Friday, December 5, 2014

An Advent Prayer: "Jerusalem in my Heart"

Every night when possible I lie down next to my youngest child to cuddle him or her to sleep.  This all grew out of nursing the youngest to sleep and continued beyond weaning to the ritual of lying down together at the end of the day.  It has been a precious time for me with each of my children.  It is a time when I sing old hymns to them that they grow to love; it is a time to pray and chat about whatever surfaces and reconnect after a hectic day when this little one might have gotten sidelined in the whirl of the others' needs.  And very often, I fall asleep first and have to rouse myself and stumble down the stairs to finish off the day.  My other children and my husband will have finished up the dishes and have begun gathering for reading and prayer in the living room. (It is not, however, always as smooth as it sounds.:))

Last night I was lying in bed with three year old Becket, my fiesty red head.  I began to explain to him what Advent was.

"Advent means 'coming.'  We are waiting for someone to come and getting ready for his arrival."

"Do you know where Jesus lives?" I asked.

Becket: "In the sky."

"In heaven, yes, and in our hearts."

Becket: "And in Jerusalem." (someone has been listening during Bible readings with the olders)

"Yes.  So Jesus comes to make his home in our hearts, and we get ready for him, like we do when we clean up our house and get rid of broken things and junk that clutters our home that doesn't give us space to live.  We try to get our hearts ready for Jesus by getting rid of anything that makes it crowded so that Jesus doesn't have space.  We get rid of disobedience and anger and meanness. Do you have anything in your heart that you need to get rid of?"

Becket: "I have meanness.  I am mean to Nathanael sometimes."

"Would you like to pray that Jesus will take away your meanness so that you will have space in your heart for him?"

Becket: "Yes, I would."  At this point, Becket began quite a long whispered prayer which I could not quite make out.  When he was finished, I asked him if he would like to share with me what he had prayed.

Becket: "I prayed that Jesus would take away my meanness and that he would put Jerusalem in my heart."

Jerusalem in my heart.

How I was struck in that moment by the image of Jerusalem in my heart--the holy dwelling of the Lord.  Out of the mouth of babes!   One of the most healing verses in my life has been John 14:23, "If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him."  But I have never pictured the home that Jesus makes with me as Jerusalem.  But truly, the new Jerusalem is meant for my heart now and the full realization in the Second Advent, when we will live with the Lord and the full community of saints.

I had sensed that this Advent would involve reflections on "Home" for me since so much of this year has been caught up with issues of house and home.  But I did not expect the riches of the reflection on the home of Jerusalem and how God ministers it to me now.  Jerusalem has been both the symbol of and the actual dwelling of God.  Jerusalem has become the image for God coming to live with his people.  And as we live in the Advent mystery of the coming of Christ's kingdom to us now and the future fulfillment of Christ's kingdom, we live in the mystery of the Jerusalem within and the Jerusalem to which we journey.

Now, I have no illusions that tomorrow Becket will wake up and not be mean to his brother and fully live out of "Jerusalem in his heart."  In fact, he shared that part of his prayer was for his brother--that God would take away the meanness in HIS heart...of course...none of us can linger long with our own sin before looking around for another who might be less deserving of favor than ourselves. Nevertheless, I do believe that every prayer of surrender, every submissive action that makes way for the Lord, every heartfelt confession, every desire for more of Jesus and less of me, will move each of us closer to the new Jerusalem both now and in the future.

May this Advent prepare our hearts to be the Jerusalem to which Christ comes to fill and renew. May he find our gates wide open to receive him.

And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed— on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. Revelation 21: 10ff

Prophetic words about Jerusalem: "And they shall be called The Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord; and you shall be called Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken." Isaiah 62

For reflection on Jerusalem as the dwelling of God and of our future dwelling, meditate on Isaiah 62 and Revelation 21 and 22.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Spiritual Potential of Children

Many may remember this picture that went viral several years ago.  A surgeon was operating on a baby in utero, when the baby's hand allegedly came out and grabbed the surgeon's hand.  A lot of debate has surrounded the photo, but whatever really happened, it was enough to change the photographer from a pro-choice stance to a pro-life stance in the time it took to flash the picture.  He was convinced of the little life reaching out to connect.

Children have souls as soon as they are conceived. Their souls have a capacity from the earliest moments to connect with others.  I remember reading the book, The Secret Life of the Unborn Child, by Thomas Verny when pregnant with my first child.  I was astounded by the research that has been done on babies in utero and their connection to their own mother's thoughts and feelings.  They physically react to anxiety, especially if the anxiety is focused on them.  Their movements change when their mothers speak directly to them.  Children have even been able to access memories and things learned in the womb, such as music a mother was practicing while pregnant.  And I know from years of praying for others that traumas that happen in the womb can affect a child into adulthood.

Once born, we know babies are connecting when they smile, when they look in our eyes, when they touch our faces...long before they can articulate thoughts about relationship.  We know when babies are frightened, excited, feeling safe, knowing they are loved.

Why is it then, considering all this evidence of a pre-cognitive infant's ability to love and receive love, that we have little imagination for how they might connect to God? How often we have no expectation that they could have communion with God who created them and is constantly reaching out in love to them.  I have been chided in many situations when I realize that my child grasps something about the Lord that maybe I might be still struggling to grasp.

All of this has the other side, too, which is that a child has a sinful heart and the capacity to rebel, to disobey, to reject God.  But I think that we, as parents, if aware of their soul capacity to engage, can begin early on to point them to Jesus and to help them open their hearts to him, not just their minds. One of the first principles in nurturing a child's relationship with the Lord is to assume that they have the capacity to connect and respond to God no matter how young they are.

Jesus said for us to let the little children come to him.  In the Greek, that actually says, "infants,"...let the infants come.  Do not prevent them.  Then he goes on to say that they are the prototype of who belongs in his kingdom.  What is it about children and the way they relate to God that can actually instruct us?  I wonder if it is actually their lack of self consciousness.  A healthy child enters in to relationship with abandon.  There is no calculation, no holding back.  They ask the questions that pop into their heads, they run and jump into the arms of the ones they love, unbothered by what others might think.  They have no distance between themselves and life;  they are not watching themselves have an experience. As parents, we can learn from this trust and abandon...and encourage it.

Once we expect our children to have a connection with the Lord, we can lead them in engaging their wills to choose the Lord.  I am a strong believer in bringing children into the family of the Christian faith, assuming they will grow up as Christians because that is what we have raised them into.  At the same time, they have personal choices, and I have seen major heart changes in my children when they come to an age to choose with their wills to call on Jesus to make his home in them.  We pray toward this kind of decision in their lives.

