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This weekend I heard a sermon about mercy.  Apparently, Pope JP II was almost fatally shot, and ended up visiting the perpetrator in prison and forgiving him.  My immediate and uncharitable thought was, the people that I am not showing mercy to did much worse things than almost killing me.  It’s probably easier to forgive someone for shooting you – that’s only physical pain.

I usually pray in the morning that God would give me the energy to do what I need to do today, but that more than that I would be his hands and his feet and the words that he speaks today.  I’m trying to say, “Please help me with my to-do list.  But if I’ve only got time for a few things today, I’d rather help with your to-do list.”  When people come to my office and they need to cry about relationship drama or the dog dying, I make time for that even if something on my agenda doesn’t get done, or if I have to stay late, because I think I’m being given a chance to help comfort someone today and that’s a privilege.

I’m all about helping by listening, or smiling at someone and complimenting them, or noticing when someone needs a boost.  I’m happy to show God’s comfort here on earth, but not on board for showing his mercy and grace to other people.  That’s a lot hard for me, and I feel like I should be doing something about it, but how do you forgive someone when you just don’t feel like it?  That’s an honest question.

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I started taking jazzercise classes last week because I’m really old.  Just kidding – I’m actually taking jazzercise because there’s a class right next to my building and I never exercise because when I get home I’m too lazy to go anywhere.  I figured I could head this problem off at the pass if I just work out before I even go home, hence this excursion into 1980’s fitness fads.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever done jazzercise before, but it involves a lot of bouncing up and down from mats on the floor to skipping around upright like some crazed squirrel on meth.  Sometimes you switch between the two poses rapidly, until just hoisting the weight of your own body on and off of the floor is exhausting after so many reps.  Needless to say my legs are killing me.

I went to jazzercise last Thursday night, and then on Friday I went to mass to commemorate Jesus’s crucifixion.  It seemed like a good idea at the time….I’m not Catholic, so I haven’t been to all of the Catholic services yet.  I had done Palm Sunday and Holy Saturday (Easter Vigil) at a Catholic church, but I had always done Good Friday at Protestant churches.  If you’re a Catholic you already know the punchline to this story.

Apparently, good Friday is a penitential aerobic work-out.  It involves about 30 minutes of reading from the gospel story of Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem, the last supper, his arrest and trial, and the crucifixion, and all of this is done standing (since you always stand out of respect during the gospel readings).  Then you kneel for about an hour while lots of esoteric ritual goes on, which mostly involves venerating the cross and being grateful to Jesus for suffering so we could have grace.

At this point if you’ve been to jazzercise, your legs are probably in agony, but the best part is at the end of the service, when the whole church prays for 10 specific intentions like world peace, wisdom for world leaders, and people in crisis to have comfort.  This involves the priest saying a prayer and then chanting, “All kneel.”  Everyone drops to their knees for one minute and prays silently, and then bounces back up to their feet.  The priest prays for the next intention and then chants, “All kneel,” and everyone goes down again.  This goes on and on and on until you’ve done it 10 times just like a rep in jazzercise and you want to cry.  But then you feel bad because Jesus died on the cross for your sins, damnit, and he suffered a lot more on this day than you did and the least you can do is kneel and pray for the people who need comfort, you selfish wretch.

There is some kind of unholy alliance between the people who choreograph jazzercise classes and the Catholic Church.  Just saying.

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I am not trying to convert you.  I’ve never asked you if you’ve found Jesus or feel his love in your heart.  I won’t give you a pamphlet, or try to legislate what’s taught in schools to indoctrinate your children while they’re still young and vulnerable.  I understand that there are religious people (of many types of religions) who do this, but I am not one of those people.

I have peace in my life from my walk with God, and if you’re curious, I will tell you about it.  However, I don’t think Christians have a monopoly on the truth.  Many practitioners of other religions, and lots of agnostics and atheists, lead lives that are good and I think God recognizes that.  Many Christians lead lives that are bad, and I think God recognizes that, too.

I’m not a Christian because I woke up this morning and felt like it would be fun.  It’s hard for me.  The bible is full of contradictions and I read it every day and I studied theology and I can probably tell you more about how the bible doesn’t make sense than most people who are vehemently opposed to Christianity.  I don’t feel accepted in any particular church.  I struggle with who is going to hell and who is going to heaven.  I have doubts.  There are people I can’t forgive and forgiveness is not negotiable in Christianity.  I’m not happy about being different from the rest of my family and most of my friends.  I feel on the outside a lot – like the black sheep.  Being Christian is a knock-down drag-out fight for me, and I make a choice to be Christian every single day because I feel like I was called to do it – even when it would be easier not to.

