Temptations

Thirty years ago, my co-worker and I were part of an evaluation team for a nonprofit organization in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. We were to spend a week there in mid-October, and we packed work and casual clothes—plus winter gear, since Winnipeg in October was as cold as mid-winter in Philadelphia.

Our evaluation team spent the first day in intensive interviews with the nonprofit’s staff and then the next three days meeting program participants. Part of each day involved time with the staff, and we got to know them fairly well in a short period of time.

On the third day, my co-worker confided in me, “I think I packed more clothes for this one week that the staff have in their whole wardrobes.”

I could see her point. She had brought at least two different outfits for each day—complete with shoes and purses—while the staff wore the same shoes every day and on the third day were wearing what they had worn on the first.

I was somewhere in the middle of this wardrobe continuum.

Later, when I moved to Winnipeg, the contrast became even clearer to me. The truth was that people who earned about as much money as I did bought fewer clothes. When I returned to the States after living in Winnipeg for a few years, all of my clothes fit into one small closet.

This memory came back to me the other day when James Neal invited his readers to reflect on modern-day slavery and to take a survey at End Slavery Now.

We begin Lent reflecting on the temptations of Christ in the desert and how those temptations appear in our lives. I think of the temptations as the accumulation of material goods, the desire for power and the worship of idols; and I could spend more than the first week of Lent gaining a deeper understanding into how these temptations infect and affect my life.

Each day this week, my Lenten reflection book has offered insight into different ways we might get hooked by the temptations and how cleverly those temptations may be disguised—tricky business dealing with evil.

As I moved through the survey at End Slavery Now, I started thinking of how much stuff I have and, even more importantly, why I have as much stuff as I have. I certainly don’t need my 75 scarves or 50 pairs of earrings. So why have I accumulated them? What is the attraction? The temptation?

Whatever things we collect—clothes, electronics, books, gadgets, etc.—Lent invites to reflect on the why of our collections.

The survey James Neal invited me to take raised my awareness of the human cost in the global market. It also invited me to greater awareness of my own attachment and enslavement to things and made me wonder how free I am. Could I lose my scarves and earrings and still be ok? Could I lose all my possessions? How attached am I?

Good questions for Lent.

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God of abundance

I spent several years in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, as a full-time volunteer, and for part of that time, I worked in an office downtown. My walking route to work took me past a shoe store a few blocks from my building.

Usually, I am not much of a shoe person, so the window displays offered only a passing interest.

Then one day, I noticed a pair of brown leather boots. They were ankle high, medium brown, with thick, cream-colored fleece rimming the tops. I could imagine the soft leather hugging my feet and how the fleece would keep snow out. From the first time I saw them, I loved them and knew I had to have them. I began to plot how I might make them mine.

The problem was that the boots cost nearly $200, and my monthly stipend was $50—and that had to cover my food, transportation, clothing and fun. I was living very simply, walking the three miles to work and packing a PB&J sandwich for lunch every day. Breakfast was oatmeal and dinner was usually rice and beans or homemade soup. I didn’t mind the simplicity of my life because I am frugal by nature. So why had these expensive boots caught my fancy? And why did I feel such a need for them?

Day after day I stopped by the window to stare at “my” boots.

My infatuation continued to grow as the days went on.

At my next monthly meeting with my supervisor, I told him about the boots and my compulsion to have them. Material things did not usually grab hold of me in this way, and I was honestly confused about the attraction of this particular pair of boots.

During that conversation, though, I had an “aha” moment and realized the boots had come to symbolize the things I was denying myself because of my limited income. As we talked, I came to see that I was adopting a worldview of scarcity. I explained to my supervisor how my God had always been so abundantly generous to me, and I rarely had the experience of “wanting.” But, there I was, coveting a thing.

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This memory came back to me during Mass on Ash Wednesday.

Twice this week, I heard the Lenten journey compared to a space mission (pre-set time, limited activities, etc.). I wondered if astronauts use their time in space to look inward. Do they reflect on their actions and process the events of their lives to see if they need reconciliation? Do they set new goals? Do they seek a different perspective?

Preparing for Lent, I wondered if I could view Lent like a “space mission” and take a step back from life and gain a different perspective.

Perhaps the “boots” memory came back to me because it reminded me of the abundance of God. During Lent, I want to try to live out of abundance and not scarcity—faithful in prayer, fasting from negativity and generous in almsgiving.

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My prayer

I start my mornings with an hour of quiet time—journaling, reading scripture, praying and writing. My missalette includes a Prayer for each day, written by saints or taken from a variety of Sacramentaries.

The diversity of sources intrigues me, and many are new to me. This month, I have been introduced to the Gelasian Sacramentary and Saint Makarios of Alexandria.

These prayers often spark a prayer of my own.

Recently, I have begun to ponder how I pray and what words I would use if I were writing my prayers down instead of just saying them.

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Knowing I spend time in prayer each day, people often ask me to pray for them and those they love. My friend Ted believed I have hot line to God because the things he asked me to pray for turned out the way he wanted. I was nine for nine when he asked me to pray for his friend Adele.

