God the “Father” – When Language Falls Short

God the “Father” – When Language Falls Short

Photo by Dylan Sosso on Unsplash

I call God my “Father.” But the word falls short in many ways.

Let me preface this by saying I have a gentle earthly father. One who spoke to me in childhood with kindness and patience, and talks to me now with respect and care. I always knew his intentions were good. I understood that he loved me, even when he disciplined me.

But many people don’t share this experience. The word “father” is a powerful trigger for deeply complex, old and painful wounds. It becomes very difficult to think of God in heaven as the Best Dad Ever when you perpetually wonder why you were paired with one here who left you aching.

I’d been ruminating on this subject for a few days when a long-forgotten memory sprang up while I was sitting in a streak of warm sunlight at my kitchen table, early one spring morning.

I’m four years old and it’s Christmastime 1976 in New London, CT. My parents are shepherding a Bible study group for cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, where my father is an alum and is now working in the Admissions Office. This evening, some cadets are caroling at a retirement home, and my parents decide to take me along. I am the only child in the group.

I’m hiding from the tall, loud adults in my handwoven gray and ivory Icelandic sweater – each strand of it thick and soft – and distracting myself from the strange surroundings by playing with the round pewter buttons on my belly and twisting the thin belt between my fingers.

We walk through long corridors, passing room after room, singing “Jingle Bells” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Through most of the doorways, I see only feet. Feet covered with blankets. On beds. In wheelchairs.

I stay by my mom’s side, listening to her lilting soprano and the swish-swish of her arms against her yellow parka.

We finally come to a community hall, where people sit in high-back chairs and more wheelchairs along the perimeter of a ring.

There is a small collective sigh.

My mother begins stroking my blond hair and saying my name, my age, and things about me.

A woman in the middle of the circle, hunched over in her wheelchair, fixes her deeply wrinkled face on me and smiles like a cherubim. With great effort, she raises her left hand and holds it, trembling, mid-air.

My mother runs her hand down my back and inches me forward until I take the last few steps to this woman on my own.

She sits above me on metal wheels, but I look into her peaceful eyes and feel the radiance of my rosy cheeks, the warmth of my tiny body in my woolen sweater, and without thinking, hold out my small hands to hers.

We clasp our hands together on the armrest and I notice how hers are bluish and ropy with veins, but soft, tender, and pulsing with life.

Looking up again, I see that we share this: life. And a desire to love.

I don’t know her, but I like being with her.

Her presence takes away my fear.

She sees beauty in me. And I see it in her.

That was more than 40 years ago.

I’m back in my kitchen now, remembering that we are all made in God’s image. We bear an imprint of Him.

In that moment, I saw peace, goodness, stability, kindness, hope, trust, and love.

I wonder how many days passed before that gentle lady went to meet her Maker, and how many other people saw God in her eyes?

When we recognize that God is present in all situations, we begin to understand His character and heart.

We begin to see that every life experience carries a whisper of His grace.

I call God my “Father” in the language of my faith tradition, and I always understood Him to be the origin of everything and the transcendent authority. I prayed to the Father alone before I ever became comfortable with His son Jesus Christ – whom I viewed as a divisive figure bent on punishing me forever. By asking God the Father to help me trust Him and by spending time in Scripture, my understanding of Jesus changed, and now He is my dearest friend whom I often visualize sitting with me when I pray. I’m comfortable when I read the words, “[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” (Colossians 1:15)

But God’s qualities transcend the bodily distinction between the sexes. And God is continually drawing us to Himself.

God is neither masculine nor feminine, but both and all, and the more that I understand God as Creator, Friend, and Lover of my soul, the more I yearn to remember how this One Source of Life and Love met me in my past and beckoned me to Himself.

Do you want to remember, too?

I stretch out my hands to you;
I thirst for you like a parched land.

Teach me to do your will,
For you are my God.
-Psalm 143: 6,10

What’s Your Focus Word for 2019?

What’s Your Focus Word for 2019?

Do you have a focus word for 2019?

Focus words are intended to help us reframe our goals. We want to make the new year count, right? We want it to matter. So we find words that we hope will help us to do that.

Our chosen “word of the year” could take us in any direction. Consider the following suggestions I found on thegoalchaser.com: belong, calm, cultivate, declutter, embody, gratitude, habit, immerse, laughter, learn.

