Tag Archives: St. Paul

Reflections from a day of kayaking

Two friends invited me to go kayaking on the Thornapple River in central Michigan, and I gladly accepted.

Kayaking is one of my favorite outdoor activities because it offers an easy way to be on the water surrounded by nature. Kayaking requires minimal strength, and on the Thornapple River, the current did most of the work. We had to steer around some fallen trees and other debris, but the water was relatively calm and the trip downriver peaceful.

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Photo from Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy

Nature gifted us with sightings of deer along the riverbank and herons standing in the water. There were more turtles than I could count, lounging on fallen logs along the river’s edge.  

Being carried along by the current, I rested my paddle and looked up into the canopy created by the trees. Although mostly green, a few had started to change to fall colors and some leaves even fell into the kayak along the way.

I remembered a meditation about trees and how they change every season without resistance.

They seem to trust that even though their leaves are dying now and they will be dormant over winter, in the spring, new leaves will bud and grow to cover them again. Every year the cycle repeats itself, and the trees move naturally through the cycle. They don’t resist the changes—the death of autumn or the new growth of spring. They just do what trees do, living the cycles of their lives.

Be the tree, I said to myself. Let go of what needs to die and trust that something new will grow in spring.

When I lowered my eyes and looked at the trees at water level, I realized that the riverbank had eroded, and the roots of most of the trees were exposed. I wondered if that exposure weakens the trees and makes them more vulnerable.

The words of St. Paul came to me: When I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).

Be the tree, I said to myself again. Let your roots be exposed and risk vulnerability.

Yes, I thought, I want to be like trees and let go easily. I want to accept the changes of life as they come and move gracefully through each season. I want to let my vulnerabilities show, to be less certain and more open, less fearful and more trusting.

A little further down the river, I had the opportunity to lean into my vulnerability—I fell into the water in a less than dignified way. I was not hurt—just drenched. And like the time I had to climb a tree to get over a barbed-wire fence in England three years ago, I was grateful no one was videotaping the escapade.

Letting go of my pride and laughing at myself moves me along the path to humility, the path of accepting my vulnerability. Those few minutes of embarrassment were part of the hours of peaceful contentment kayaking down the river, helping me be the tree and embrace whatever comes.

The Mystery of God’s Love

Why God chose me is a mystery—inexplicable and unimaginable, really—but a truth I have known my whole life. Visions, dreams, and intense prayer experiences have all revealed God’s presence in my life and the depth of his love for me.

Living with mystery—accepting it and embracing it—is the invitation God extends to me every day. And I have tried to live by accepting the mystery of how God interacts with me and the ways he intervenes in my life.

Until recently, I have held my “God moments” as private, but now I feel invited to share them. This is a shift in my thinking, and as I reflect on it, I think of Moses in the desert for forty years. I was twenty-one when I started having mystical visions and sixty-one when I started blogging about my spiritual journey.

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As a child, I felt a strong connection to Jesus and a deep desire to grow in my relationship with him. But at twenty-one, I went through a very dark period in my life and was in deep emotional pain. Unhealthy relationships and overindulging in alcohol were the outward signs of my pain, and, at the same time, I started to attend daily Mass to pray for a conversion.

“I want to be zapped like Saint Paul,” I told my pastor. He was quite certain that would not happen and encouraged me to be diligent in daily prayer and to keep turning away from unhealthy behaviors and relationships.

Then at the end of Ash Wednesday Mass, the priest said, “Go now, cleansed in mind and body, to love and serve the Lord.”

Cleansed in mind and body was exactly what I was not.

I began to cry and knelt to pray: “Please, God, cleanse me.” As I prayed, I saw in a vision a large sword cutting me open, and I watched as all kinds of darkness and filth spilled out. It was like a river flowing out of me until I was empty.

I felt gutted, as though there was nothing left to me. The space that had been filled with so much darkness was now ready to receive light.

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All of a sudden, I felt free, and I knew God had zapped me with grace.

“God zapped me,” I shouted to my pastor as I left church, tears of joy running down my cheeks. He conceded that God did sometimes “zap” people, but he cautioned that I would still need to be diligent in prayer and monitor my behavior.

