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This is one of my favorite prayers. Okay, technically, it isn’t a prayer.  It was written in The Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich.  But I use it as a prayer.

For those you who don’t know of Julian of Norwich, she lived approximately from 1342 to 1416.  She was a spiritual counselor, a woman who set herself off from the world and lived at St. Julian’s Church in Norwich.  Thus the name by which we know her.  That’s right.  This isn’t even her real name.

Does that mean we should pity her as a woman whose identity has been taken from her?  I don’t think so but not because that isn’t an issue.  It is but in this case I suspect it is what she wanted.  She was an educated woman who wrote the oldest surviving Western book to be written by a woman.  She has a clue.

In The Revelations of Divine Love, she writes about her visions of Christ.  In one vision, she was bemoaning the fact that sin had to exist.  Wouldn’t everything be better if there was no sin? But Christ answered her in her vision, “It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

How often in prayer do we spend our time looking back, gazing on past sin and suffering?  Oh, God.  Why did this have to happen?

It did happen.  But there is God and where there is God there is hope.

“But all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

The world is not a perfect place and yet we have grace.

“But all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

We are flawed but we are God’s.

“But all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

–SueBE

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Last year, something momentous happened to our country. For the first time in history, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), an agency who reviews and rates countries based on their democratic values, dropped our ranking from “full democracy” to “flawed democracy.” For those who need a translation, that takes America from its rarified position alongside Norway and Canada and plunges it down into the ilk of countries like Chile, Italy and Botswana. This year, the EIU confirmed its earlier analysis: Americans don’t live in a genuine democracy anymore. If that doesn’t scare you, I don’t know what will.

It has been suggested of late that people who complain about our government — or, worse, protest against it — are somehow “un-American.” They don’t respect our flag! They don’t respect our military! That’s a load of hooey. Protest is as American as apple pie. It’s our origin story: Rebels leaving their homes to come to the New World so they could rebel against England, against each other, against religious tyranny, government control, racism, sexism — you name it. We’re the agitated, red jacket-wearing James Dean of countries.

Rebels are patriots. They understand that the only way to keep the system honest is to challenge it, constantly. They love their country not despite its flaws, but including them — but they know their country can do better. They should be commended for that.

So should people who speak up about the flaws in other institutions, like the Catholic Church. If the Church can’t fix itself (and God knows it needs fixing), it becomes irrelevant. And it dies. Think of protesters as people who care enough to demand not just what is but what could be — if we were all at our best.

A person who loves blindly doesn’t really love at all. It’s the person who sees all the blemishes and scars and ugliness of something and still chooses to love it who really understands what love is.

It’s the way God loves us: Warts and all. And our loving response should be to fix our warts as we are able. Otherwise, love is just a one-way street, and God deserves better. So do we.

There’s an old children’s rhyme (quoted famously in “Singing in the Rain”) that goes like this: “Moses supposes his toeses are roses, but Moses supposes erroneously.” It’s a bit of doggerel that keeps popping into my mind as I reflect further on the subject of forgiveness. For aren’t we all a little like Moses in this way?

We are quick to excuse, expunge, understand and let slide our own sins because they are ours. We know our own motivation. We think ourselves to be, at heart, good people. We cut ourselves slack. We suppose our toes — or our sins, in this case — are roses. But we suppose erroneously. All sins stink.

Imagine extending the kind of compassion we show ourselves to others! Instead of mentally berating the mother who is shrieking at her children at Walmart, perhaps we could recall the last time our own tone was harsh — understandably so, because of the day we were having! What has that mother’s day been like? Or among our own families: Do we not sometimes take for granted that our families will love us no matter what? And does this assumption sometimes carry with it the further assumption that we need not try as hard with our own kin as we do, say, with outsiders? Again, we suppose erroneously. Our families deserve our first fruits, not our leftover scraps.

I’m not advocating beating yourself up for every error you make. Rather, loosen the purse strings on your bag of mercy in the same way you would for yourself. You remember that you are only human. You know you get tired, frustrated, out of sorts. But you forget that other people do, too. You want your own opinions to be accepted and understood, but you’d rather others not express opinions counter to your own. If your own toeses need a little compassion, so do everybody else’s — whether or not they smell much like roses.

I am feeling my way around the subject of forgiveness because it seems to be a prominent need in my life. But it’s prominent for all of us. Forgiveness is not only a gift we give others, it is a gift for ourselves, a letting go of pain and anger that can drag us down and make us stink just as bad as the person who sinned against us. For the health of our own toeses — as well as the toeses of others — maybe we should remember: We are all sinners, and we all smell. Mercy, grace and compassion are just what we need to cover up the stench.