We would be wrong to assume that our children cannot be Christian even when their cognitive capacity cannot match their heart capacity, and we would be wrong to assume that they will be Christians simply because we are.  We need to engage both their hearts and their developing minds to choose connection to Jesus.

This assumption that they can engage the Lord at every developmental stage, helps us avoid talking down to them. I Timothy says, "Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity."  Children, too, can access the life of Christ to live as Christians.  None of Christ's commands have an age disclaimer.  We expect our children to live as Christians together in our family and in the world, to think of themselves as representatives of the Gospel.

So while we are disciplining our three year old who is misbehaving, we ask him to ask Jesus to help him have a tender heart. He is in a process of discipline until he can "change his attitude,"  which usually results in a very tearful, "I am very sorry..." to whomever it needs to be extended. When we have the confession of sin at church, I encourage all my children to ask the Lord to convict them.  My seven year old recently told me that the leaders don't give enough quiet time at church during the confession for him to think of all his sins and confess them.  I actually gave that feedback to the leadership. :) We all need time to be quiet and let the Lord speak to us...even children.

And I strongly believe that the Lord speaks to children and through them.  One of our sons was eight years old and came to us one  morning to share a vivid dream he had had the night before.  It was about a pastor in our church who was standing behind the altar when a cloaked evil man came onto the stage and attacked the pastor.  He then said that this pastor grappled with the evil presence and then threw him off the stage, where the demonic presence split in two and was destroyed.  What my son didn't know was that that pastor had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor.  We passed on this dream to our friend and began to pray that in the spirit this pastor could fight this attack from the enemy spurred on by the hope that this prophetic dream had shown us...that this enemy was coming against his ministry and would be destroyed.  The tumor ended up being benign and removable.  The Lord used this dream to give vision for how to pray. And it came through a child!

I would say, however, that it is important not to push our children or make them self-conscious by labeling them with more influence than they can handle.  It is better for them to be expected to contribute but not lauded for their contribution. "You are so prophetic!" can make them feel they must perform on a regular basis.  Instead, we can just say, "It seems the Lord really spoke to you so that you know how to pray about this" or "this word could really encourage that person." Thus, they are affirmed that they can hear the Lord but are not expected to "deliver."

We must, however, keep encouraging them to listen.  When my teenagers are struggling with something, I ask them, "what is God saying to you about this?" Often, they are hearing something from the Lord but just need confirmation from us that they are hearing correctly...or not.  Before they are aware of hearing from the Lord, they will start by saying, "I don't hear anything."  That is when we remind them that the Lord speaks to us primarily by highlighting Scripture to us, enlivening it in the moment. They will grow into it.  "My sheep hear my voice, and they know me, and they follow me."  The sheep learn Jesus' voice by regular listening.  Children will begin to recognize the voice of the Lord.

This presupposes that our children are having time with the Lord.  This starts as family time in prayer.  Do not assume that this will be easy or even greatly fulfilling at times.  But it will form important habits, and children will actually welcome these times.  Our children are taught to lead devotions and take turns.  We use the Book of Common prayer, "Devotions for Individuals and Families" or "Compline" as a simple liturgy.  It is mostly straight Scripture, and our children have memorized all of it simply from regular use.  This enables even the non-readers to lead.  Family devotions must be SHORT to handle short attention spans.  We sometimes read missionary stories or study a passage of Scripture or simply have prayer time.  We ask for prayer requests and expect the children to offer spontaneous prayers.

Our children are participants in praying for family needs and unbelievers in our lives who need the touch of God.  The joy in them when one of the people we are praying for turns to the Lord confirms in their hearts the importance of their participation in reaching others with the transformational Gospel.  When they see answers to prayer for financial provision or specific ways we need the Lord to meet us as a family, we all celebrate God's goodness together, and they learn how to take their own needs to the Lord, from friendship concerns to health concerns to direction for the future.  They learn to take their anxieties to the Lord and see him respond concretely in their day to day lives.

As our children get to age six or seven, we teach them to take time each morning to be with the Lord.  Before they can read, we have C.D.s or tapes of Bible stories or the Bible narrated for them to listen to.  As they get older, we help them plan their devotional time with a Bible reading plan and a journal for prayer requests or what they hear from the Lord.  The other morning I asked my three year old where his 15 year old brother was, "Having his prayers," he said.  And I was so thankful that my preschooler could have the example of his older brother in prayer.

Children need to be raised to know themselves as belonging to Christ and his kingdom.  Early on they must learn how to walk in communion with the Lord and in a transformational posture, always inviting the renewing presence of the Lord into their daily lives.  This is truly possible, though it happens for different children in different ways and unfolds over time.  If you see a child not engaging with the Lord, make every opportunity available, but mostly lean in to prayer on behalf of this child.  We have had times of distress over different children when we have simply cried out to the Lord to intercept their lives in a real way.  Expect the Lord to meet your children miraculously. Pray for spiritual breakthroughs in your children's lives, even if this takes time.  We don't want just the appearance of a true Christian walk, we want it to be alive and real.  And only God can do that.

Our prayer must ultimately be that as we cooperate with the Lord, he will fulfill the promise of Isaiah 54:13, "All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children." God is always reaching out to our children, even from infancy, to draw them into new life.  God help us to know how to help them recognize the presence and the pull of God in their lives and to respond with an abandoned, "Yes!"

Wednesday, October 8, 2014 the Laboratory of God.

Growing up in Brazil, I became accustomed to waiting.  In fact, one of my favorite Brazilian children's songs is about waiting in lines, saying the line is not Indian, not American, not African, etc., but the line belongs to all.  Though waiting in lines is quite unfamiliar here in the United States and is considered the result of poor management, even Americans have to wait for something in their lives. Truly, waiting is a human experience.  And God uses it to do wonders in our lives.

arrived to sit for hours when I had to renew my permanent visa in Brazil.  At first, I was angry at the system and the time I was wasting.  Then, as I sat, I began to notice details around me.  I noticed things about myself, such as my shoes that had part of a heel wearing thin, my nails that needed trimming.  Then I noticed the people around me and became curious about their histories and what brought us all to this time and place. We could all surrender ourselves to this process because we acknowledged our need for home and the paper work to show we belonged. We were all waiting for our lives in this place to move forward, to hear once again that, in spite of being labeled foreign, this is where we were called to be.

