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When I read about missionaries overseas, I’m of two minds. Appreciative of anyone lending a hand to those in need, but ambivalent about the fact that it comes with a price tag. Listen to a sermon. Follow this religion. Do things our way.

To me, the essence of the gospel is outreach that makes a positive impact for someone in a negative circumstance and expects nothing in return. This church initiative in England that asks congregants to use an app to report slavery at car washes is a good example.

The phrase, “of two minds,” came to me again as I read about the cancellation of Roseanne Barr’s sitcom re-boot in the wake of her racist tweet. Several years ago, I wrote an article about the Secret, a new-age philosophy and film. I contacted celebrities who’d commented about it, one of whom was Roseanne.

“The Secret is based on Abrahamic meditations, and should be used only to bring peace and blessings to the mind, and NOT for material gain, which will make it backfire,” she said in an email. It wasn’t her agent or assistant, but Roseanne, responding to me directly. I noticed two things: she doesn’t have a handler and she has strong opinions. She’s of two minds. Seeker of spiritual truth. Spewer of hate speech.

I’m of two minds in terms of what to do with notable figures who go off the rails in this way. On the one hand, what they’ve done is inexcusable. On the other, isolating them in perpetuity won’t rehabilitate them, or make the issues go away. I really wish there were an app for that.

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Two weeks ago I got to go on retreat for four days.  It was amazing.  It was a writing retreat at a Benedictine Abbey.  I can’t say that I got a lot of writing done because I took advantage of the retreat aspect.  I read. I walked.  I thought.  I contemplated.

I expected that at home I would be oh so relaxed and productive.  Instead my first week back was a big bummer.

I can’t say that anything huge went wrong.  Sure there were lots of little stressful things but that’s life.  Might as well learn to deal with it.

But isn’t that true both for seeking “retreat” and beauty as well as dealing with the stressors?  That is life and you might as well learn to deal with it.

So spend some time seeking out the beauty in the world around you.  Look at the colors.  Listen to the birds songs.  Stop and really taste that cup of coffee that you so enjoy.

Seek the beauty in the world around you.  And while you are at it. Thank God.  It will help you to better see the beauty in every day actions.  Here is an example from Lord, Teach Us to Pray.  It is “An Everyday Blessing” by Kris Haig.

Bless to me my potted plants, O God.
Bless to me their green leaves
Bless to me their sturdy stems
Bless to me their ghostly roots
that stretch deep
into the secret loam.

Bless the pots that encircle them
Bless the water I pour on them
Bless the rivers and reservoirs
the pipes and spigots
and the sea-green glass pitcher
that catches and carries
your water of life.

Bless the sun
that draws my plants to itself
and bless you, O Christ,
who draws me to yourself.

–SueBE

When Jeannie says it, she means saints, a concept new to her; in her Protestant experience, prayer is “you and Jesus, no one else.” But a brush with Catholicism brought with it the idea of saints as intercessors, friends who sit on your shoulder and pray alongside you. Now Jeannie asks for a few good words every now and again from her new friend, St. Mother Theodore Guerin. But the way she expressed her good fortune (see title above) provoked, yes, a poem.

How do you acquire them
and where do they perch?
Do you feel them as a brush of wings
against your shoulder, or as a rush of wind,
hot, like breath, and intimate? Have they
set up shop (prayers, five cents each, like
a comic strip psychiatry stand) or —
are your insistent wishes just a blip in their routine,
something to do on the way to the fishing hole,
the café, the clean white shops of heaven?
Whatever. The machinery of it is unimportant.
What counts is the concern, unfathomable,
laughable, even, of a child, a nun, a martyr,
of those who burned or hung, lay with lepers
or led armies into battle, who died in perfect faith,
reaching across immeasurable time, to chime in
a single good word: Amen. I thank them for their
affirmation; I hope to join the chorus one day.

What is the difference between poem and prayer? The older I get, the more I think there is none. I was raised on both: My mother, a devout Catholic, read poetry to us kids from the time we were tiny. And I mean real poems — Wordsworth, Poe, Coleridge, Whitman. By the time I could read, these poems were as familiar and dear to me as any fairy tale or nursery rhyme.

When I started writing poetry (at age 6), it didn’t occur to me my own poems could be prayers, mostly because I wrote about nonspiritual stuff — my toys, Christmas, flights of fancy. It was only when I got a gig writing nondenominational prayers that I realized: If the intention is there, poem is prayer.

