every glossy hair was in place, she stood in a way no average person ever would, and she held her chin up, as if she disdained the city while also trying to blend into it. Nothing about her ‘look’ said, “I’m comfortable.”

I have no idea, of course, but I’m guessing she was feeling a bit self-conscious. She had made herself the target of the camera’s eye, and she was doing everything she had been told was necessary to be worthy of its attention.

I thought about her when I came across these photos the other night.

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Taken more than 7 years ago with the tiny camera staring down at me from the top of our now-ancient Mac, they are “I can’t-believe we still have these” photos. Compared to most of our others, they are terrible. The lighting is awful, there is no composition to speak of, they are grainy, and the quality is poor. And those special effects the kids love? EEk. But, they also capture the essence of something the more “perfect” photos do not.

Me and my two oldest kids when they were really little.

This is us.

Unfiltered. Uncombed. Untidy. Silly. Happy.

But as I look at these pictures, I also know there is only one person who was feeling like that fashion model. Only one who was self-conscious because she was self-critical. Me.

How often, as I approach God in prayer, trying to understand how He could love me unconditionally as His child, do I only see myself with a reductive gaze? I pick myself apart. I hold back on talking to Him about certain things. I convince myself I have some kind of power in this way.

But God is like the camera. He sees what’s there. All of it. And He wants me to come to Him like children do.

“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 18:1-4

Children are naturally trusting, tender-hearted, curious, humble, and free of skepticism and cynicism. Look at how my kids threw themselves at the camera with abandon. There’s not a trace of self-hatred in them.

“That’s all well and good,” I might say, “but they haven’t suffered…haven’t had to make the hard choices that I have… yet.”

Is this a reasonable response?

The following verse adds:

“And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.” – Matthew 18:5

Can I look at myself – in a mirror, or in a camera – and see His image? Can I receive Him, in me?

The criticism we heap on ourselves can only be useful if we hold it up to the Light of the Lord’s love. If we allow Him to enter into the places we try to hide from Him, He will grant us the wisdom see what we can change with His help, and what is beautiful just as it is.

It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus.  – Philippians 3:12