I've noticed a similar heart process whenever God forces me to wait.  I say, "force," because I rarely choose waiting, and I usually argue with God about it.  If God would only do immediately as I ask, I could keep moving, could lose little time, and produce more. But, of course, what God is looking for is the shaping of my inner life with him, which often requires long pauses.  After all, the pauses and rests in music are as important as the pattern of notes to creating the overall symphony.  When I am forced to stop, I begin to notice details about myself and others, and I am reminded of my true home.

A year and a half ago, Stewart and I evaluated our house situation and decided that the size of our home and what God asks of us in this home (homeschooling six children, hospitality, church meetings, etc.) were no longer suited.  To put it bluntly, I thought I was going to lose my mind if I spent one more winter in the house with the basketball hoop on the front door, soccer in the halls, relatives visiting and needing to sleep all over the floors, no room for our overseas guests to stay, my own children crowded into beds and rooms, and no place for me to escape to pray and be quiet.

So we began to entertain the idea of moving.  We rode the roller coaster of discouragement and hope, with God continuing to surprise us with financial provision to do the work we needed to do.  During that time, we found a house that was truly a dream house in foreclosure and thought God was providing this for us.  But at the end of negotiations, it went to someone else. We could not understand this turn of events.

From the beginning of our venture, I began to read the book, Waiting on God, by Andrew Murray.  It is amazing that Murray had so much to say on this topic, that could come up with 30 short essays.  I felt the spotlight of God on my heart.  The vision for a ministry house was and is from God, I truly believe.  But God has work to do in me to shape me for the vision.

Murray explains that God cannot give gifts apart from giving himself because all of his gifts are tied up in his person.  "The giver is more than the gift; God is more than the blessing; and our being kept waiting on Him is the only way for our learning to find our life and joy in Himself." So when we ask for a gift, God can only give it by imparting more of himself.  If I am unable to receive God himself, my heart must be put through a process of being stretched so that God can give all I am asking.

Being so limited in our scope of perspective and vision, we make requests to God that don't begin to approach what he truly wants to bestow on us.  What he wants to give is so much more than we are asking for.  We want immediate relief.  He wants an internalized peace.  We want our lives here secured.  He wants our lives in him secured.  So he has to stop us, withhold the immediate gift, for the sake of creating a hunger for the greater thing.  It is almost like taking sugar out of the diet, and over time, the body begins to crave better food.

Murray talks about the Israelites constantly doubting that God could meet them in each new obstacle, whether it was the need for food, water, or deliverance, in spite of the fact that he had always provided.  He says, "When the thought came of God doing something new, they limited Him; their expectation could not rise beyond their past experience, or their own thoughts of what was possible..."  What has God wanted to do but could not because we have limited him?

This journey with God took me into deep places in my heart that included my view of house and home, my trust in God for provision, the stretching of my internal capacity to handle the pressing in of needs, and most of all an opening of my eyes in gratitude for what he has already poured out on me--true community, beloved family, a dear neighborhood of friends, a house that I do love, and a life of meaning and purpose. Such is the nature of use waiting as his laboratory.

Now our house is off the market, as we were unable to sell it, and I watch the leaves fall anticipating another winter....  Someone generously gave us money to invest in our current house to make it more livable, and someone else gave us some beautiful furniture that was able to replace our very tired and overused pieces...all reminders that God does see what we need. I have also, against my nature and will, had to sort through years of accumulated books, papers, household items, to make room for staying.  This has been a very needed process for me, but extremely difficult.  When God visits us he naturally stirs up those moldy boxes with the breath of his passing and says, "Let's go through this and clean it out."

I don't understand why God took us on what would seem to be a purposeless trip around the block, except that I must say I know that my internal furniture is rearranged.  I can truly say that I trust God more than I did when I started even though he has not given me exactly what I asked for.  My connection to my eternal home is more solidified than ever, and my confidence that God has us in his heart and is always seeking to bless us is more confirmed.  That outcome seems ironic.  Such is the work of God.  I have a more healthy detachment from the final outcome of where we live.

God continues to show us that we are to be here for now. Our neighbor just died of cancer two months after her diagnosis.  She was an unchurched woman who wanted Stewart to do her funeral.  Because we were across the street, we were over at their home several times a week, praying for her, getting to know her adult children, and forging kingdom connections. Her husband said to me the other day, "I am so glad you are still here."

And God continues to ask us to make room for him in our current home. Someone beloved to us showed up to live with us for a time, and God gently said, "Make room." Oh, the ironies of God's requests of us! Murray says, "Do what God asks you to do; God will do more than you can ask Him to do." A print of the Breton painting at the top of this post, "The Song of the Lark," hangs in my room.  It is that constant reminder of the posture I must be in of waiting on God with my work clothes on, sickle in hand.

God is constantly reminding me, "You belong to me.  Your life is not your own.  Your home is not your own."  I don't know the ending of this story, but I do know that God is drawing me near.  My reading today from Isaiah 30 said, "By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet and in trust your strength lies...the Lord is waiting to show you favor, and he rises to pity you; For the Lord is a God of justice: blessed are all who wait for him!" It is not that the physical and spiritual requests we make are not important;  it is just that we must depend on God's love to meet them when our hearts are ready.  And in the meantime, he shapes our hearts.

Since waiting is so central to being a Christian, perhaps I need to accept it more, instead of resisting it.  I should be like those good natured Brazilians who head out in the morning knowing they will have to wait, carrying a portable table and chairs and some cards.  I have seen them waiting outside in line, enjoying a great game of cards with a cold drink, while those around them fume and fuss in utter boredom.

God is waiting to give us more of himself.  As we look around at all of those others waiting with us for God to answer a heart cry--for a son or daughter far from God, for healing of body or soul, for the gift of a spouse or a child, for the meeting of a financial need, for freedom from the hatred of others, for a job, for the restoration of a broken relationship, for a political miracle--may we remember that we wait primarily because we are foreigners in need of a home, and God has offered to make his home in us.  As we wait today, may we open the doors and windows of our hearts to his love and presence and find that he is really the answer for which we wait. In the words of Andrew Murray, "...let us therefore cultivate the habit of waiting on God, not only for what we think we need, but for all His grace and power are ready to do for us."

Friday, September 26, 2014

Book Flash: The Heaven Tree Trilogy by Edith Pargeter

Well, some of you have commented that I haven't posted through most of the summer.  This is true.  Other priorities crowded in and demanded my time.  Well, I am back.  For starters, here is a recommendation for those of you who are making that list of winter reads...or if you are in the southern hemisphere, summer reads.  It reads marvelously at any time of year. :)

This book is one of my top ten favorite novels.  I recently re-read it and was reminded why it lives in my imagination. This is the same author who writes as Ellis Peters and created the Brother Cadfael series, also great reads.