Word is word, whether
molded by mouth or hammered,
hewn, by hand. And all words rise,
sure as heat, the heavens
being the only landing strip
for such strange dirigibles.
Voices are louder, quicker
to pierce Paradise, but clumsy, too,
all diphthong and sibilant s’s.
Written, words fly graceful as doves,
land, preening, offer themselves
as white sacrifices. The God of Words
collects them, views their pulsing hearts
thanks them and sends them home.

Every so often, a painful memory will pop up, and your brain will go over the experience again. In a way, you’re saying, here’s another reason why that wrong thing was wrong for me.

It’s like watching a re-run of a drama that you hated the first time. Don’t resurrect it and wallow in the pain of it. It didn’t serve you. It ended. Thank God! No, really. Thank God.

For the experience, which you learned from.
For its being over, which relieved you of that particular pain.
For the opportunity of having a better experience going forward.

Now you know what to look for. Knowing what you don’t want helps you to update your checklist for next time.

One way to transition from a thought that brings you down is to look up. Think about the things you’re grateful for.

Try this: break down a blessing to its most minute component. This is the makeshift meditation I use to shift gears:

Thank you water, thank you coffee, thank you kettle, thank you stove, thank you gas, thank you flame, thank you kitchen, thank you home, thank you Lord.

Gratitude. All the way to the top.

So you leave no space for whatever you were sad about to seep back in. You’ll feel silly doing it the first time, but it’s a powerful negativity blocker.

These grace-gifts will gently elbow out the fraught-thoughts bringing you down.

Morning coffee and an attitude of gratitude. A great way to start the day!

Has this ever happened to you? Something’s thrown you for a loop. You’ve done everything you can, prayed about it and proceeded to let go and let God… then promptly took it back. Worrying about it. Talking about it to anybody who’d listen. Refusing to let it go. 

I’ve done this so often, I can’t believe there isn’t a name for it.

Maybe we’ll call it a prayback.

You pray, give it to God, then take it back.

Listen: there are no takebacks in prayer. You don’t need to take back a problem once it’s entrusted into God’s hands. You can’t take it back anyway. It was never yours to resolve. All you can do is… all you can do.

When my son was just an infant, every so often his pacifier would fall on the floor. I’d grab it, sprint to the kitchen and run it under scalding water until I was sure it was clean. Over time, I loosened up about it, eventually just wiping it on my sleeve and saying this phrase: “Kiss it to God.” Germs build immunity!

Lately, I’ve had this phrase running through my head: “Bless it to yes.”

There are some things you can’t solve right away, but there is always something you can do to take it from an absolute no to something closer to a yes.

What part of this situation can I improve? How can I get everybody on the team (or in the family) working together on a solution? Is there anyone I can call for advice who might have something constructive to add?

If all of these boxes have been checked, keep the faith and keep on moving.

I woke this morning, as I do every morning, with a sense of urgency — ready to rush into my day. Turns out, however, that today was different. Today, my 16-year-old cat became a kitten again.

When Steven was a baby (he came to us, wild and starving, barely old enough to have his eyes open), he loved to sleep on my stomach, to feel me breathing. But I had work to do. So I donned an apron with a commodious front pocket, slipped him into the pocket, and went about my day, a human kangaroo.

Steven is dying of cancer. (Intrepid readers will remember we just lost Banshee last month. Such is life with a houseful of senior citizen animals.) Just yesterday he was morose and miserable, shying away from our petting hands. This morning, however, he woke me by squirming into my arms and purring up a storm. He wanted to sleep next to me again. So, despite the work of the day ahead, I did as God was clearly calling me to do: I spent an extra half-hour cuddling with my dying kitty.

Sometimes we are called to do God’s work in the world. And sometimes, we are called to stay in bed with a warm, soft orange cat. All callings are sacred, no matter how small. Do today what you are called to do. The dishes can wait. Phone calls can wait. But there will never be another chance to love someone at this time and in this place.

Sort of sounds like a prayer, doesn’t it?

There’s a sketch on Sesame Street: Grover demonstrates the difference between near and far by running back and forth breathlessly until he collapses into a dramatic, Grover-ian heap. I don’t know why this sketch popped into my head; maybe it’s because I’ve been pondering the notion of God’s nearness…and far-ness. Turns out, it’s got me every bit as addled as poor, exhausted Grover.