The possibilities are endless.

In years past my words have been ‘listen’ and ‘believe,’ though I admit, I stopped paying attention to my focus word sometime around the middle of February. This year, I hope it will be different.

Sunday, my word emerged in conversation.

I was in the cereal aisle of a grocery store trying to pick out a flavor of Special K without disturbing the woman who was standing in front of the shelves. She was lost in thought, her cart motionless before her.

“Oh, gosh. I’m so sorry! I’m in your way!” she said when she noticed me.

“No! No, it’s fine. I don’t really know what I want anyway. I’ve got my list here, but my mind’s wandered far off it now.” I smiled and looked into her deep brown eyes.

She nodded, frowned slightly, and gazed down at her purse on the cart’s little seat. “I haven’t even pulled my list out,” she said, “I don’t know what I’m doing either.”

There are times when strangers become intimates for no apparent reason. It happened just then. She looked into the middle distance between us and said,

“My husband wanted me to leave the house so he could watch the Ravens game.”

Then her eyes met mine.

“You know?”

I pursed my lips and said with care and an effort toward steadiness,

“We all carry burdens. Especially women. It’s like we haul around a bundle of concerns behind us all the time.”

I immediately wished I hadn’t added that last part – about women. Because men have worries too. All of us have ‘junk’ that affects us in ways we wish it wouldn’t.

I had no idea (of course) what had transpired between her and her husband. Perhaps he had spoken very harshly to her. Or perhaps he had suggested she do something for herself and she misinterpreted his meaning. Regardless, her face conveyed hurt and a need for compassion. She jumped on what I’d said, and that was alright, because whatever had happened, my words had met her heart right where it was.

“Yes!” she smiled with relief. “We should have tea sometime and talk about it!”

I nodded and smiled again, trying to wordlessly reassure this stranger that it was fine to have confided in me – a fellow traveler on the road of life.

“Go easy now,” I added, “Go gently today. Try to enjoy your afternoon. Ok?”

“Thank you! Thank you! I will.”

And she pulled away, breathing in and out a little more deeply as she left.

Did you catch my word of the year?

It was whispered to me as I prayed a couple weeks ago.

The word is – Gently.

I was preaching to her because I was preaching to myself.

For 2019, I need to be more gentle with myself.

Let me ask you…

Do you ever get the feeling…

That you are misaligned and have lost touch with your essential self?

That you are pushed by an uncaring force that wants you to be someone you are not?

Do you speak harshly to yourself? In ways that you would NEVER speak to someone else?

Does your inner voice echo the American mantra: You MUST Do More. Try Harder. Aim Higher.?

Sometimes – oftentimes – this is me.

I believe I’m being called to consider an alternative path. A way that’s far better for me. The way I was created to walk.

Over the last few months I have been blessed with the realization that living wholeheartedly and authentically means – for me – surrendering to gentleness.

When I step back and view myself with love and tenderness, I can see that I am not much of a striver. I don’t do well when I push. I’m not wired for it. The best answers come to me in their own time. When I try to force decisions, or relationships, or creative pursuits, there are poor results. Frustrations. Migraine headaches.

And this is MORE than FINE.

So in 2019, I will try to ignore the world’s message to BE MORE. To jump into the endlessly flowing river of BUSYNESS and HUSTLE.

And instead – I will walk GENTLY through my days.

I will be more patient and kind with myself, and more peaceful with others. I hope and pray that I can learn all the beautiful facets of ‘my’ word this year.

How about you? Are you gentle with yourself? If not, feel free to adopt this word.

And if you already have another focus word, please share it with me. I would LOVE to know what it is.

“All the Days of My Life” – a guest post by my husband, Chris

“All the Days of My Life” – a guest post by my husband, Chris

Today – May 23, 2018 – my husband Chris and I celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. About a month ago, I asked my beloved if he’d like to write something about marriage for my blog to mark this occasion, and I was delighted when he said yes. The final product is a gift that exceeded all of my hopes and expectations, and I am both humbled and overjoyed to be sharing it with you.

 

All the days of my life

In our first week of dating, attending an inaugural ball for President Clinton’s second inauguration. January 1997.