I’ve been struggling with a word lately. Nothing polysyllabic, mind you. Just two little letters: AS. Oh sure, I can spell it. I can even use it in a sentence (and often do). It’s the repercussions of those two letters in one particular context that have me thinking: Their use in the Lord’s Prayer.

Here’s what I’m talking about: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It’s a pivotal part of the prayer that Christ himself gave us. And it is here that semantics come into play. “As” can mean “while” or “at the same time as” — as in, “forgive us our sins while we forgive others their sins.” But it can also mean “equally” or “because” — as in, “forgive us our sins to the same degree we forgive others theirs, or only because we forgive theirs.” See what I mean about two letters being thought-provoking?

The first interpretation is the easiest to parse and live with. It’s rather a tit for tat situation: You do your part, God, and we’ll try to do ours. But there’s no commitment to “keeping up with the Joneses” here — no promise to forgive to the same extent as God does. The second definition (“to the same extent as”) poses a trickier quest because it does ask us to do as God does, in the same way and magnitude that God does. That’s one tricky commitment.

“Because” also holds its challenges. It requires that we go first: We forgive to be forgiven. Can I do that sincerely, without feeling like I’m taking my spoonful of castor oil only so I can have a lollipop afterward? Can I do that without demanding the reward of forgiveness in return?

Forgiveness is tough, and it gets tougher depending on the degree to which we love the person we need to forgive. So, if we want forgiveness for ourselves — and who doesn’t? — it behooves us to think hard about those two little letters. What did Jesus mean by them? Which interpretation would he choose? Or would he choose “all of the above” — the toughest challenge of all?

God created language, and God knows (and delights in) its intricacies. So I’m reasonably sure of my answer. Jesus gave us just one prayer in all of scripture; he knew we would be picking it apart and analyzing it for centuries to come. I’m far from the first to wonder about it. I certainly won’t be the last.

So there’s my task: To be forgiven AS I forgive. Whatever that means. Whatever it takes. Boy, that’ll require some serious prayer.

Do you suffer from lightheadedness? Ringing in the ears? Do you sweat excessively? Do you have unexplained pain in your feet? How about difficulty concentrating? It’s enough to turn anyone into a hypochondriac.

I’m talking about a form I have to complete every time I see my doctor — that is, every six months. On it is an extensive list of symptoms; I circle the ones that seem to apply to me. As always, I struggle with honesty. Well, yes, my back does hurt. But does it hurt hurt? Do I want to open that can of worms, or should I just try not to sleep on my back so much?

It’s rather like examining the current state of one’s soul — as a person is wont to do during Lent. (Am I following through with my Lenten promises? How can I improve?) It also reminds me of the sacrament of Reconciliation. Before I can confess my sins, I have to make a list of them. And it seems like the same old sins keep appearing on this list, just as I continue to report the same health symptoms to my doctor. “Being short-tempered” is my “continuing asthma.” “Selfishness” is right up there with “osteoporosis.” I might as well bring a form into the confessional with me.

What happens when a symptom becomes a chronic health problem? Well, you fight it, of course, with a program of prescriptions and wellness techniques: exercise, healthy eating, etc. But what should you do when the chronic problem is a sin — the same one, time and again?

It is all very well and good to promise you won’t do it again — something I do, and have done for years. And every time I really mean it. And then, halfway home from church, some small annoyance starts my skin tingling, like a form of eczema, and I snap. Or judge someone’s appearance or actions. Or fall prey to depression. And suddenly, it’s déjà vu all over.

Maybe it’s time to look at underlying causes. Is that cough a cold or tuberculosis? Am I being selfish because I don’t feel loved enough or because I am greedy and childish? Do I lose my temper because others don’t live up to my expectations (and why should they?) or because there is something about my life that needs radical change? These are the questions I should be asking, investigating, and diagnosing.

What’s on your list? What symptoms keep popping up to plague your spiritual life? And what can you do about them to effect systemic change? Consider Lent your yearly check-up. And then get to work.

I saw a new doctor last week, and while I was being poked, prodded, and otherwise probed, it dawned on me: We regularly have a professional check out our physical well being, but seldom (if ever) do we inquire into the health of our souls. But how does one go about doing a soul-check? Here are a few ideas. Please feel free to contribute your own!

