path“In my heart, I just know that I’m going to be rich someday,” she said, with a faraway look in her eyes.

A friend had stopped over for a brief chat, and what she’d said really gave me pause.

It occurred to me that every one of us harbors a secret wish like that one – that, something rightfully ours hasn’t reached us yet, but it will. And once it does, all of our problems will be solved.

There’s a fine line between the firmament of faith and magical thinking. God isn’t sitting around, waiting for us to finally just ask already for that winning lottery ticket. There really isn’t one specific, out-of-this-world thing that will solve all our problems.

We think if we can finally get our hands on that one “open-sesame” thing we can finally:

  • Pay off the bills
  • Lose weight
  • Find true love

Or to sum it up…be happy.

But, of course, all of these things come with their own particular set of problems. If you do win the lottery, chances are, you’ll spend most of your money on things you really don’t need. Relatives will come out of the woodwork, asking you to bankroll their pet projects. And of course, the taxman cometh.

Maybe that one elusive thing can be accomplished over time, the way we pay off a bill. We could do one little thing every day that takes us from standing still to moving forward.

The American Delusion is that we’re destined to win the lottery, be an overnight success, or discover buried treasure at the beach.

The American Dream is appreciating the blessings you currently have, and taking whatever baby steps you can toward your soul’s goal. You’ll be amazed at how many times God shows up to walk with you when you light out on that path.

My pal Alice told me about a way to meditate anew on familiar biblical passages and favorite spiritual sayings. I call it “Quotation Subtraction.” It works like this: Choose a beloved, brief quote from a book, poem or other work of literature — the Bible, of course, is a great place to start — and meditate on what it means as you lose, one by one, the last word in the saying. Let’s use Psalm 46:10 as an example.

“Be still and know that I am God.”

Take a quiet moment to reflect on the words. What do they mean to you? Now remove the last word.

“Be still and know that I am.”

How does this change what you feel? What emotions and ideas do these words conjure up?

“Be still and know that I.”

And now? Who or what is the “I” in this quotation? Which “I” does God want you to know?

“Be still and know.”

Know what? Again, reflect on what these words mean to you.

“Be still and.”

And what? What is required of you in this moment?

“Be still.”

What value is there in stillness? What can you learn from it?

“Be.”

If God said this single word to you, what would you think or feel?

I have found this meditation surprisingly rich and unexpectedly revealing. It is a quick and easy spiritual practice that can open to you whole new avenues of thought. Imagine what you might do with John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world He gave his only begotten son”) or 1 John 4:7 (“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God”)!

Give it a whirl, and see how old words take on new meanings in your life!

spring

The weather was beautiful today here in New Jersey, and everyone on the block was outside, trying to make the most of it.

One neighbor had his convertible top down and rolled into his driveway, music blaring. The volume was so loud that I could hear the drum beat and bass line thumping in my house. The Judge Judy in my head nudged me: Kids today! How rude!

But in truth, the thing is, he’s trying to be heard, albeit in a way that may not be well-received by those around him. He likes that song. He can afford that nice car. He thinks he has good taste in general, and he wants to be known for that.

Another neighbor was outside, blow-drying her lawn. Now, I know the term should be “leaf-blowing,” but the thing is, there’s not a leaf in sight. She primped her yard all day long and that constant, high-pitched whir really got under my skin. The Judge Judy in me barked: You’ve proved your point! You’ve got a lot of time and money on your hands, so you spend it all on your fabulous yard. Congrats! But the thing is, it’s her money. It’s her yard. Her landscaping isn’t directed toward me as a slap in the face, even if I might choose to receive it that way.

On the block behind mine, kids were playing tag in the street, screaming at the top of their lungs. Normal, you say? Well, the thing is, even though they were playing, the screams were blood-curdling, as if someone was in danger. They “play-screamed” things such as, “No! Stop! Help! Get off me! You’re killing me!!!”

Once I saw their father coming outside, I thought he’d put an end to these heart-wrenching screams. Instead, he just joined in! Now he was “play-screaming,” too! The Judge Judy in me shook her head: A mother would never do that! But perhaps she would. And maybe this is just how they express themselves. The thing is, I could spin it in my mind to say, At least the kids are outside on a beautiful day, and their father is spending time with them.

The thing is, it’s a big world, and there is a wonderful way for me to share it with all my neighbors: knock off the stone-throwing and the nit-picking and focus on the bountiful blessings in my own life. And, while I’m at it, I’d better put the Judge Judy in my head on mute.