The first 7,304

It never occurred to me that marrying Gretchen was a choice.  Truly, it was no more a decision than it was whether to draw another breath.  I suppose I could have put it off, but then I’d eventually pass out and start again.  Breathing that is.  But you get the point.

We were engaged ten months after our first date and wed six months later. It didn’t seem fast because marrying her was the most natural thing I have ever done.  I had also been brought up to believe that’s how it should be. Blessed to be born into a family overrun with happy marriages, my mother used say that “you just know it when you know it.”  It was a uniquely unsatisfying, irretrievably irrational and absolutely accurate piece of wisdom, and I never doubted.

I gave little real thought to how “just knowing it” would feel.  But when I fell in love with Gretchen, I remember having a sense of peace that I hadn’t known before.  It was the kind of serenity that comes when you flow effortlessly in the stream of life.  I recall thinking calmly to myself,

“So this is her. The love of my life.  I knew she’d be smart.  Glad she’s pretty. Figured she’d be blonde.”

And I exhaled, as if I had been holding a small measure of my breath for the better part of 24 years.

Of course we did have some difficulties which were also learning experiences.  To this day, our biggest fight came as newlyweds setting up our first apartment.  The Great Spice Rack Dispute will live on in family lore for decades to come.  Well it should as a tale rife with lessons about life.

The facts of the matter, as stipulated by the parties, are these: Gretchen wanted the spice rack concealed in a cabinet so the kitchen wouldn’t look messy.  I preferred the spices visible and within arm’s reach.  Needless to say, it’s a miracle our marriage survived.

I recollect nothing of what was said but I remember it being explosive, at least by our standards.  I think I even left the condo that night, coming back a little later.  After all, my magnificent dog, Crash, was still there.

When the dust settled, we spoke about what had happened.  It turns out that Gretchen was actually not arguing about the spice rack’s precise location. Instead, I learned that she had a lifetime of plans and ideas about how to create a home; that these notions were an extension of her identity; that our disagreement seemingly threatened our very being as well as endangering all manner of critically important, authentically valid, truly emotional and deeply-held thoughts about herself, me and our new life together.

And for my part, I was arguing about where to put the spice rack.

May 23, 1998.

An important lesson to this day, I understand that the real cause of most conflicts usually has little to do with the ostensible terms of the debate.  That is, it’s easy to confuse the symptom with the illness and growth in our marriage has usually come from focusing on underlying issues.

That said, we have developed a few everyday strategies to avoid unnecessary flare-ups.  These include:

  1. No discussing anything after 10pm. Not the kids, not tomorrow’s schedule, not rainbows, not unicorns.  No matter how seemingly innocuous, a late day conversation is about 500 times more likely to end poorly and/or stupidly.
  2. No mind reading. And no demands for telepathy.  We try not to conjure up each other’s thoughts and if we want something, we need to say it.
  3. Always assume the best intentions. We want the best for each other.  Our frustrations are usually borne of a lack of understanding rather than an absence of love.
  4. No quinoa. Ever.  I’ve forgiven Gretchen for knowingly eating Grape Nuts, but there’s a limit.  Quinoa is bad for a marriage, your soul and for America.

Most importantly, over the years we’ve found that approximately 99.3% of our issues are not between us as a couple, but within us as individuals.  Gretchen brings out my better qualities, but she doesn’t rid me of my flaws.  I still bring me into every situation.

That’s one of the many reasons spiritual growth has become part of our life together.  We don’t always approach it in the same way, nor do we have to.  For instance, Gretchen is a Catholic convert.  Her kind can be found singing during Mass and probably sitting upfront being all attentive and holy.  On the other hand, I was raised Philadelphia Irish Catholic, so my brand of religion involves telling jokes during funerals.

Such superficialities aside, we both care deeply about growing personally and growing as a couple.  Early on, especially when we were finding our own way, we stepped on each other a few times.   But we have accepted that our spiritual paths run alongside each other, each meandering at its own pace, sometimes crossing, sometimes in parallel, always moving the same direction. And that works for us.

When reflecting on marriage, it’s easy to dwell on the bumps in the road.  I think doing so misses the joy in it all. After all, perfection is a fine thought, but it means that there is no further growth, no greater joy, nothing more to be revealed. I’m in no hurry.