I couldn't write it here is a review straight from goodreads:

A trilogy of novels set in twelfth-century England and Wales--The Heaven Tree, The Green Branch, and The Scarlet Seed--chronicles the adventures of master stone carver Harry Talvace; Ralf Isambard, Lord of Parfois; and their two sons.

Set on the volatile, hotly disputed Welsh border, this full-bodied, swift-moving story of deadly politics, clashing armies, and private passions sweeps the reader into its characters' grand quest for justice and vengeance. The trilogy focuses on Harry Talvace, who bears stamped on his face the lineage of Shrewsbury's Norman conquerors. Born to aristocratic parents and nursed by a stone mason's wife, he grows up fiercely loyal to his breast-brother, the sunny, irresistibly charming Adam. Harry also discovers that he has a gift--the ability to carve stone with the sure hand of genius.

In his fifteenth year, Harry's devotion to Adam and his obsession to sculpt set into motion the thrilling tale of Volume One, The Heaven Tree. Rebelling against his father and fleeing England to save Adam, Harry finds his destiny entangled in the affairs of commoners and kings, divided by two women--the courageous dark-haired Gilleis and the beautiful courtesan Benedetta--and pledged to the brooding, mysterious Lord of Parfois, Ralf Isambard, who sponsors Harry's monumental creation of a cathedral. And while Wales and France challenge England's crown, these men and women follow their desires toward jealousy, pitiless revenge, and passion so madly glorious neither time nor a merciless execution can end it. 

In Volume Two, The Green Branch, Harry's son, young Harry Talvace, is drawn into the fabulous intrigues of the court of Llewelyn, Prince of North Wales, and bound by a blood oath to find and kill his father's old enemy, Isambard. Yet the threads that bind his life to the ruthless Isambard are not so easily severed, as Harry falls under the spell of the aging warrior lord.

The concluding volume, The Scarlet Seed, brings full circle this tale of implacable enmity and unshakeable loyalty. As a kingdom shudders under the flames of civil war and captor becomes captive, the final siege of Parfois creates a climax to this tale so majestic, noble, and heartbreaking no reader will ever forget it.

Happy reading!

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Cosmic Company We Keep

was moved as we prayed together in the basilica, our husbands underneath in the crypt, in conclave discerning who God was calling to be the next archbishop of the Anglican Church of North America.  We, the bishops' wives, began to sing together, and I was keenly aware of the company of saints represented all around us in the beautiful stained glass windows, in the paintings, in the plaster reliefs and carvings.

This decision of the ACNA leadership was being made in a transcendent company of historic and Christian saints who are even now alive around the throne of God entering into perfect worship and the intercessions of Jesus on our behalf.  I had a divine sense of the company of heaven underneath us, buried, around us in the windows, and above us in the dome, their prayers, their sacrifices, their hidden deeds, supporting us beyond their own earthly lives in a holy protection.  Their lives remind us that giving all in this life is worth it.  Their sufferings remind us that this too is passing--the eternal weight of glory is now theirs.  As I looked into the windows, the light from heaven shone through them into this moment of time, this darkening time in our country and our world.

The older I get the more aware I become of the veil that hides us from the unseen realities.  It seems less like a wall and more truly like a veil with stirrings behind it, a soft covering that keeps it all a mystery yet to be disclosed.  Though at certain moments I can see more than at others, I carry a constant awareness of life on the other side of that veil.  This expands my vision of my life.  I am living in the company of angels, those who have died in Christ and so are living, and all creation that praises the Lord and waits with me for the ultimate redemption.

If those who have died in Christ are most fully alive, then certainly they are living in a kingdom that we share with Christ.  And the angels...ahh, the angels.  They are all around us.  We are simply not allowed and are unable to lift the veil.  At times, God lifts it, for reasons I do not know, but when he does, it is a glimpse that reminds us of our eternal lives that extend beyond us.  I am often reminded of Elisha surrounded by Syrian horses and chariots.  His servant was distressed, "Alas, my master, what shall we do?" [Elisha] said, "Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them."  Then Elisha prayed, "O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see."  And it says in 2 Kings 6: "So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha."

This awareness of the cosmic company, this cloud of witnesses, replaces fear with the assurance of ultimate victory.  The gates of hell cannot prevail against the Church.  It also makes us more aware of the company we keep here on this earth--the global company...God's kingdom that is alive and growing all over the world.  I carry in my heart everyday my fellow brothers and sisters that are suffering because they know they are first of all citizens of heaven.  They suffer for being followers of Jesus.  I pray for them to be faithful, not to be discouraged, and to forgive their enemies because we need them to shine into the darkness of the world and also illuminate our darkness. Their faithfulness has cosmic implications.

I know some of you who are reading this live in places where you suffer for the Gospel.  Please pray for us in America.  We desperately need your prayers, and we hardly know how to pray.  The Holy Spirit will guide you.  Suffice it to say that true Christians will be called upon to stand, and the day is growing dark.

When we come to church it should not be simply to have some individualized experience of worship or to be fed some deep thoughts from the Bible for the week. We should be stepping into an eternal light, swept into the expansive and cosmic world in which we take our places with the heavenly hosts in worship.  At the communion table, we are joining hands with all who claim Christ and heaven as their place of true belonging, those who are already there, and those of us yet to join them. At the altar, we intersect together outside of time, or in eternal time, as the veil of worship that surrounds God is expanded to include us all.  This enables us to live our Christian lives, not alone, but in community.

In those moments of worship, I am pulled up by those beyond this world, and I am propped up and able to stand when those around me stand firmly. As I looked at the stained glass windows, I felt the blessing of these faithful lives shining down on me, calling me not to waver, calling me up into that cross that was lifted high. We need this cosmic fellowship to live our small lives in the grand scheme where they belong, to live in this time and God's time.  We cannot live our lives in the fullness for which they were created without living with roots planted in our ultimate home with the full company of heaven.

Lord, open our eyes that we may see the company we keep.

images are of the St. Vincent Archabbey Basilica, courtesy of Flickr

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A Poem for the Impossible Journey

When God calls us to a difficult journey, we sometimes despair that we cannot make it. God, of course, knows that.

He has already made provision for us to do the impossible.

Such is the case with a story I have always loved-- the story of Elijah after he has had a spiritual victory over the prophets of Baal, has seen the miracle of fire from heaven, and the miracle of rain after a three year drought. He is afraid and in despair and falls asleep.  

