Sometimes, a song says it best. This beautiful gospel piece by Tamela Mann is speaking to me these days:
Take me to the King
I don't have much to bring
My heart is torn in pieces -
It's my offering.
Lay me at the throne
Leave me there alone
To gaze upon Your glory
and sing to You this song;
Please take me to the king.
Recently, I ran into a coworker at a community event, we'll call him Nick. He isn't someone I know well; he is at most an acquaintance.
When I saw him at the school carnival, I was surprised. He had a date with him, an attractive woman perhaps 8 or 10 years younger than he. Nick's date was a petite lady, very well-kept but friendly looking. I promise she was a cheerleader in high school, but the nice kind, the one who comes from a sweet family and is beloved by all. I imagine she's divorced, probably fairly recently, and has two kids, 6 and 8, both boys. They adore her he's a great Mom. She probably is going back to school to get her teaching certificate. This was likely a second or third date for them; I could tell by his hand on her elbow that they had not spent a lot of time together. And . . . I know I'd like her. She's a likeable person
I always pictured Nick with a different kind of gal, taller and more bohemian, like he. She was younger than I'd expected too. I remember being very surprised at the sight of them.
All of these thoughts flashed by in a part of a second. They may have passed unnoticed if I hadn't immediately been standing idle in a long line with plenty of processing time.What astounds me is that I had all of these judgements about Nick's date and I've never even met the lady! What's more, I had all of these previously unnoticed conclusions about Nick who is virtually a stranger to me!
Our Human Nature
Snap judgments are a part of human nature. Brain scientist Nicholas Rule has researched this: We cannot train ourselves not to judge; it's what the human brain is made to do. In fact, the ability to make these instant decisions is what helps keep us safe in crisis. Which person do you ask for directions? Which kids should you avoid in the schoolyard? That person made you uncomfortable; you know to be wary and exercise caution. Sometimes the snap judgment is really about the other person and needs to be listened to. This is not a part of our brain we want to turn off.
At other times, the snap judgment is really about us. "It's not you, it's me!" For people of faith then, that leaves us with a dilemma; "Stop judging, that you may not be judged" is a core tenant of Christianity and, I suspect, many other faiths. The challenge then becomes not to turn-off or ignore the snap judgement, but the opposite, to notice it. Once noticed, the judgment can be the catalyst for personal growth; it can serve to sharpen our growth edges.
When we pick up on a judgment that isn't about keeping us safe and helping us choose between fight or flight, we get to look for the opportunity in it. In the case I cited, I realized I was feeling insecure about my age; I had a birthday right around the corner. Was I still "young?" Am I still pretty? Am I attractive "enough?" This chance encounter with an acquaintance and a complete stranger gifted me with the opportunity to notice some unconscious angst in myself and to get it handled before my birthday. I was able to celebrate my birthday without all that unconscious brain-chatter running in the background. It was one of my most relaxed birthdays in decades.
The next time I notice myself judging someone, instead of shushing it as I would a toddler in church, I am going to take a couple of breaths and look beneath it. You may want to try the same.
It's very good that I can't "fail" Lent. I heard someone say about Lent recently, "It's better to make a small promise you can keep then to struggle throughout and never succeed." I disagree entirely.
Consciousness is raised through struggle. "Do hard things," right? Our will, our stamina, our conscientiousness, our faith: these are the muscles of our soul. They are built through exercise and specifically through stress.
We know how muscles grow, right? When a muscle is required to produce force, it causes tension. The tension creates tiny tears in the tight bundle of fibers that makes up the muscle. When your muscles know they have been under tension, the send in the troops to rebuild those tears. As the tears heal, the muscle then grows in those spots. Over time, and with consistent commands to produce greater amounts of force, the muscle grows in measurable fashion.
Yet if you never require anything extra of your muscles, they won't grow. In fact, if you keep on slacking and not requiring more of them over time as you age, they will naturally atrophy! Yes, in choosing to do nothing of note, in not requiring of our bodies the extraordinary, we actually become weaker.
Which brings us back to Lent and how I am struggling. I am having my everyday problem: there aren't enough hours in the day to do everything I want to do along with everything I should do. I keep breaking my promises! Argggh. Then I recommit and put in renewed effort and then, magically, my "soul muscles" grow a bit.