Fruit, Tomatoes, Tomatenrispe, MacroYesterday (Friday 4/22) was Earth Day.  I have to admit that Earth Day is not a huge day for me.  We’re a pretty environmentally conscious family.  We recycle.  We reuse.  I remake some clothing.  We don’t use paper plates or paper napkins.  Nope.  Not even when we have 8 extra kids in the house.  And when one of them asks we explain that we are being stewards of God’s earth.  To us that means minimizing our impact and using things wisely.  I try to challenge them.

Every now and again one of those pesky teens challenges me.

Tonight, my son stood looking out at the back yard from the kitchen window.  “Can I plant something in that corner?  The weedy one?”

“Which weedy corner?”  When it comes to our back yard, you have to be a bit more specific.  The weedy corner with the telephone pole?  Or the weedy corner on top of the hill?

“That one by the telephone pole.  Potatoes are really easy.  I want to plant potatoes. That’s what we did in biology today.”

Way back before my son was born, I loved to garden.  Okay, garden is probably an exaggeration.  At our old house, you could throw compost down, minimally turn the soil and stick in some tomato plants. They grew shoulder-high (I’m 5’8”) with stems thicker than my thumb.  They had to be staked and propped and grew more tomatoes than we could use.  I thought I was something else.

Then we moved.  We’ve planted tomatoes.  We’ve even tried different places in both the front and back yards.  I have managed to get maybe 5 tomatoes total and we’ve been here 14 years. I finally quit trying.

I tend to think that’s why God sent me this boy. To encourage me to try again and to try something a little different.  All I know is that I’m eying that corner of the yard and I’m planning to turn that boy loose with a shovel and a pick.  For some reason I’ve never felt comfortable abandoning the compost pile so we’ve continued to add to it and turn it.  God only knows why because I sure don’t.

But what I do know is this. God has blessed us with this Earth and the things that grow. I’m just here to take care of it to the best of my ability. Maybe just maybe I’ll get a few tomatoes out of the deal.

–SueBE

I look at the form. It is the 2016-2017 stewardship questionnaire from my local parish —my commitment to volunteerism and financial support for the coming year. How much will I pledge weekly? What can I do to help out: bake cookies? Mow the law? Clean the chapel?

It is not the “giving” part of the equation that bothers me, that causes the hairs on the back of my neck to rise; it is the actual form itself. “Family name” it requests. Easy enough. But then, this: “Mother’s name.” “Father’s name.” Each with a blank. My heart drops.

I am not a mother. I have no children, for reasons too personal to discuss. And yet, if I am not a mother, how can I put my name in this space? The Catholic Church simply assumes that if I call myself part of a family, I must be the mother. Who else could I be?

Much has been made of Amoris Laetitia (Joy of Love), the latest in Pope Francis’ responses to Catholic family life. In it, he asks that each parish be open to family in all its forms, welcoming and supportive. As usual, the document has been blasted by both sides — by traditionalists for being too liberal and by liberals because the Pope does nothing to change the church’s response to LGBT persons or divorced Catholics. I will admit to hoping for more, but understand that the Pope must tread gently in these divided times. Still, the document does much to open the doors to families in all of their nontraditional, messy splendor. Yet my parish still asks: “Mother’s name”?

I sometimes get the distinct feeling from my Church that if I am not a mother, I am nothing. I have no role. I am unfruitful, an anomaly. I have missed the proverbial boat. When I tell my pastor that I am childless, he says, “That’s okay,” as if to soothe me. What have I done that was so terrible? Do I need to be told — over and over again — that a woman without children is a failure?

My husband isn’t nearly as unnerved as I am. “You should write your mother’s name in the space,” he suggests. But the onus on him isn’t the same as it is on me. Catholics are notoriously fruitful. I knew a girl in high school who had 13 siblings. I have more cousins than I can count — 11 in just one family. My mom is the youngest of seven. In the Catholic Church, I do stand out like a sore thumb.

And yet there have always been childless Catholics. My great-aunt Lydia and her husband did not have kids. How must she have felt, back when “family planning” was an anathema akin to mortal sin? (Not that the proscribed methods of the Catholic Church are much better nowadays…as my high school religion teacher once deadpanned, “I used the rhythm method. I have 11 children.”) A childless Catholic woman is either a “poor thing” (she wanted kids but couldn’t have them) or a harlot (she didn’t want them). There is no room for anything in between.

I consider my spouse to be my family. It is the two of us against the world, and we’ve done okay. After all, he once considered himself an agnostic; now he is a full-fledged Catholic. We attend Mass every week. We give, financially, and of our time and talents. And yet, there it is: “Mother’s name.”