Two times an angel visits him, touches him, saying, "Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you," provides him with a cake on hot stones and a jar of water, and then lets him sleep again. Elijah was able to go forty days and forty nights in the strength of that food until he arrived at the mount of God. (Often in Scripture the mountain is the place of miraculous provision).  

I wrote this poem for my husband when he became a bishop, as I knew it would require supernatural provision. Now I submit it to all of you who are on a journey that requires food from heaven just for you to make it one more day. May you know that God is giving himself to you. Go to the mountain of the Lord, for "on the mountain of the Lord, it will be provided."

Arise and Eat

Arise and eat
for the journey is too great for you.
You are only made of atoms
and mountains will have to move.
Water will need to come from stone,
and you will have to live on more than bread.

Arise and eat
for the journey is too great for you.
I have food you know nothing of.
This food is mine prepared for you
by angels at the hearth of heaven.
This, my hand, will feed you.

Arise and eat
for the journey is too great for you.
Your prayers cry out for ancient fire,
but it is living and will singe your skin.
This is my hand, made pure by fire,
and I baptize you with it.

Arise and eat
for the journey is too great for you.
Those who have not bowed to Baal
must be gathered for the approaching reign.
This, my hand, that gathers oceans
in a water-skin will discharge the waters.

Arise and go.
Lift your robes and run.
Do not fear the evil charging at your back.
I will meet you on the mountain of miracles
where all will be afforded.
This, my right hand, is yours.

--Katherine Ruch

Friday, May 9, 2014

Living in Vertical Time

The Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis open in all of us, even as adults, that mysterious longing for a world beyond this one in which we live our daily lives.  How we long to step into a wardrobe and discover a world where our responsibilities are different, and we have a community so much larger than the one in which we currently transact our business--a community populated with all sorts beyond our imagination.  It is a place where good ultimately wins, and the King comes and saves the day.

What C.S. Lewis is giving us in Narnia is an intuition of the Real.  Our lives lived in such a small frame, limited by our clouded and sophisticated vision, could and should expand into a broad space that is not fictional, but real.  The REAL world we live in with God is much more expansive than our imaginations could ever fathom, but most of the time our world seems, instead, constricted and binding.

How do we get to that expansive place in our minds and hearts, in which our REAL LIFE encompasses what we see but also what we do not see (that is just as real)?  I believe this requires a training of the inner vision, practicing the presence of the Unseen Real.  Every time we enter into worship of truth and spirit, we align ourselves with that reality larger than ourselves that stretches us beyond our tiny existence.

We have just walked through Holy Week.  In our journey with Christ as a Church, we experience the filling of time with eternal space.  Our normal experience of time, as a created being, stretches for us in a linear way.  When we come into worship, God lets us experience the stretching and filling of time in a vertical way.  The grief in the Garden, the cross, the resurrection, come present to us in our immediate experience of time.  We are in time outside of time.

Our church has many Holy Week services: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday Stations of the Cross, Good Friday Evening Service, Easter Vigil, and Easter Day. Since my husband is the priest leading most of these services, I arrive with my six children, exhausted, dragging in snacks, diaper and wipes,  water bottles, carrying the remains in my heart of what it took to get out the door: "What do you mean you still have to comb your hair?" "Put your coat back on."  "Where is his other shoe??!!" "Turn off the lights, please." "Where is____?" "Who let him out in the garden? Now he is all dirty." I apologize all the way to church for my impatience and harshness.  I am weary, and am prepared to face a service in which my youngest will be quiet, but crawl all over me, need to be kept busy, and different children will go and come with their different responsibilities...choir, acolyting, etc.

But as I quiet myself and enter into the presence of God, I find my time intersecting with another time that infuses meaning into this time.  I see my children washing each other's feet at Maunday Thursday;  I see them at the cross praying; I see them dancing at the Vigil and singing with such abandon.  I can bring them here where time in God's kingdom intersects with ours;  and we can be drawn out of our petty concerns into the vastness of freedom and release in God. This is the reality that will ultimately be my full reality.  For now, however, I live learning to find inner highways to Zion, God's dwelling. (Ps. 84, "Blessed are whose heart are the highways to Zion.")

The cross is the ultimate meeting of eternal time with chronological time...the horizontal meeting the vertical.  God who created time, comes into time and sacrifices himself--a sacrifice that saves both those before the cross and after. It operates back in time.  His resurrection is also this divine intersection, visiting even those who had died before with his living presence.  The cross and the resurrection create a bridge for us between our current time lived out on this earth, making a way for us into the eternal time of God.  Literally, Jesus, in his body, makes it possible for us to reach outside of our finite time.

It is beautiful to be expanded in this way because we can become so small in our existence, living without awareness of the vastness of the life to which we belong and that we have been so freely given: Eternal Life...not just eternal in its horizontal direction, but eternal in its vertical direction.  In other words, at any moment we can enter into a vertical experience of time that takes us into God's presence, that unbounded by time, moves in and outside of our time.

If God could condense his vastness into a small baby, can he not take us, in our smallness, into his vastness, expanding us into his depths and heights? As we receive his presence, we receive a world that needs new eyes, new ears, new perceptiveness, indeed, a new heart and spirit to be able to engage it.  These eyes and ears that we have are not accustomed to seeing beyond our cramped spaces.

Training our imaginations and spirits to see and know the kingdom of God in the now of our lives is a lifetime journey.  And we only embark on it one step at a time.  The first step is to stop and be in the moment God has created and ask him to infuse it with his kingdom.  He walks through walls and the limits of minutes, for he owns all space and time.  And if we so desire, he will take us to his kingdom, or better said...will bring it to us right where we are.  "The kingdom of God is near."

Friday, April 25, 2014

In Need of a Resurrection

Though I wrote this poem for the occasion of the consecration of our new church building (our church name is Church of the Resurrection), I thought I would post this in the Easter season, as it expresses our need for the ultimate resurrection power of Jesus in our daily lives. I hope it blesses you, as you walk in the death and resurrection everyday. The icon depicted in this picture is painted on canvas by three artists in our church. It is shown here at our Easter Vigil service in 2013, not in our own church building.

Coming to our Resurrection

To be given the right walls
and doors whose hinges open--
To find an ancient floor
and the right place to fall--
Is that not why you and I
first came to this Resurrection?

We came like Lazarus, bound
but staggering in the right direction.
We came like so many Shunamite women,
undone, bearing our lifeless sons,
crying out for a resurrection.

We were waiting for the Word
to hover over our emptiness
speaking, “Let there be!”—the wind
to drive a dry way through
our restless waters ---the breath
to rustle over our dry bones
with the rush of a resurrection.