I remember the reactions of people at work that morning. Apparently being “zapped” by God’s grace was visible because all day I was asked what had happened to me. “You are glowing,” people commented.

I wish I could say that experience signaled the end of my dark days, but it took years before I could completely turn away from destructive behaviors—years of prayer and lots of therapy.

But that Ash Wednesday vision and the experience of knowing God’s love and compassion stayed with me and helped me trust the mystery of God’s love.

Speaking of faith

Reflecting on Colossians 1:1-8 the other morning, these words of St. Paul caught my attention:

“…we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love that you have for all the holy ones…”

I stopped reading to reflect.

I imagined the scene. Paul, someplace far away, writing to the Colossians of what he has heard about them. I wondered who told Paul of the Colossians’ faith. Was someone passing through Paul’s town who had been to Colossae? Had someone written to Paul?

And why did Paul take the time to write to the Colossians to tell them what he had heard? Had they been struggling and he felt they needed encouragement or praise? Or had Paul been struggling and hearing such good news overjoyed him?

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I wondered how the Colossians heard Paul’s praise. Did they post the letter for everyone to read? Did they offer spontaneous thanks to God for guiding them and giving them strength to live the Gospel? Did they boast to their neighbors in the next town about how Paul praised them?

And then I wondered if anyone is speaking of my faith. Has anyone heard of my faith in Jesus and the love I have for all the holy ones? Would anyone write a message like Paul’s to me to encourage or praise me?

I pondered this for a while, letting memories surface of positive things people have said to me, things related to how I live my faith. “Take it in,” my friend Jim used to tell me when I received praise or a compliment.

Brushing compliments aside, dismissing praise, would be more my style. Accepting compliments seemed to be a stepping-stone toward pride, as if I would become too proud if I accepted hearing good things about myself. I felt unworthy of praise and had great difficulty receiving compliments and accepting praise. I have worked on this—allowing myself to hear good things about myself and believe them—but I still struggle to take in good things people say about me.

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After pondering Paul’s praise of the Colossians for a while, I went back to reading the scripture passage and discovered that Epaphras was the one who had told Paul.

Who will speak for me? I wondered. Who is my Epaphras, talking about how my faith is growing and bearing fruit?

And for whom am I Epaphras? Or Paul? Do I praise others for their growth in faith? For their works on behalf of the holy ones? Am I passing along positive messages about others’ faith?

These thoughts have stayed with me all week and made me more aware of opportunities to share my faith and to offer praise and encouragement.

I want to be like Epaphras and Paul, telling of people’s good works, reflecting back to those in my life how their love is shining through and encouraging them with praise.

Seeing good works, acknowledging them and offering praise—three great practices to deepen my faith and grow in love.

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Living in God’s grace

God-vulnerability-expectationsI think most of can relate to St. Paul’s “thorn” and have possibly even used the phrase “a thorn in my side” when referring to some troublesome person or situation.

It can be a family member, co-worker or friend who can get under my skin. Everyday situations and encounters—even a two-minute wait in line at the bank or grocery store—can feel like I am being pricked by a thorn.

When I am impatient, when I am reacting rather than acting or when I am rolling my eyes, I know I am having a thorn moment, that someone has done something that pushes my buttons.

What I find most helpful in those moments is to step back, take a few deep breaths and try to get some perspective.

Why is this particular person bugging me? What about a particular situation frustrates or upsets me? What is happening in my life that is unsettling me?God-vulnerability-expectationsI gained a deeper understanding of St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians when I lived in l’Arche, where I lived very closely with people not of my choosing—people who came from different cultures and had different values. Clashes were bound to happen.

Facing disappointment after disappointment was disheartening, and it took me some time to see what was really happening—that that I was facing my unmet expectations. You are not in control, God seemed to be reminding me. Your way is not the only way. Those were tough truths to see and accept.

I learned many things in l’Arche, including the theory that when someone is pushing my buttons it is because they are revealing some part of me that I don’t particularly like and don’t want to see. Every time I was annoyed, I needed to stop looking at the other person and start examining myself.

The thorns in my life can reveal deeper truths about me, if I can be open and willing to face those truths.