In the end, I will put my name in the blank, mostly out of resignation. But is it too much to ask: Can’t I be a married Catholic woman in good standing, a real woman of faith…but not a mother?

The other day, I baby-sat my ex-husband’s five-year-old daughter as she waited for the school bus. She’s one of my favorite people in the world, and it’s always a joy to spend time with My Princess.

So at 8:25, it was almost time for the bus to come. I asked her to put on her coat, but she was engrossed in a t.v. show.

Next, I asked her to get her backpack, but she wanted to find the right shade of blue for the picture she was coloring – of a princess, of course.

We went outside, heading for the driveway to wait for the bus, but she was concerned that a pile of branches was on top of some flowers growing by the front walk. “They don’t like to be covered,” she told me, and set about to move the branches, but I told her there wasn’t time. Bus was coming.

We got to the middle of the driveway and I realized she’d brought out the paper kite she’d made in school and she started to run in a circle, making it fly. Making her laugh. Making me laugh, too, in spite of myself. Every instinct said, No time to play. Bus is coming. Can’t miss the bus.

Finally, the bus arrived and she ran to me for a hug. “I love you so much, honey,” I said. She gave me another hug. But of course, you know the drill. Bus is waiting. She got on the bus and we waved good-bye.

It seemed as I watched the bus drive away that there were more than just decades that separated us. There was a great divide. The one between making sure you meet your obligations and really being in the moment and savoring life as it happens.

We go to great pains to make sure that the bus doesn’t wait; meantime, we make our souls wait.

You can play later, we tell ourselves. Be an adult. Playing isn’t what we do. What we do is meet deadlines. Put bills on auto-pay. Put ourselves on auto-pilot. Get on the bus. Get it done.

Maybe we spend our lives looking for the secret sauce that adds verve and vitality to our everyday existence, and it’s the one thing we un-learned on our way to adulthood.

Playtime isn’t frivolous. It’s a crucial nutrient that nurtures and nourishes the soul. Being a grown-up doesn’t have to be a chronic condition. So I say, any time you can tap into your inner child, kick off your shoes and play on!

FThank You, Gratitude, Appreciation, Appreciateirst things first, let’s get this out of the way. I am not an expert on naikan.  Not even close.  I listened to a pod cast, a short eleven minutes that spoke to my heart.  It was about cultivating an attitude of gratitude.

Perhaps it caught my attention because this is a non-Christian approach to something that Christians have been discussing an awful lot lately.  Every week, I see blog posts on learning to be grateful for the many blessings God sends our way.  When I saw the listing for this, I was curious because I want to know how other people approach problems that we all have in common.

In naikan, you learn to be grateful for the many small things that make your life good.  Among the examples cited were your car that started, the lines on the street that keep everyone in the correct lane, and a hug from your daughter.

Truthfully, we experience many reasons to be grateful on a daily basis.  Today alone I’ve been able to make contact with friends through Facebook, been able to cook breakfast super quick in the microwave, had a wonderful cup of coffee, and, because a doctor’s appointment was cancelled, had time to touch up my toe nails.  Life is good!

Why then we are so often unhappy?  Why do we focus on the things that went wrong in our day?

Expectations.  We expect things to go our way.  We want that light to be green, the new dress we ordered to arrive today and that clerk had better wait on me next.  We expect these things and when they don’t happen — disappointment!

Entitlement.  We deserve these things, don’t we?  Pinterest tells us our homes should always be beautiful.  Yelp makes it clear that each and every meal we eat out should be inexpensive, delicious, fast and beautifully served.  And there better not be anyone in our vicinity that we don’t like the looks of…

Self-focus.  It is easy to believe that we deserve the best when the only person that we focus on is ourselves.  To break this mind set, we need to focus outward.  When I do, I notice that in addition to myself there are a lot of people out there and, you know something nutty?  They’re His too.  His Blessings aren’t reserved just for me.

I should be grateful and thank Him for those that are.

–SueBE

Driving from Kansas to southern Indiana (and back) is an interesting experience. As you wend your way through the heart of the Midwest, you see things. You learn things. Like what’s important to the people of the heartland. How? By simply looking around at the signs and billboards we post.

Politics, for instance, energizes us. Is “right to work” right for Missouri? I imagine the people of the Show Me state will have to work that out for themselves. Whom should earn your vote for judge in Terre Haute, Indiana? Perhaps a native could decipher an answer from the signs — I could not. (Though I liked the ones shaped like donkeys.)