I wanted to tell you this because there is someone I can’t tell.   Someone who matters to me seems inexplicably angry at me for being Christian and who acts like I’m attacking them and part of an insidious institution, even when I’ve never tried to convert them.  This person thinks I’m presumptuous and arrogant.  I wish I could tell that person that I am not trying to make them unhappy by practicing this religion and  I am not trying to change them.   In fact, I don’t see how it has anything to do with them at all.  My belief in Christianity is central to who I am.  It informs all of the choices that I make in my life, and I don’t need this person to be Christian, but I need them to leave me the hell alone about my choice to be Christian.

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I went to mass on Saturday night for Palm Sunday vigil.  I like to go to mass on Saturday nights because then I can be lazy on Sundays and sleep late.  My husband didn’t want to go, and asked me to stay since we were at the Pollada, but we had missed mass the previous weekend so I told him I would go by myself and come back.

I don’t go to mass by myself very much.  It’s awkward somehow since I’m Protestant.  When my husband is there, I feel like he’s my excuse.  “Well, I married into this Catholic family, and this is their family church, so here I am.”  When he’s not with me, it just seems somehow obvious that I am a poser, or out of place.

I don’t know why I go to mass instead of to a Protestant church.  I cannot take communion – I only get blessed by the priest.   The priest that married us recognizes me and knows why I’m there, but when it’s a different priest I wonder if they are speculating as to why I am there each week in the communion line, silently shaking my head with my arms crossed when they go to give me the eucharist.  They don’t give me a hard time – they just make the sign of the cross over me and say a blessing, but still I wonder how they interpret my presence each week.  Are they thinking, “Who is this girl who will never let me give her communion?”  Or have they caught on that I’m a Protestant and don’t belong?

I like the way there are rules for mass.  I like the formulas and the ritual and the beauty of the little church where I was married.  I like having a time to kneel down and pray silently.  Usually when I arrive, genuflect, and kneel at my pew I feel this sense of entering God’s presence.  I literally think something along the lines of, “Hey, God.  It’s good to see you again this week.”  When I walk into other churches, like the Protestant megachurch that I went to before I started going to mass each week, I just don’t feel that same sense of recognition, like God lives there.

This is holy week, so basically you’re supposed to be at church on Palm Sunday, Maundy (Holy) Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and Easter.  This is the week that the adult catechumens will be welcomed into communion with the church.  They have been preparing since September.  The next set of classes starts in September, and I’ve been debating if I should go.  I’d like to actually take communion, but then I wonder if I could truly believe that it is the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.  I don’t like the church’s stance on gay marriage.  As a Protestant, I can just believe in the bible and not make any formal confession of faith that aligns me with people who oppose gay marriage.  Somehow studying to become a Catholic would feel like a betrayal of certain social issues that I support.  I don’t know what I will do in September, but I was sad to be sitting alone at mass this week and unsure of what I was doing there.

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This week’s postings are heavy, so here’s a poem I like from October of 2005, because we just don’t get to use the phrase “flaming braziers” nearly often enough in everyday conversation:

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The Chinese burnt offerings to their ancestors; the Jews burnt them for Yahweh.

Some people cast their money at your altar, while the wretched fling themselves whole

Begging for your cleansing fire to burn away their sins, their regrets.

Today, Father, if I stood like Isaiah before the flaming braziers at your throne

Like every “good Christian” I would gladly offer all of me.

But if I stood on earth with flickering shadows on my face

Contemplating a solitary bonfire in some primordial forest

And I dedicated that pagan blaze to you, I would incinerate my agenda

And humbly ask to borrow yours.

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Will God forget to bless us?

If God is merciful, why do we pray?  Psalm 86:15 says, “1But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.”  Later in Isaiah 49:14-15 when the Israelites lament that God has forgotten them, he reassures them: 14 But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me,  the Lord has forgotten me.”  15 “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!”  If God will not forget to show us compassion, then why do we have to intercede in prayer for ourselves and others?  Can we change his mind if he was not initially planning to be compassionate?

Can we change God’s mind?