And here we are alive,  
standing on bare feet.
We found our pains were windows,
our crosses a place to rise.
But like Jairus’ girl—Jesus, lift us up.
Our hands are feeble;  we are hungry
and are here for food.
Please raise us up for this
must be our Resurrection.
  --Katherine Ruch, 2013

Monday, April 7, 2014

Book Flash: THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON by Adam Johnson

In keeping with my intentions to extol good story, I will try to recommend books on a somewhat regular basis.  This is my favorite fiction of the year:

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

This book is set in North Korea and has as its main character Jun Do (John Doe--your Everyman).  Jun Do is a puppet of the state, taking up any role assigned him, including horrible kidnappings.  At some point, he desires to assert his own personhood and begins to love, which eventually leads to sacrifice that costs him everything.  That is, however, what finally makes him a true man rather than a shadow of one.  This book is beautifully written and haunting.

The author much deserved the Pulitzer Prize he won for this book, and you can find interviews with him that elucidate his extensive research for this book, and why he chose the genre of fiction.  Here is one of his comments:

"If literature is a fiction that tells a deeper truth, I feel my book is a very accurate portrayal of how the tenets of totalitarianism eat away at the things that make us human:  freedom, art, choice, identity, expression, love."

This book paints a horrifying picture of North Korea--a country for which we have little information.  The reader should be warned that this book is raw when it comes to its details about tortures and descriptions about the labor camps.  Johnson stated in an interview that he had to soften some of the facts because the truths were so much worse.  The narrative of the State that is piped in via loudspeaker to every home is the story that defines and shapes persons and ultimately dismantles family, friendship, and community of any kind, challenging any loyalty other than the loyalty to the Dear Leader--Kim Jong Il (the Orphan Master?)  Some good humor emerges in the diplomatic trip that Jun Do and the other emissaries take to America, in which they are hosted at a Texas Ranch.  This only serves to highlight the disconnection that North Korea has from the rest of the world and perhaps how little the rest of the world understands their insular culture.

I was deeply moved by this book.   I have been interested in North Korea partly because it is the most violent and aggressive government in its persecution of Christians. To see how a people can become complicit with the dismantling of their own culture, community, and personhood by submission to a manipulative narrative that defines reality for them, was like a warning to all of us in the free world.  To see, then, the power of the choice to turn away from that narrative and try to discern truth and live in love was powerful.  In the end,  self-sacrifice was the greatest emancipation.  Johnson's scope spans a culture and country but also the inner workings of a human heart.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Fight for Fiction: The Formative Power of Story

Good citizens built the Mini-Cassia area, creating thriving communities. Who were these people and what did they do?

The Common Core that many states have recently instituted in our schools is controversial.  Along with many literature proponents, I am deeply concerned at the replacement of 50% of the fiction and poetry with technical and non-fiction reading.  This other reading is non-fiction from science, math, etc. Already our students do not read enough literature, and since schools have been trying to attract children to reading by offering inferior literature that presents immediate pleasure, the body of great literature to which a student is exposed to, has been steadily shrinking.  Now it has just shrunk more.

To accommodate these new standards, teachers will be able to give only samplings of novels or plays as texts to be dissected (which is one way to learn...but only one).  The rare full book that a student will read will be selected how?  and by whom?  I taught high school literature and found it a constant battle with time to give the students a real education in literature.  And now, if I understand the new standards, literature will not be linked to any period of history, will not fall into a broader arc of ideas being shaped and formed in a culture in a certain place at a certain time.  Children will be writing more (and reading their own writing instead of great writing), which on the surface looks good, but historically does not make better writers. Children have been writing more in school than ever before and their writing is getting worse.  It is not about writing more;  it is about reading more good writing and then writing carefully.

It is not that I do not think that our children should not be reading good writing wherever it is found. Good non-fiction writing is important.  My concern is that we are reducing our educational theory to a utilitarian perspective, teaching to the tests, the jobs, and the statistics.  We are making a work force. We are not making persons.

This brings me once again to my tired tirade that defends literature, especially fiction.  Good literature is a true teacher.  Through it we meet people of such different places, persuasions, life situations, and time periods than we could ever meet in one lifetime.  We are exposed to the incarnation of all the vices and the virtues, and our imaginations take on living forms of what it means to be good, forgiving, loving in the face of hatred, faithful against all odds or, on the other hand, miserly, despairing, trapped in secrets. We gain empathy and also a capacity to imagine something that is not, so that we can work toward change.  We can capture through picture and story the human heart in ways it cannot be otherwise understood so that it sheds light on the intricate movements of our own souls.  A people bereft of literature is a people that does not know itself or how it fits into the story of the whole world.

It is through reading Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert and Too Late the Phalarope by Alan Paton that I grasped the trap of adultery and how the human heart falls into its own holes, and I became better equipped to pray for those who grieve their own sexual falls.  It is through Lord of the Rings that I populated and Christianized my imagination with images of true community, faithfulness in the small difficult tasks that leads to true heroism, the immediacy of the battle against good, the corruption that comes from imagining oneself the lonely savior, the ultimate victory of hope, and on and on.  Even as I list those things they sound lofty and instructive but not alive like they are when encountered in the characters of the book.

After reading for years, we begin to identify archetypes (models or patterns), repeated themes, and the world begins to form a network of connections across time and space.  We all share these archetypes of "the journey," "the hero who must suffer," "the protected garden," "the birth," "the antagonist."

How can such reading shape our expectations of life and of common human experience?  Just recently, my children commented on how all foreign fairytales about kings and princes follow a pattern.  The first two sons are power hungry and lacking in love;  the third son, of whom nothing great is expected is the virtuous one.  They all have some quest, and on the quest, the one who responds to the needs of the dwarf or the little old lady or the injured animal (who in actuality is a person of magical powers who knows how to help them complete the quest) is the one who gets the aid and accomplishes the quest and wins the love of some desirable princess, a kingdom to be ruled and, finally, the recognition of the distant father.  (And this is always the youngest son or the unexpected hero).

What does this pattern tell us of the world's understanding of the arc of true story?  The hero is the one who is unselfish, responsive to the needs of others even at the expense of his own comfort, the one willing to persevere in hardship, open to help when his limitations prevent his success, and respectful of authority and the small.  In the end, contrary to what would be expected, this is the hero that wins love, true authority and responsibility.  This is a universal truth embodied in a simple fairy tale that children imbibe and eventually find it has shaped their expectation of a true hero.