The person I think is being stingy invites me to look at my own stinginess or lack of generosity. The one I see as needy invites me to look at my own insecurities.

The person who zips ahead of me in a line of cars reminds me that I, too, sometimes feel self-important. The person who exaggerates or even outright lies reminds me that I, too, sometimes may want to seem more accomplished than I am. The person who insists that her way is the right or only way to do something reminds me that I, too, like to have my way.

It can be easier to insist the problem is the situation or other person, but, I think, not very helpful.

With God’s grace—and lots of thorny experiences—I have come to see that every button-pushing experience, every thorn in my side, is really an invitation to growth in self-awareness and self-knowledge.

Accepting my weaknesses enables me to live in grace and to allow God to be in charge of my life.

 

 

 

 

 

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Why words matter

The last thing you say to someone might be the last thing you say to him. These words came to me as a memory from the day my friend Jim had a seizure which left him unconscious. That day ended with a diagnosis of a very, very aggressive, non-curable brain cancer.

In the midst of being told that Jim may never regain consciousness, I wondered, “What was the last thing I said to him?”

Fortunately, I had spoken to him shortly before the seizure and my words were positive.

I know, though, that I don’t end every conversation, every interaction on a positive note. Sometimes I speak out of frustration or anger. Other times, I am distracted or tired or…God-cancer-hopeThat question, though, from the day Jim had a seizure has stayed with me and is a reminder to try to end every conversation on a positive note. That is particularly significant because I work at a cancer support center.

One of the women who came to the center for a couple of years had not been around for a while. Phone calls and messages went unanswered. We knew she had stopped treatment and began to wonder if she was still alive.

Sometimes families don’t notify us for weeks or even months, so we often live in a kind of limbo. But, we learned of this woman’s death within a few days after she had died.

Remembering this particular woman, I wondered what had been my last words to her. I hope they were something that let her know that I was glad to see her and that I cared about her. I hope she felt accepted, consoled and even uplifted.

She had been very realistic about the path she had chosen. She knew that without treatment, the cancer would end her life. But, I don’t think she knew that the last time she came to our center would be the last time. I did not know that the last words I said to her were the last words I would ever say to her.

Some days, I am overwhelmed by the sadness of my work. People learning they have cancer, enduring treatment, anxious for results from scans, some of them dying—it can be so sad.

Other days, though, I am overjoyed by the good news of my work. People learning that the cancer is in remission or that they are cancer-free, optimistic that life holds promise, hopeful for a future they once feared would never come.

Balancing these emotions, this ups and downs of cancer and its many ripple effects, can be difficult for me. God invites me to hold both the joys and sorrows.

I am reminded of St. Paul’s words: I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation….I can do all things through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:12-13)

Strengthen me, Lord.

Reshaped by God

Now there was a man full of leprosy….and the leprosy left him immediately. (Luke 5:12-13)

The words full of leprosy caught my attention as I read this Scripture passage. I think of leprosy as being an external condition affecting the skin, but the words full of made me think of something deeper, some kind of cavity or open space which had been filled.

As I pondered this man’s healing, I wondered if leprosy had become a part of his identity and self-understanding. Had he become accustomed to being shunned? Did he find solace in his solitude? I wondered what filled the open space where the leprosy had been.

This man, full of leprosy, reminds me of when I was younger and full of shame. I thought of myself that way—full of shame. I blamed myself for the bad things that had happened to me and internalized them into a message that I was bad. Bad things happen to bad people, I told myself.

But, I hoped for something different; I hoped that I could be healed. Just as the leprosy left the man immediately, I hoped my shame would be removed in an instant.

My pastor encouraged me to pray for healing. I started attending daily Mass and praying fervently. Months passed with no apparent change. Then one day, at the end of Mass, the priest said, “Go now, cleansed in mind and body, to love and serve the Lord.”

“Cleansed?” Not me. I was dirty, broken, disgusting—in mind and body. Tears started pouring from my eyes and I crumpled to the kneeler, burying my face in my hands.

I wanted to be cleansed. “Please God,” I pleaded through sobs, “cleanse me.”