  1. Examination: How is your conscience feeling? Any lingering guilt? Are there issues, addictions, emotions you’d like to put out of your life? Who help you with these problems? Perhaps a member of the clergy or a psychologist would be of benefit. Or maybe you just need a good listener to bounce ideas off of. Maybe you can find someone who struggles in a similar way and make a deal to work on yourselves together. There is strength in numbers, after all!
  2. Resuscitation: Is there someone whose forgiveness you badly need? Contact them immediately! Is there someone who you need to forgive? Do so, whether in the quiet of your heart or in person. Let go of past hurts. Breathe out the bad and breathe in a new start.
  3. Everyday Health Practices: What can you do to give your soul greater sustenance? Maybe you could set up a time for quiet prayer or meditation. Perhaps reading a good spiritual book (the Bible, for instance) every day, when you first wake up in the morning or before bed at night, would be a way to bring energy to the day or closure before rest. I appreciate the hour I spend in our church’s chapel every week. I read, pray the rosary, recite prayers. Sometimes I just listen to my own heart. It’s a peaceful practice, and couldn’t we all use more peace in our lives?
  4. Setting up a Problem List: My doctor created a list of my major health issues, including allergies, asthma and osteoporosis. Where are your weak points: Charity, mercy, forgiveness? Are you open-hearted, embracing of others who differ from you? Do you judge or condemn others? These are all problems of the spirit. Don’t dwell on them; just make a list and start to work on the places you fall short. Awareness is the key. You can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge.
  5. Give Yourself a Gold Star: Don’t just concentrate on your failings. Pat yourself on the back for the things you get right. I am a big fan of water; I seldom drink anything else. Good for me! What are your particular talents? What in your spiritual life comes easily to you? These things are important. God made you as you are, with your particular strengths, to serve good in the world. Knowing your talents can help you identify ways to do this most effectively.

The health of our souls is every bit as important as that of our bodies. But we often ignore our sick souls; they don’t cause us to limp or cough. They don’t itch or ache. All the more reason for us to check in our spiritual selves from time to time! An undiagnosed disease can kill you. An undiagnosed soul-problem can wreak havoc, too — mentally and physical, socially and personally.

We are both body and spirit. Let’s remember to take care of both.

 

I swear I’ve had the following conversation with myself:

Me: I am going to eat all of the [insert food, such as cookies, cake, pie, leftovers]!

Myself: Oh no, don’t do that.

Me: Why not? I MADE IT. So by rights, I should get to eat as much as I want to.

Myself: Think of your husband! Think of your waistline!

Me (Already chewing): Shut up, you goody-good.

Myself: You shut up. And give me some of that pie.

It’s symptomatic of a realization I had recently: We hang on to sins not because we want to be bad, but because we find them somehow comforting. Gluttony feels a lot like self-nurturing. (For some people, starving works the same way.) Lying feels like self-protection. Jealousy strokes one’s own ego. (“You’re right. It isn’t fair that she has money and you don’t. Who does she think she is?”) Wallowing in hatred and surrounding ourselves with like-minded people keeps us from having to face the fact that we might be wrong, or worse, bad people.

In St. Augustine’s Confessions, he makes a startling admission. He sinned because he loved his sins. That sounds shocking, wicked even. But when you think about it, we all love our own sins. Why else would we keep doing them? We all do whatever works for us in order to get through life. A lot of those things are sinful, even self-destructive. But we do them because we don’t know better. Or we don’t trust better. Or we just don’t want to change.

In many ways, we’re all just grown-up toddlers. We feed our inner needs for love, attention, happiness and acceptance in the most basic, crude ways possible. A toddler doesn’t consider long-term ramifications; she wants the cookie, so she steals the cookie. You’d think we’d grow out of that kind of thinking, yet inside of us that “inner toddler,” that child that knows only selfishness, continues to thrive, deep in the most hidden parts of us.

So how do we turn off the insistent voice of our inner toddler? How do we get past sins that feel good on some primal level? I have no authoritative answer. I suppose it involves healing our toddler-selves in ways other than those that are clearly bad for us. I bet it also involves deep self-examination, discerning what our real needs are and how they might be met in more constructive ways.

Or you could go the “cold water in the face” route by remembering this: Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice — His life — for our sins. Not just for the biggies like murder, but the little sins, too. And yes, that includes eating entire pies. Put in those terms, any inner toddler would feel shame. And shame can be a catalyst for change, one of the oldest and most basic of all catalysts, in fact.