It was this very understanding of the centrality of one myth or one true story of which all other stories are echoes and ripples that led C.S. Lewis to understand that Jesus is the true story.  Tolkien helped him see that Jesus is the myth that came true, so to speak, and that is why so many cultures and times have had threads of this story woven into their imaginations.  He is the central story.  All other good story and literature can draw us into the true story, and make room in us for all truth and ultimate truth.

Another gift that good literature gives us is distance.  We read a story that mirrors our world, and we can see it more clearly.  Or we can process through story something that is too weighty in real life. Many people have found the power of story to be healing because they are able to experience similar life circumstances or characters at a distance that can be managed.  Therapists of children who have suffered trauma use story to help children process their own lives.  Our encounter with evil in a story (as long as it is clearly portrayed as evil) helps us deal with evil in the world with some distance.  A dragon is not going to show up on our front door, but temptation is, greed is, and we learn how to deal with such darkness (like the knight does) by facing into fear, developing courage, and persevering. Story can also expose us to what is so far beyond our experience but we must know and understand to be a citizen of the world.  Where historical facts can tell us what happened in a labor camp, a story shows us what it does to the human person.

I believe that a rich imagination shaped by memorable story that embodies the true, the good, and the beautiful equips me to live out the virtues (hopefully) in my real life story.  Of course, what is dark is also made clear, and when distance is provided through story, we can often see more clearly the darkness in ourselves and our world, and choose to name it and walk away from it. Jesus did this for us in the parables.  He chose story to unfold what was in a person's heart and to show his listeners what it meant to love or forgive.  How many times do I find that my children can SEE their own actions more clearly if they see them embodied in a character in a story.  A simple comment like, "Don't be an Eeyore," is immediately understood by my children.

One day my husband and I were walking down a street in Brazil and saw a man lying in the middle of the sidewalk.  He did not appear to be sleeping off a drunken stupor but had fallen and was unconscious.  People were walking by, looking, and avoiding.  How I wanted to pass on and not entangle myself in what could be hours of care when we were in a new city to have a relaxing day as tourists.  Then we thought of the story of the Good Samaritan and knew we didn't want to be those people that passed by.  We tried to call the police.  They were not interested.  Then we realized a hospital was across the street;  so we planned to try and carry him.  We could tell he had wet himself all over, and we knew we were trying to avoid touching him.  Just as we picked him up, a man stopped in his pick-up truck to help us, and the story unfolds from there.  But it was the story of the Good Samaritan that motivated me in a moment of decision to be the one that would sacrifice in the moment and not be the religious one that had better things to do.

As we look to the future of our country's education, we must fight for good fiction and good literature of all kinds to be central to the formation of our children.  Make sure your own children our immersed in good story and not just reading literature to learn how to analyze language.  Our worlds must be larger than our own experience, and our imaginations must be rich to help us live full and meaningful lives. To that end, I hope to have regular book suggestions and "reviews" that offer suggestions for books that expand and engage the whole person.
 (Feel free to send your suggestions, as I am always reading.)

Photo Credit goes to Burley Library Foundation.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

What Does it Mean to be a Woman?

Note: What began as a blog entry became a behemoth.  Of course, the question elicits a lifetime of answer.  You may want to read this in a few sittings.  I wish I could provide you with a bookmark and a large cup of coffee.

In the novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Garcia Marquez, the author describes in his magical but realistic way a village suffering from an insomnia plague.  As this plague continues, it gradually causes the loss of memory.  To try and salvage memory, the people developed an elaborate plan that involved labeling everything, for instance, "This is a cow."  But even the labels lost meaning over time and needed to be further defined.  So, for instance to "This is a cow," they added: "She gives us milk.  We add milk to our coffee."  Eventually the village put a placard at the entrance to town that said, "God exists," as that knowledge too was slipping.  Then the people began to forget what a mother was and what a father was and lost all language to describe it.

This image from Garcia Marquez describes with haunting accuracy the plague that is spreading through all levels of our culture and society.   It is as if we have lost the regular recalibration of sleep in which sanity is restored.  We are beginning to lose the most fundamental and elemental truths, such as what it means to be a mother or a father, a man or a woman.  If any of us was asked to define "man" or "woman," I daresay we would hardly know where to begin.  This is not simply because we have lost the meaning, it is because these iconic ideas were never meant to have to be defined; these truths were meant to be lived in such a way that a cognitive explanation or defense would never be necessary. For certainly the reality of Man or Woman is much larger than words, and any attempt to wrestle down a manageable definition would fall far from the mystery that is Woman or Man.

But if the human race is to flourish, we must not lose a grasp on who we are, especially in the fundamental identities of Woman and Man.  We seem to have become disconnected from the ancient truths which have anchored us.  In order, then, to salvage memory, an attempt at a description is perhaps a starting point.

Because I am a woman, and because Woman seems to be the gender that is most searching for definition and perhaps the identity most under attack, I will begin with Woman.

Women carry such deep hurt from attempted definitions over time.  We as women somehow feel definition diminishes us rather than ennobles us; we can feel squeezed into molds so small that we can hardly breathe.  So I tremble putting words to the "feminine genius" (to quote John Paul II).  But I also fear that we as women, in fear of definition, in fear of limitation, will forget the gift we have to give the world, which is uniquely ours to give, and if not given, will leave a gaping and unimaginable chasm in the psyche of the world. And all persons will walk crippled from this loss; indeed this is already happening. As women move toward androgyny (being distinguishably neither masculine or feminine), I do not see women who try to throw off any descriptive feminine identity walking into freedom.  I see them more compressed, more unmoored than ever.

Where to begin when approaching the mystery of Woman?  Let us go back to the beginning...the creation of the woman.  Woman was created because man needed a companion to help him carry out his creational instructions:  to image God, to be fruitful, and to be master of the earth.  In the first pair of man and woman there is a presupposed harmony, a dance that had no power struggle, no need to assert importance or influence over another.  Certainly the solidarity between man and woman in their joint task of mastering the earth deserves its own essay, but for this essay, I choose to focus here on the woman's vocation as mother to the earth.  The first command of God was, "Be fruitful and multiply." Be a father. Be a mother.

Mother to the world.

Why does the serpent come to the woman first?  We don't know.  But one reason seems to be that she is, as Adam named her, "The mother of all the living." And as such she represents the most vulnerable point of entry for Satan to attack and distort the human family. (Of course, Adam's passivity in this situation is another vulnerable point of entry).  We know that Satan hates life, and after Woman came from Man, now all mankind would come through Woman.  As a friend of mine recently noted, throughout history it has been, "women and children first," not because they are so weak, but because they represent the future. The book of Revelation in the Bible paints this mythic war against Woman as the source of life, and through whom ultimately came Jesus,  the one who would redeem all mankind from the tragic fall.