As I knelt in that pew, sobbing, I had a vision. I saw myself cleaved in two and all that was ugly and broken and shameful poured out of me. It was a veritable river of disgust spewing out. I watched until there was nothing left, until I was empty.

Was this what it meant to be healed? Had Jesus removed my shame the same way he had removed leprosy? I accepted this vision as a healing and floated out of the church on a spiritual high. God had heard my prayers and cleansed me.

Being healed presented a dilemma, though. The only me I had known was the shameful me. Without my shame, who was I?

St. Paul’s letters became my guide. The man who had persecuted the church became its biggest promoter. I wanted to be able to walk away from my past as St. Paul had, to be so strengthened by the Spirit that I could become a new person in Christ and never look back.

Forty-three years have passed since that day in church and I can look back and see how God has continued to heal me and reshape me. I am grateful.

No Anxiety

“Have no anxiety…” (Philippians 4:6)

I started a new job this week so I am in a period of transition. For me, anxiety comes with the territory, along with uncertainty and second-guessing. Did I make the right decision? How will things work out? Will I be able to…? and on and on.

One morning, in the week before I started my new job, St. Paul’s words came to me, “Have no anxiety….” I love St. Paul for his directives. I love his certainty and confidence.

Have no anxiety. Trust. Let go.

My new job is at a support and resource center for people who have been touched by cancer, so perspective on my anxiety came fairly quickly. Talking with someone who is facing cancer helped me remember what really matters and what is worth my time and energy.

When Jim was sick and someone was worried or complaining about something that seemed trivial to me, I would ask, “Is it brain cancer?”

That was my standard—brain cancer. Anything less than that seemed utterly manageable. Perhaps it was not a fair standard to apply, maybe even a bit harsh, but it was my frame of reference at the time.

Now I am surrounded by people who have been touched by cancer. Some are in treatment, some are survivors, some are walking beside family or friends who have cancer, and some are grieving.

All week, memories from my experience with Jim and his cancer have been stirred up. I remember the difficulties of that time, and I also remember how Jim and I laughed every day and were grateful every day. I have been thinking of all the people who helped us and supported us. I remember how generous people were to us. I am deeply aware of how blessed we were and I am.

It was an awful time and also a graced time, a reminder that every curse has a blessing.

Anxiety? All I needed was a different frame of reference. I needed to look through a different lens. My anxiety has been replaced by gratitude and a hope that my experience with Jim and others I have known who have been touched by cancer will help me to be compassionate to those who come to The Lake House seeking comfort and support.

I thank St. Paul for his advice: “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.”

Instead of anxiety, gratitude, trust and hope.

Bucket of Love

“Bucket of love” was one of the nicknames Jim had for Detroit.

Since Jim died and she has become my dog, I have been getting to know her better, and I can see why he called her that. She is full of love. She is very affectionate and loves to be in close proximity, a true lap dog. Every morning, she showers me with kisses.

When we are out walking, she is especially fond of greeting little children and giving them kisses (ok, she is really licking any residual food from their fingers, but they think she is kissing them).

A friend who is a professed non-animal-lover tried to ignore her the first time he met her, but she sensed a tender core under that crusty exterior and jumped into his lap. “Your dog is on me,” he said. “She sees through you,” I suggested. Although he could not be persuaded to pet her (at least not in my presence), she leaned into him and made herself comfortable—and he let her.

My niece stayed with Detroit while I was on retreat recently. Detroit had been a bit under the weather before I left, and I was worried about her while I was away. “They bonded,” my sister reported when I got home. “And I have lots of pictures to prove it. Detroit on her lap, Detroit kissing her, Detroit playing with her toys.”  I worried for naught.

I used to think the song “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with” was a rationalization for bad behavior, but Detroit is helping me to see it differently. She was made to love, and she pours out that love on whomever she happens to be with.

She reminds me of St. Paul’s claim, “I am already being poured out like a libation.” (2 Timothy 4:6)

Her love is not diminished by sharing, but rather the bucket just keeps getting refilled each time she pours herself out.

She offers her love freely to anyone who will accept it and even with those who claim they don’t want it, she will still try.

She was born to love—but weren’t we all.

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