It's day by day around here. No, hour by hour. The key, I think, is to never give up. The key is to do the hard thing. Lift the weight, push the sled, sit up, "git" up, do anything rather than nothing. Keep the faith, literally.
At every turn, we must choose again the best course. At the end of our Lenten journey, we will have built those big soul muscle and we will have the strength to face whatever is next.
On the first Friday of this new Lenten season, I am considering my fasts and sacrifices for the season. I am a person tempted to extremes; I tend to make hard plans. I then have to remind myself, frequently, that it is not possible to "fail" Lent. There were some words of wisdom in today's readings:
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed
On Ash Wednesday the notion that appeared over and over in my prayers was "a scourging of my heart." In all honesty, I wanted to push off this image at first; it sounds melodramatic, dire, extreme. Yet, it's entirely appropriate. It's one of those "be careful what you pray for" prayers. I was left then to consider what sacrifices will lead me there.
This year, I am fasting from criticism, "helpful" or not. I am so often convicted by my critical tongue. I will take care not to offer many (if any) opinions. I will practice, instead, letting the words pass unsaid. Yesterday, at work, I literally had to hold my lips together at one point! We live in a culture of opinions. I want to see what can come of me keeping mine to myself. I am going to consciously lessen my idle chatter as well. It's not enriching the world.
As a family, we are taking on a "fast food fast" and Food Stamps budget; these are hard on the children but less challenging for me. More challenging will be to journal my food intake for the day. These food related sacrifices are an opportunity to learn from the pain of self-discipline and to lean more heavily on the Holy Spirit.
This is born of the desire to create in me a clean heart. I do not know if it's the shortest path but it's the one I'm headed out on right now. I am seeking not only a scourging of the heart, but total restoration.
A clean heart create for me God; Renew within me a steadfast spirit. Do not drive me from your face or take me from your Holy Spirit. Restore to me the gladness of your salvation; Uphold me with a willing spirit.
Robert Bellarmine has a publication entitled, The Mind's Ascent to God. Step 14 of the ascent is "On the Consideration of God's Mercy."
Bellarmine talks about how created things can take away some of our miseries; drink can take away thirst, bread can take away hunger, and so forth. He then reminds us that some "miseries" are only curable by God, such as "the snares of the devils" including "error and blindness of mind and of warped conscience, which we do not notice in ourselves."
This is where "support" comes in. This is where I need to have a friend, family member or spiritual director who is willing to say to me, "that seems kind of rash" or "what about your calling?" With their boldness and insight, they hasten the "cure" of which Bellarmine speaks. Such loved ones, such ones who are brave enough to say what they see, are the mouthpiece of God.
It is my nature to be a quick actor, particularly in crisis, I tend to see clearly what I need to do and I set about getting it done. I have good instincts, and usually it pays to follow them, but not all my decisions are sound ones or the best thought out. That's where deconstructing it with someone I trust can be so helpful. They can see the impulsivity, the rashness, or any hardness of heart, that is hidden to me. Likewise, at a time of weakness or faltering, such ones are the ones to give a word of encouragement or offer a prayer. Sometimes that word is enough to help me stand tall.
I am so grateful to be surrounded by those who are willing both to lift me up and to set me straight. It takes courage and an open heart to be the mouthpiece of God. May I also be so for others.
"See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed* we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure."
1 John 3:1-3
It was unbridled joy for me to open my Bible and encounter this reading today. It comes to my mind as an old Sunday School song, "Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us; behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us. That . .. .we. . . should be called the Sons of God." "What manner of love," indeed. How can it be that He has chosen me? How unworthy I am and yet how filled with unquenchable joy! How undeserving and yet, how it makes me stand erect, how this knowledge fills me with pride! What manner of love, indeed, has so lifted and elevated me? What manner of King exalts his servants so? What manner of Savior is also brother and guide and counselor? It is indeed only by the fullest description of love that such gifts, such grace is possible. It is the greatest gift of grace and is made even fuller in the promise of the next verse: "What we shall be has not yet been revealed . . we shall be like him." Dear Savior Jesus, make it so. Help your humble servant. This day, this hour, though undeserving, may I be like you. May I strive to be in the present moment in my words and acts. May I stand tall in the knowledge of your grace and love and be equal to the tasks you have set before me. Help me to know you and to see you in the hands and words and hearts of all I encounter. May I be in some small part worthy of the name, "Beloved." In the name of the Father and the Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.