Instead of getting better, though, as Ted had wanted, Adele died. When Ted called me to tell me Adele had died, he said, “Your prayers didn’t work.”

Ted had never asked me about the specifics of my prayer, so I took this occasion to tell him that I had not prayed for Adele to get better. I had prayed that God give Adele the grace and strength to face her difficulties, that her faith remain strong and that God grant her peace.

“Why didn’t you ask God to cure her?” he wanted to know.

“That is not how my relationship with God works,” I answered.

When my friend Jim got brain cancer, many people prayed that he would be cured, and they were certain God was going to comply with their wishes. It would have been miraculous because there is no known cure for the type of cancer Jim had.

“What will those people do on the day you die?” I asked Jim.

My prayer for Jim was that he get right with God, that he have the strength to face what was happening to him and that he be at peace. It was my prayer for him whether he was to live or die.

I share Ted’s confidence that I have God’s ear, but my concern is more focused on acceptance.

If I were to write a prayer, it would go something like this:

God, give me the strength to endure whatever hardship comes my way with grace and peace. Help me to let go of my own expectations and accept the truth of what is. Give me the wisdom to remember that my vision is limited; help me to trust that you see the big picture. Help me to be grateful for all that has been and to say “yes” to what is yet to be.

This is my prayer for myself and also how I pray for those on my Prayer List. Not miraculous cures—although I thank God when they happen—but hope for wisdom, courage, strength and peace.

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What really matters

My mother used a wringer washer until the mid-1990’s and always hung her clothes on the line in the yard. We had a dryer, but why use it when the sun and wind would do the job for free? She prepared a full breakfast for us every morning and a meat-and-potatoes dinner every night. My parents grew up during the Great Depression and were frugal; we lived within our means, and our means were meager.

We lived simply, reusing and recycling long before it was fashionable.

I have continued some of my mother’s traditions. I still hang my laundry on the line in my yard, eat a full breakfast every morning and cook dinner more often than I eat out. By most people’s standards, I am quite frugal—wearing clothes until they wear out, baking from scratch and keeping cars until they die.

My father taught me that we all “put our pants on one leg at a time.” He respected people who had earned his respect. In his eyes, no one person was better than anyone else, and he kowtowed to no one. From him, I learned to view all people as equals.

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In my mid-twenties, I spent my lunch hour swimming in a hotel pool across the street from my office. One day, another swimmer approached me. He and his friends were staying at the hotel for a few days, and he asked if I could recommend a restaurant. I explained that I was new to town so I could not help them. He asked where I was from. “Detroit,” I said.

“Hey, Bob,” he called to one of his friends. “She is from Detroit, too.” Bob came over and we chatted about Detroit for a bit.

The next day’s newspaper featured a picture of Bob and his friends—he was Bob Seger, and I had no clue. I wondered if he was offended that I did not know who he was (since he was obviously famous) or if he found it refreshing that someone who was the age of his fan base was oblivious.

Twenty years later, a friend suggested I get a television so I could tune into pop culture. He warned that the trajectory I was on would soon preclude me from social conversations. I relayed the pool incident to illustrate that I was never into pop culture, nor was I much interested in conversations about celebrities.

Trends have passed me by, and I am ok with that. I don’t know one fashion designer from another, and I don’t care.

What matters to me is more basic than celebrities, trends or labels.

I care about how ordinary people are living their lives—people who are facing challenges and difficulties—and where they are connecting with others for support. I am more interested in where people are finding God in their lives—those moments of transcendence, of peace and deep joy—and how they share their blessings.

In the end, I believe those around us are a much wiser investment of our time and energy.

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My wild and precious life

We recently celebrated my mother’s ninety-third birthday. Her mother lived to be ninety-six and one of her brothers died a week shy of his ninety-eighth birthday. We have longevity in my family.

As I pondered my mother’s long life, Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day came to mind. It ends by asking,

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

After college, when I went into nonprofit work instead of returning to the FBI, my mother was not happy. For eight years, she had been able to say, “My daughter is a secretary in the FBI,” and people understood what that meant. She had been looking forward to saying, “My daughter is an FBI agent,” but that did not happen.

Instead, I got a job recruiting advocates for people who have developmental disabilities. My mother had no idea what that meant. My work defied easy explanation, and she could not imagine how I spent my days. She was baffled.

“Where did you ever get the idea to go into that kind of work?” she asked.

I told her that she had given me the idea by the way she lived.

My mother always made room for one more. When my unmarried uncle got cancer, he moved in with us, and my mother took care of him. When my grandmother needed a place to live after my grandfather died, my mother welcomed her into our home.

She showed me how to greet new neighbors with a prepared meal and to comfort someone in pain by being present and listening. She always has extra food prepared because no one leaves her house empty-handed. “What can I give you?” she asked as I left her house on her birthday.

That is the thing about parenting—so much of it is in the doing rather than the telling. I learned by watching.