Sometimes God seems very near — even uncomfortably near. At the best of times, this nearness is like a warm blanket of hope and reassurance. It can quite simply impart the ability to go on, especially during dark times. But sometimes, that same nearness makes me squirm as if I’m wearing an itchy wool sweater (or possibly an itchy wool straitjacket). God is calling me on the carpet. God is asking that I get real with myself and deal with a situation that I’d rather run from. God is near, and God knows me. There’s no place to hide.

Then there’s the feeling, sometimes quite pronounced, that God is far away. God has left me alone to suffer. God has not provided a solution to my troubles. I am lost and God is not showing me which way to turn. It’s all too much to bear by myself.

Maybe it’s because I struggle with nearness and far-ness in my physical being. I remember the first time I heard about people who prefer that others not invade “their space.” It was a revelation. It was normal, after all, to not want acquaintances to touch me or impinge on my “bubble.” Yet I also consider myself a “touchy-feely” type. If I like you, I will touch your arm as we talk. I will hug you every time I see you. I hold hands whenever I’m with someone I love especially much.

Whatever my personal hang-ups, I know that others struggle with God’s proximity every bit as much as I do. It seems none of us can get a handle on just where God is — in God’s heavens? Wherever two or more are gathered? Is Jesus the cuddly Good Shepherd or the guy who rowed out to sea or went into the desert just to get as far away as possible from the crowds?

Near. Far. God is both, sometimes at the same time. Prayer can draw God nearer. Our own fear can seem to drive God away. I suspect that God is where God always is, all the time — everywhere. We simply don’t realize how near everywhere can be.

I’ve just returned from a long car trip, a trip whose sole purpose seems to have been to remind me that I am old. Well, older, anyway. For instance, I remember how easy it was to genuflect when I was a child — a quick bob with one knee and right back up again. I was as bendable as new grass, as light as a reed, so thin my sister and I were not allowed to look into the windows of the local health club (out of sheer childish curiosity) because it offended those inside. How on earth, I used to think, can it be difficult to genuflect?

The words come back to haunt me as I use the pew to lever myself into and out of that once-effortless pose. It’s not so easy anymore.

It’s funny to imagine a God who is ageless. Wasn’t he my companion as a child, as a 20-something, navigating the newness of adulthood, and now an aging friend who provides a shoulder to lean on as necessary? Won’t God still be there as I totter into old age? And all the time, always, God is my friend, my compatriot, the pal I vent to when my shoulders ache and I realize that typing 100 words a minute was less a feat than a doorway to carpal tunnel. God grows old with me, yet is eternally young, ready to support the next new life and the next and the next.

My body announces itself
with pops and groans,
a one-woman band of
complaints and aggravations.
Ankle, knee, neck, feet.
Bones aren’t built to last.
They snap like chalk, crumble
to dust. My foot comes up,
senses a thousand ways to stumble.
Yet at my elbow, a light touch:
lifting. My foot comes down;
God gives me ground to stand on.
Each step’s a new wonder;
with practice, I’ll fly.

So here’s a hypothetical question: What if, the minute you had an inspired idea, it was susceptible to thought-hackers? You’d get to the drawing board right away. Wouldn’t you?

In a moment of divine inspiration, you came up with an idea that would change the world. At the same time, you’re aware that thought-hackers may be listening in on a secret brain-wave wire tap. You’d make sure you got over to your lab and created that world-changing thing right away.

Now, I have no such delusions of grandeur, but I just had an interesting thought that made me re-think the way I see all of the things I pray that God will make right in my life. What if that’s what life is supposed to look like, really? All of the problems that keep persisting. Are they really just projects?

If pain is a clue to let you know that there’s something in your body that is hurting and needs attention, maybe problems are breadcrumbs. Got this one fixed, but here comes another one just like it.

Not a problem. A project.

Not a difficult person. A story to unravel.

Not a lack. A lesson.

Maybe the hard road is not too much for us to bear. Maybe it’s God, right on time, believing in us enough to know that we’ll use our ingenuity, our inspiration, our innovation to find a way to make things work. And when need be, we can always fall back on our secret weapon: prayer.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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