If God is infallible, why do we pray?  Indeed, 1 Thessalonians 5:17 calls us to “pray without ceasing,”  to a God that we are told in James 1:17 does not change, that is “the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”   On the other hand, in Exodus 32:9-14, after the Hebrew people make sacrifices to idols, God tells Moses that he intends to destroy them, but then repents when Moses pleads with him:

9 “I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”  11 But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. “LORD,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” 14 Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.

This passage suggests that maybe we pray because we can change God’s mind, but that contradicts the steadfast nature of God that is mentioned elsewhere in the bible.  The only answer I know to this issue is that prayer changes me.  It makes me calmer, and still, and I feel like sometimes I hear guidance from him.  It brings me into a relationship with God because there is no relationship without communication.  These are good reasons to pray – peace, wisdom, communication.  But if my prayer doesn’t change anything except my own perspective, why do we pray for other people?  I don’t know the answer to this question.  I prefer to think that my God is so great that there is nothing that I could say that would change his mind, but then I’m not sure why I intercede in prayer for others.  I just do it anyway.

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I’ve been reading a very interesting book called When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty without Hurting the Poor that is about how our efforts to help the poor often make situations worse rather than helping them to escape poverty.  This book focuses on the debilitating impact of many short term mission trips that churches undertake and many ministries that churches provide to the poor, as well as misconceptions about what it is to be poor and what causes poverty.

Reading this book is causing me to re-think many beliefs that I’ve never questioned.  For instance, if a homeless person on the street asks me for money, almost 100% of the time I give them something.  I do this because several verses in the bible make it clear that we should share with those who don’t have much when we do have enough, like:

1 John 3:7 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?

Matthew 5:42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Proberbs 3:28  Do not say to your neighbor,
   “Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you”—
   when you already have it with you.

There are a lot more verses like this in the bible and a lot of people will immediately ask if I’ve also literally sold all my possession and given them to the needy as Jesus mentions in Luke 12:33.  I have not, but I think it’s a very common condition (affliction?) for Christians to pick and choose which bible verses they will interpret literally and which were dependent on the context or perhaps mistranslated over time.

I believe when I die that I will see Jesus and we will talk about my life.  I want him to say that I did a good job, and I don’t want to have to answer to him for the times that I turned away from someone in need.  When my friends argue that these homeless people are just going to buy drugs or alcohol, I always comment that if I were homeless I might want to do that, and that it’s really not my business what they buy with it.  It’s only my business whether I turned away from someone who was hungry, and ultimately I’ll answer for that someday.

This book is making me think about whether my responsibility to the poor involves something different than giving them cash and turning away when they may be stuck in situations where money isn’t really what they need.  As Americans, we often throw money at problems we don’t understand.  I’m not sure yet how my interactions with the homeless are going to change, and in the meantime I am still giving them cash, but I’ll update you when I finish the book.

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I stumbled this last week in dealing with my anxiety, but I’m pulling myself back up.  I have been gearing up to see Casting Crowns in concert this week and while listening to their new CD “Come to the Well” I was struck by a song they sing about God and how He exists outside of time:

All my fears and all my questions
Are gonna play out
In a world I can’t control
When I’m lost in the mystery
To You my future is a memory
Cause You’re already there
You’re already there
Standing at the end of my life
Waiting on the other side

There is peace for me when I cling to the idea that God knows how my current crisis is going to turn out.  I cannot control this world, but it’s okay, because wherever today is going, He is already there and He is waiting for me.  I think if I lived forever I would be more calm because I would have seen every type of crisis at least once and I would know I could handle whatever comes my way.  Since I’m not going to live forever, it comforts me that I’m relying on someone whose experience is eternal.

More than God being in control, this song also makes me wonder, what do moments feel like when you’re immortal?  Novels with immortal characters (usually vampires) always focus on how much ennui they feel when they know they’ll never die.  They are jealous of humans whose mortality gives moments poignancy and immediacy in a way that they have long forgotten.  I think God must exist both inside and outside of time in a way that distinguishes him from angsty teenage vampires and allows him both vast perspective and the ability to savor each moment.  Do you wish you were immortal?  I don’t.

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I practiced meditation for a half hour each day after school as a kid in elementary school.  Sometimes I fell asleep, but mostly my mind raced.  I learned the rosary as an adult to help fight off panic attacks.  Despite not being Catholic, it occurred to me because of movies about exorcisms because panic is like a demon inside of me.  After using this method for more than a year, I discovered that repetitive prayer or actions can actually help meditation.