When a friend of mine was having twins one summer, I offered to come help harvest her garden. For three days, I picked beans and tomatoes and then canned—quarts upon quarts of veggies to get her family through the winter. Toward the end of my visit, she told me she had been resistant to my coming because others had come offering to help, but they just ended up being more work for her. “You have helped me so much,” she said with gratitude and also a note of incredulity in her voice.

“You don’t know my mother,” I responded, because my mother’s example and her voice in my head would not allow me to be a burden. If you can’t help, stay home, would be my mother’s advice.

When I imagine myself at ninety-three, I hope I can look back and see that I have lived my one wild and precious life with integrity and meaning, helping more than hindering, giving more than I have taken.

Every morning, I pray the Prayer of St. Francis. That is the life I want to live.

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Staying focused

The temperature was hovering around freezing, and a mix of rain and snow was falling from the sky. “Keep both hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road,” the radio weather person advised.

Curious advice, I thought. No matter what is falling from the sky, shouldn’t one always keep both hands on the wheel and eyes on the road when driving?

It is easy to get distracted when driving, just as it is easy to get distracted from what is truly important in life, what will keep me headed in the right direction.

The letter to the Hebrews advises us to keep our “eyes fixed on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2).

Staying focused on Jesus can be a challenge because of the level of honesty is requires in dealing with ourselves and others.

Evelyn Underhill prayed,

“O Lord, penetrate those murky corners where we hide memories and tendencies on which we do not care to look….The persistent buried grudge; the bitterness of that loss we have not turned into sacrifice; the private comfort we cling to; the secret fear of failure which saps our initiative and is really inverted pride…”

How honest, how brutally honest.

After my conversion when I was twenty-one, it was relatively easy to stay focused on Jesus. I read my Bible every day, seeking Jesus’ advice and guidance. He became my constant companion, and I turned to him daily for direction and forgiveness.

Just because I was walking with Jesus did not mean I had stopped sinning—rather, it meant I was more convicted of my sins, more sorrowful for my wrongdoings and more desirous of changing my ways.

In my mid-thirties, I had what I came to call my “garden year,” a time of intense prayer and mystical visions. I could not not pray. At all hours of the day and night, I would experience this deep desire to pray. The nuns at my parish gave me free access to their chapel so that I could have a private prayer place whenever I needed it, and I often left work during the middle of the day to go pray.

What was God doing with me? I wondered. It was odd, and, frankly, somewhat annoying. It was not something I could talk about at work or really with most anyone except my spiritual director and my housemate.

My spiritual director thought it wonderful how God was filling me with grace and blessings. She thought visions were pure gift and encouraged me to be open and to record them in my journal.

My housemate, like me, thought it all a bit peculiar. I was just an ordinary person having this extraordinary experience. And for what reason? To what end?

Over time, I have become more comfortable with the way Jesus has shaped my life.

Keeping my eyes on Jesus means a continual invitation to forgiveness and compassion. It means having a heightened awareness of people who are marginalized and vulnerable—and how their vulnerability intersects with mine.

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Healing what has withered

He entered again into a synagogue; and a man was there whose hand was withered. Mark 3:1

My daily prayer book included a reflection question related to this Scripture passage: What has withered in my spiritual life that needs Jesus’ attention?

Good question. Has my prayer life become stagnant? Am I being open to the Spirit moving in my life? Am I thinking big thoughts, or have I boxed God into a small set of fixed ideas?

I pondered the scene in this reading—Jesus entering the Synagogue, seeing the man with the withered hand and calling him forward. The man steps up and in front of everybody, Jesus shines a spotlight on this man’s deformity. I can feel myself cringe.

Would I want Jesus to call me forward and point out something that has withered in me? I think not.

I like to believe that my deformities are better hidden that this man’s withered hand.

But I know that is not really the truth. I know that Jesus—and most everyone around me—can see what is withered in me. Others can often see more clearly what needs to be healed in me than I can, as they watch my fears and anxieties play out in everyday life.

I need to name those inner parts of me that are withered in order to be healed. Like the man in the scripture, I need to step forward and present what has withered inside me and ask for healing.

“Stretch out your hand,” Jesus tells the man in the Synagogue. I can see it—wholeness restored.

And for me? What needs to be stretched out? To be restored to wholeness?

I have been told that I am formidable, and I know people see me as being strong. And I am—or can be. But I can also be fragile and vulnerable.

Breaking through the tough shell—through my formidability—and being able to live in vulnerability is where my wholeness is found. It is that place that Jesus invites me to again and again, to touch my weakness and vulnerability.

In Wild Geese, Mary Oliver writes:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves….

I resonate with the invitation to that kind of openness and honesty.  Not trying so hard to impress—or at least not to disappoint—but accepting what is, who I am, and loving what I love.

Healing and wholeness are found in that space, that place where I can recognize what is withered in me, where I can acknowledge my limitations and accept weakness and welcome healing.

And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 2 Corinthians 12:9

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