We are a commercial society. Just about every town off the interstate attempted to draw me in with their antique shops, fireworks outlets and restaurants. Mile-high pie! Clean restrooms! All of these little towns proudly tout their heritages, as well. Come see the magical caverns! Walk the historic district! We are proud of where we live and what it has to offer.

We are proud of our faith, too. We like to advertise our churches and post random admonitions — scriptural and otherwise — in fields and on roadsides. The Midwest is keen to know whether or not I am saved. Anonymous sources exhort me on my sinfulness. Several cities advise me that I cannot possibly love babies enough. (Once the little rascals grow out of infanthood, I can only surmise that they are on their own.)

I love the Midwest. The weird juxtaposition of “Jesus saves” signs next to billboards for fast and discreet gun sales. The Burma Shave-like buildup for a café that may or may not exist anymore. The constant road construction and revamping.

I wonder what God sees when God looks at America and Americans — at our hearts, our good hearts, mostly in the right places. Does God laugh at our foibles, our quibbles, our vanity? No doubt. But God loves these things about us, too. God loves the giant cross in Effingham, Illinois, just as God loves the burgers and sundaes at the local Culver’s.

We are a big, loud, bombastic bunch, we Americans. We’ve got things to say! And that’s what makes the trip worth it: Taking in the come-ons, exhortations, admonitions, lures and wheedles and using our own moral filters to discern our paths.

I-70 runs through the heart of America, good, bad, ugly and righteous. It is up to each of us to decide what to buy…and what to speed on past.

three little cover

Opinions are like elbows – everybody’s got one, and sometimes they’re out of joint.

With so many troubling things going on in the world today, everybody has a theory about why these things happen, and what to do about them.

I think that there are some good, solid values that endure, despite the fact that times are constantly changing.

If positive attributes had Christian names, we might be more inclined to take them to heart.

Grace: your friend who calls before you even know you’re down in the dumps. She shows up at the door with fresh-baked muffins while you’re still on the phone and takes your mind off of your troubles.

Moxie: a sweet little girl in pig-tails who never gives up. You see her at the end of the block, playing hopscotch like an Olympian, even when it starts to rain. Winning the game is her goal and she will not be deterred!

Joy: that shelter dog you’ve seen on the internet who has worked her way into your heart. A two-minute video of that pup wagging her tail and tilting her head tells you she’s already chosen you. It’s just a matter of time before you come around and head to the shelter to pick her up.

We’ve all got troubles to deal with, but there’s a way to meet them head on.

Being gracious in a hectic world, being tenacious when trials come your way, and being vivacious when your heart’s almost bursting from blessings.

Oh, and lest we forget: there’s your cousin. The one who keeps sending you encouraging emails and checks on you when you’re sick. Her name? Faith, of course.

Swing, Swingers, Playground, School, Recess, Fun, ParkEach week, our prayer list contains the usual requests for prayer as people wait to hear from doctors, recover from surgery and celebrate life’s joys – births, marriages and new jobs.  For the last month, our church has added something new to the list.  Each week, there is a different local school.  It isn’t that there is anything in particular wrong at this school, but we are asked to pray with that school in our hearts.

I have to admit that I wasn’t entirely sure what to pray for the first few weeks so my prayers were vague.  “Dear God, please keep the students and teachers of Lawson Elementary strong.  Help them to treat each other well and to live with you in their hearts.”

Then one week I had a cold so I wasn’t singing with the choir.  Instead I was sitting in the back with some of our youth.  The pastor announced that our school of week was Combs Elementary and all of a sudden Jason, who was beside me, sat up straight. “Hey, that’s my school!”

The moment he knew that we would be praying for him and his classmates, this boy lit up.  The change was obvious and so was the change in my prayers.

“Dear Lord, there are so many pressures on these young people and those who seek to shepherd them into adulthood.  Help them see the path you would have them walk. Help them make good choices and to live as you would have us all live – with kindness, with love, and with integrity. Help them to not only do your work but to be your lights in this world.  Amen.”

Clearly, I was still praying for a whole lot of people that I don’t know but it went so much better when I had Jason in my heart and mind.  That led me to the greater realization.  When I pray for a group of people that I’ve never met – people who have experienced a disaster or hardship of some kind, or the first responders rushing to an accident, or the children in a school – I need to pray as if I know them, because to some extent I do.

They are, after all, my brothers, my sisters, my fellows in God’s creation.

–SueBE

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