The fact is that our problems are really just challenges, and our challenges are really just worries. The worries, trifles.  Job stress, busy schedules, not enough time for all the people we care about.  Each and every one just a reflection of some wonderful blessing in our lives.

I often need to remind myself of that great truth and to bask in profound gratitude for having been given such a beautiful, intelligent, loving woman with whom I can greet life.  Gretchen is my greatest blessing.

When we married, I promised to love and honor Gretchen all the days of my life. Great days do adorn our past, but the best lay yet ahead.  And as each has passed over the last twenty years, I remain forever overwhelmed.

Help Needed in Aisle 4!

Help Needed in Aisle 4!

Photo by Marian Trinidad. www.creationswap.com.
Photo by Marian Trinidad. www.creationswap.com.

“Help! Help on Aisle 4!”

I heard the voice from a few aisles over. It was a woman, sounding slightly annoyed but not exasperated. Like an employee on a walkie-talkie.

“Help, please.”

My, the bows and decorations I was looking at were pretty. And how pleasant it was to be strolling along with my cart, all by lonesome on this last weekday morning before school let out for the Thanksgiving holiday.

“Hello?!” she called. Urgency had been summoned into her voice.

I took another sip of my tea. ‘It’s that time of year,’ I thought. ‘We’re all going to start getting uptight.’

But then – I was suddenly shocked by a heavy, greater awareness that no one was coming. In fact, this woman and I might be the only people in this quadrant of the huge store.

My hands let go of the cart and my feet started moving in her direction just as her strongest cry yet rang out.

Help! Help me, please! Someone help!”

My legs were moving quickly now, and my head felt light. My thoughts jumbled.

‘Am I floating? Is this my body? What’s going on here?’

Many aisles over I saw her, an elderly woman with two enormous storage bins placed on end in her cart, and her finger wedged between them and the metal bars of the collapsible child seat. She couldn’t reach around the bins to relieve their weight, and might not have been strong enough even if she could have. I pulled the bins off and she stared at me with a pale, relieved face.

“Thank you. Oh, thank you.”

“Is it broken? Can you move it?”

She wiggled her finger and massaged the long acrylic nail, which looked a bit twisted.

“Oh, goodness. I don’t know what I would have done if you didn’t come.”

For a moment, I said nothing.

“Are you going to be ok? You can get help loading these into your car.”

“Yes. I’m ok. Happy Easter.”

Then I just smiled.

“Oh! Oh! Gosh,” she laughed faintly, “Happy Thanksgiving.”

“You, too. Happy Thanksgiving.”

I walked away from her with the firm knowledge that I had – just then – been an instrument, and that I could not in any way take credit for what I had done.

Left to my own devices, I would have ignored her call, would have kept on putting decorations for my own future celebrations into my cart.

That’s just how self-absorbed I was. Am. Can be at any time.

But I wasn’t given a choice. I was given a gift of being made ready to serve in His way at His time. And He stepped in and moved me right to the place He wanted me to go.

In this time of Advent, as I await with expectant hope for the joys of Christmas, I want to remember that true gifts are not things – they are found in the giving away of grace that has been given to us. A humble, servant’s heart is what made Christmas possible in the first place, and it’s still the greatest part of this season. 

Lord, make me a channel of Your peace. Use me this Advent in the ways You see fit. Use me to give away Your relentless grace.

Why My Kids’ Shocking Post-Playground Behavior Is Good News

Why My Kids’ Shocking Post-Playground Behavior Is Good News

After school today, my youngest two kids and I visited the playground and then dropped into the church for a bathroom break before heading home. As we made our way toward the parking lot, my 6-year old son said, “I’m going to go for a walk in the Mary Garden,” and my 10-year old daughter said, “I’m going into the Adoration chapel to say the Lord’s Prayer.”

Huh? A slight wind could have blown me over.

“Uh…I stammered. Ok – no running,” I said to my little guy,” as he stared at me with a perplexed look. He had, after all, said he was going for a walk. I watched him disappear around the heavily pruned bushes.

I turned to my daughter. “And uh, remember, there will be someone in there. The Host – the Blessed Sacrament – is never left alone. Be quiet and respectful.” “Of course, Mom.” She drew in a breath, probably wondering if I was losing my mind, and withdrew into the room without a sound.