Granted, none of us is ever going to achieve sin-free perfection. That cranky inner voice will continue to triumph in ways big and small. But maybe we can rein it in a bit simply by being aware of it. After all, toddler tantrums and crow’s feet don’t exactly go well together. Someone has to be the adult.

I’m experimenting with a new way of reading scripture: You (or, preferably, several people) read a passage aloud four times, listening to it in a new way. For instance, what word or words jump out at you? And what does this passage say that’s relevant to the world today?

I’ve taken this approach with the prayer known as the “Our Father.” And what leaps out at me, repeatedly, is the word “trespass.” Note: The word is not “sin.” Not “transgress,” “err,” or “do wrong.” Trespass. Now that’s a word I associate with tersely worded signs denoting land rights and possible encounters with angry, shotgun-wielding homesteaders, not morally hurtful behavior. Trespass. It means going over the line, encroaching. It’s so much less tangible than “sin.” How do I know I’m trespassing if I can’t see your emotional property line?

That’s what makes the surrounding part of the prayer so sweet: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Yes. It means that we are forgiven our trespasses, intentional and accidental. It also means that we forgive our trespassers — even those who don’t know they’ve trespassed, who didn’t see the line, who don’t realize they’ve stepped on metaphorical private land. You know, the ones who step on our hearts.

That’s no easy promise. And yet God freely provides that forgiveness to us…all we need do is ask! Of course, our trespassers might not respond in kind. They might not ask us for forgiveness, but that’s part of what forgiveness is. It is reconciliation that is mutual; forgiveness is one-sided: I forgive you, though you may or may not accept my forgiveness. That’s really putting yourself out there. That’s taking a dive without knowing whether the relational swimming pool will be full of water or sharp, pointy rocks. Pretty scary stuff.

Yet we say the prayer blithely, little recognizing the import of each loaded word. So here’s a challenge: The next time you pray the Our Father, listen to yourself. Can you commit to forgiving your trespassers, or will you go after them, rifle in hand? Forgiveness, we assume, is easy for God. But asking for forgiveness requires that we be willing to take down our own fences, to do the difficult (for us) thing. And that’s just one of the challenges of the Our Father. No wonder, then, that it is the only prayer Jesus gave us. It is, on examination, more than enough.

The season of Lent is a time of reflection. What can I do to improve myself? To make myself a better servant? Last week, Pastor Helen gave our congregation a list to help us as we confess our sins.

  • Disobedience: Rejection of God’s Will, not doing what God wants us to do, breaking contracts with others.
  • Distrust: Refusal to recognize God’s love which leads to excessive worry and anxiety as well as perfectionism.
  • Irreverence: Neglecting worship or being content with only ho hum participation. Using Christianity for personal advantage.
  • Sloth: Refusal to respond to opportunities for growth, service or sacrifice. Neglect of family. Indifference to global injustice.
  • Impenitence: Refusal to search out or face up to our sins. Self-justification. Unwillingness to forgive ourselves.
  • Covetousness: Accumulation of the material to prove self-worth. Using others for own advantage or in quest for status and power.
  • Vanity: failure to credit God or others for their part in our lives.
  • Pride: Putting self at the center. Refusal to recognize ourselves as dependent on God.
  • Envy: Dissatisfaction with our place in God’s creation.
  • Rebellion: Cynicism. Hatred of God or human beings.

Me, being me, I’ve been wondering how I could use the above, not just to confess, but as a way to add something positive to my life. Of course, my initial reaction was to look closely at each one and figure out which step needed to be taken in each area.

Yep. Eleven different things to address during this one season of Lent. Again, me being me, I was most of the way through my eleven item list, before I figured out what this was telling me: Not only is one Lenten season too short to establish 11 new habits, but this drive to come up with 11 positive things actually highlighted what I need to work on.

Perfectionism. As defined above, this falls under distrust, although my knee jerk reaction is to file it under Pride. “Look at me. Look at what I did.” But, as I noodle it over, it may very well be a matter of trust. If I don’t trust God and other people, then I feel like I have to do it all myself. My husband refers to this as Martyr Syndrom. Do we really need to go into why I know he calls it that? No, I didn’t think so.

But there’s more to it than that. This need to do better, to do more, is also a form of insecurity. I have to do better, I have to be better to show that I am Good, to show that I am God’s. And if I can do and be better, then good things will happen. The reverse of this is that if I can do enough, bad things won’t happen.

And we are write back to Trust.

Yep. I think I know what I’m going to be working on the next several weeks.

Noodle over the list above and give it some thought this Holy Season.

–SueBE

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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