I have a hard time sitting still and letting go of my racing thoughts when I try traditional meditation, but I’ve discovered that doing certain things at the same time can help me stay in that state of mind.  For instance, if I just think about a bible verse on worry, it’s not enough to hold my attention, and I’m soon pulled under again by whatever anxious thought is stalking me.  However, if I visualize in my mind writing that verse out in cursive, it’s a sufficiently difficult task that I can focus on it.  I have to think hard about how to make some cursive letters, and the visual component of this makes doing it in your mind absorbing.

Another example is the rosary.  I used to just say the prayers over and over again during panic attacks because repeating something I had memorized helped distract me.  Then I learned the way the rosary was meant to be prayed by people who are actually catholic and don’t just suffer from anxiety.  After you say the creed, on the first 3 beads above Jesus’s head you say one hail Mary each for the increase in the world of faith, hope, and love.  That’s my very favorite part.

While your mind is babbling (I prefer to say my rosary in Spanish) the same repetitive prayer, you can hold the intention in your head of there being more hope in the world.  I think of something different all the time – children in armies in Africa who need to believe there is life outside of war, people who’ve made such terrible mistakes that they think no one will forgive them, families who don’t know where their next meal will come from.  I imagine the hope growing in their hearts while my mind carries on with the prayer.  I can hang onto this train of thought without getting sucked back into my worry because saying a prayer in Spanish while you visualize sending hope to the hopeless is complicated.

When you get to the decades of the rosary (the 10 little beads between each big bead in the chain), Catholics meditate on one mystery per decade.  (There are luminous mysteries, joyful mysteries, sorrowful mysteries, glorious mysteries…there’s a schedule for each day of the week.)  For instance, if they were doing the joyful mysteries, they would meditate on the first decade about the annunciation, on the second decade about the visitation, on the third about the nativity, then the presentation of Jesus at the temple, and then finding Jesus at the temple.  I don’t know the mysteries unless someone is announcing them (which they do when you pray the rosary in a group), but I like to think about one problem per bead or per decade, depending on how big the problem is.

Thinking about both the prayer and the problem simultaneously helps my mind not to wander off.  I don’t need a rosary to pray this way anymore – I can do it in my head or on my fingers, in English or in Spanish.   I think I associate the litany now with peace and calm, so even if my mind is too full of racing thoughts to meditate, trying to think of two things at once is just my (manic) speed.  When I start to feel panicky, I find myself automatically reciting the words in my head and I begin to calm down.  Dios te salve Maria, llena eres de gracia, el senor es contigo…

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I think the trickiest part of the verse I’m studying (Proverbs 3:5-6) is the section that discusses “in all your ways acknowledging [the Lord].”  What does “acknowledging” even mean in this context?  I like what Chuck Swindoll said about recognizing that God is “sovereign.”

I picture entering the audience chamber of some liege lord where his people can bring their problems to him for judgment.  I imagine the relief at saying, “I can’t pay off my debts,” and him listening carefully and then saying, “I’ll take care of it.”  What would it be like to know someone so powerful that he really could just take care of it – someone who ruled the entire realm so thoroughly that he could pay your debts or make a deal with your debtor with just a word to some lackey?  Obviously feudalism wasn’t romantic like that, but I’m fantasizing about that notion of absolute power.

This week I have been practicing being mindful of the idea that God is sovereign over my problems.  That word – sovereign – is exactly the word I needed.  I’m running late…but it’s okay, because God is sovereign over this traffic.  He will clear it up, or he won’t, but whether I arrive on time or late, he owns this land and this car and this problem and he is powerful.  Maybe this sounds like echos of Nectar in a Sieve.  Maybe you’re thinking it smacks of defeatism and I should care more about my own agency.  If that’s what you’re thinking, I’m pretty sure you don’t have the kind of anxiety they’ll give you the good drugs for.

My life feels like it’s spinning wildly out of control all the time.  I don’t trust other people to do things the way they should be done – it’s probably easier if I just do it myself.  I’m not arrogant – I’m afraid.  The concept that this chaotic world is in someone’s control, and it’s not in my control, helps me slow my racing heart and unclench my fists.  It’s a trust like falling.

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