I just stood there, dumbfounded. They had sought quiet time. Unprompted. In places designed for contemplation with God.

Good God.

Yes, Good God. That’s what He is.

I wandered around for about 3 minutes and soon, my son emerged from the other side of the hedge and climbed onto the lap of a statue of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos C.Ss.R. I told him to sit next to the statue (which he agreed was more comfortable), and while he was telling me he had been studying a squirrel at play, I snapped this picture of him in all his innocence. taran-by-blessed-seelos-statue

Not long after, my daughter came out and said she’d prayed not only the Lord’s Prayer, but a decade of the Rosary – the first of the Luminous Mysteries.

By the time we got in the car I had collected myself and asked them, “Do you guys know why you wanted to spend that quiet time in the garden and the chapel today?”

“No,” they said.

“Because the Holy Spirit prompted you to. Anytime you feel invited to come spend a little time in quiet, just being at peace with God, it’s because He is seeking you. He’s your best friend and He loves you. He wants to spend time with you. I am so very glad you both listened to Him today.”

My daughter said she felt like she’d like to go again soon – maybe before school during the week sometimes.

Now that is some astounding and really good news.

Do You Hear the Whispers of the Sea?

Do You Hear the Whispers of the Sea?

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God’s wonders from Corolla, NC. Collected in Summer, 2016. Gretchen Matthews.

In 1955, a little gem of a book was published – Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. I am blessed to have a very old copy of this book, with yellowed pages and a weathered turquoise dust jacket.

For today’s Month of Good News 2016 reflection, I want to share some of Lindbergh’s words at the end of her book, which reflect in a profound way, not only her time, but ours as well.

Perhaps we never appreciate the here and now until it is challenged, as it is beginning to be today even in America. And have we not also been awakened to a new sense of the dignity of the individual because of the threats and temptations to him, in our time, to surrender his individuality to the mass – whether it be industry or war or standardization of thought and action? We are now ready for a true appreciation of the value of the here and the now and the individual.

The here, the now, and the individual, have always been the special concern of the saint, the artist, the poet, and – from time immemorial – the woman. In the small circle of the home she has never quite forgotten the particular uniqueness of each member of the family; the spontaneity of now; the vividness of here. This is the basic substance of life. These are the individual elements that form the bigger elements like mass, future, world. We may neglect these elements, but we cannot dispense with them. They are the drops that make up the stream. They are the essence of life itself. It may be our special function to emphasize again these neglected realities, not as a retreat from greater responsibilities but as a first real step toward a deeper understanding and solution of them. When we start at the center of ourselves, we discover something worthwhile extending toward the periphery of the circle. We find again some of the joy in the now, some of the peace in the here, some of the love in me and thee which go to make up the kingdom of heaven on earth. (pp.127-8)

Seeds for an Appropriate Time

On a bright spring morning, a walk does my spirit good. And as I circle my block, I come across her garden.

I can almost see her standing there in the shadow of her home, wearing spring pastels and kelly green tennis shoes, pointing out weeds and asking her husband to pull them. Her white hair shines like a crown in the sun. Her eyes dance and her arms wave a happy hello as I walk up her front path.

But she’s been gone to heaven for some time now. And her husband, too – last June. I still miss them – just as much as I did the day I learned that Mr. Schab had at last followed his wife Home. 

So I stand looking at Mrs. Schab’s garden. Her flowers are beginning to bloom.

First, I see a single red tulip.

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Then the blue vinca minor (periwinkle).

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Then the viburnum.

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And her bright pink azaleas.

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Colorful, vibrant life springs from the brown, hard earth.

I seldom see their family visiting the house anymore. I suppose it’s been mostly cleaned out.

But you can’t remove everything that’s been planted, deep in fertile soil. You can’t strip it all – even from ground that appears, on the surface, to be nothing but weeds.

The garden renews my hope in the Promise. That with God’s help, our tiny seeds of peace and love – in our families, communities, nation, the world – will surely blossom into something beautiful, when the appropriate time comes.

As the earth brings forth its plants,

and a garden makes its growth spring up,

So will the Lord God make justice and praise

spring up before all nations. 

-Isaiah 61:62