The curse of the Fall (which is simply just stating the natural trajectory of the choices made), as it is aimed at Woman, is twofold: her fruitfulness in childbearing will become complicated and painful, and she will begin to look to man for definition.  To be fruitful requires harmony between man and woman.  It is only natural that the consequences of the Fall would begin at the very core of who she was created to be--1. a mother and 2. a companion to stand beside her husband.  Now a disequilibrium with Man is a natural outcome of the relational breakdown that occurred with God.  In the ESV Bible, it says, "her desire will be for her husband," and then in the notes it says, "or against her husband."  That pretty much sums it up.  Desire itself is distorted by the new struggle for power and identity. We women say to men, "Tell me who I am, and by the way, don't you dare tell me who I am."

The Fall broke the harmony and introduced the sword between the sexes.  Forevermore, we would see ourselves in competition, in a power struggle for influence and recognition.

But God did not leave us there.  Even as he spoke the words of the curse, he spoke the words of the promise:  from Woman's womb would come the one that would redeem all of this.  Centuries later, God sent an angel to a young woman and said that he would overshadow her and bring through her very body into the world the one who would crush the head of the deceiving serpent.

Eve is called the mother of all the living.  What is Mary called? The early church began to call her the mother of God.  In their parallel stories, we find the redemption of Woman's role in the world, and the healing she is capable of bringing to humanity by being available to God.

God, when he chose to come to earth in the flesh, did not just appear as a 30 year old man as he just disappeared when he was finished with his work.  He chose to come through the womb of a woman, be nurtured by her, connected to her.  Jesus came as a man, and that is essential because he is the new Adam, but he came through the womb of a woman, and in so doing hallowed both Man and Woman.

The early fathers began to understand Mary as the new Eve.  She is the new icon of Mother, of Woman.  Mary accepted the word of the Lord that Eve did not accept.  Instead of doubting God's Word as Eve did and fearing that something good was being withheld, Mary stepped out in faith that God's Word would bring good, "Be it done unto me according to your word."

I would offer that the looming icons of woman in Scripture are mothers.  A church father said, "The woman's womb is the doorway to heaven."  No human being will be in heaven who did not first travel through the womb of a woman.  You must be born again, yes, but you have to be born the first time, and that involves the starting home of a woman's body.  The second birth, the water and the Spirit, is ministered through the Church, which is our spiritual Mother (John 3).  Bishop Cyprian said when speaking of the Church as our Mother, "...From her womb we are born, by her milk we are nurtured, by her spirit we are given life...She watches over us for God, she seals her sons, to whom she has given birth, for the kingdom...He cannot have God as his Father who does not have the Church as his Mother."

This is a tall order to be the icon of the Church--the Mother that nurtures life.  All of us women--celibates and married, fertile and infertile-- cannot flee from this call.  We are the sacramental embodiment of the Church that births and nurtures life, and there is none other as uniquely crafted to carry this kind of life into the Church and the world as we are.  The world is languishing while we cast about seeking to be released from this privilege that carries so much responsibility.

Our bodies tell a story worth listening to: woman has been given a unique unity between her physical and spiritual being  We have been given the unparalleled vocation of assimilating into our bodies another living being.  Your personhood began inside your mother's body.  I would offer that woman has a different calling from man in her impartation of being.  She is the one who has the precognitive connection to the baby.  This development of personhood as it is nurtured in the attachment to Mother extends beyond birth.  Babies need their mothers, not just any loving caretaker.  A growing cluster of psychological research on attachment indicates that the depth and consistency of a child's bond with its mother is the primary determinant of a healthy sense of being and personhood. Woman as Mother is essential to the well-being of all humanity.

This is beautiful, but we diminish and resist it.  Why?  It is sometimes hard to be needed in this way, to this depth, by another.  It is sometimes hard to believe that even the apparently meaningless and trivial motions of caring for another who cannot possibly appreciate the sacrifice, could be so fundamentally important.

I would offer that the apparent smallness and the very hiddenness of this call is one of the primary Christian paths of formation in love.  Everyone has the opportunity to learn to love in life.  Some take it; some do not.  Every mother has a unique opportunity, that if seized upon, can be the making of her own personhood.  Through this obscure path without worldly advancement or promotion, a woman can learn love.  And in turn, she can multiply the effect of this love by giving a gift to the world (though it is increasingly undervalued)--children with the capacity to love others because they themselves have received sacrificial love.

Gertrude von le Fort, a German philosopher and poet, in her book, The Eternal Woman, says that men are like stones in a stream, planted, giving all their creative energy to this generation;  women are like the water flowing and carrying the treasure into the next generation.  Even if one disagrees with the metaphor, no one would disagree that stone and water are primal elements of force in nature, and both are essential for holding together the earth.  This metaphor does, however, capture the deeper complexity in water as compared to stone.  Stone is fairly straight-forward.  Water is formless, shapeless, colorless but can seep through solid rock, erode away a mountain over time, evaporate into air and be carried to another location altogether.  The differences are real, but it would be foolish to spend energy trying to decide whether stone or water was more powerful or to strategize how we might neutralize their differences so that they are interchangeable.

Masculine and Feminine are this elemental to holding the world together.  Their differences become absolutely necessary to the preservation of the human race.  And yet, little thought is given to preserving the uniqueness of each gender as fundamental to society. And certainly women do not seem that concerned in preserving their own unique powers and making sacrifices to be sure we carry from our age to the next generation those gifts that those who come next, both men and women, (for we build being in both) might be ready to take the baton and run the race.  Woman by her very design has a unique bond to the next generation and in giving life to that whole generation, she naturally gives something of herself away by flowing from one place in time to another.

Does this mean that a woman who is celibate or unable to bear children is not participating in the vocation of womanhood?  Heaven forbid!  [Does it mean that every woman who biologically bears children has entered into the spirit of motherhood?  No.  I have met women who have birthed even seven children but whose spirits treat motherhood as an imposition.]  The capacity of the woman's body to bear children tells a story of how all of us as women impart life.  A celibate woman is uniquely freed in the Church to minister the mother love of the Church to the world.  Edith Stein, a celibate Jewish Christian in Nazi Germany who died for her faith, wrote extensively about women bringing a unique gift of motherhood in the work place.  Her book of essays, Woman, is definitely worth reading to expand our understanding of the gift women bring to society when they choose to be mothers (even when it is not biological). Recovering the gift of Motherhood in our generation means recognizing and valuing the diverse ways in which this mothering identity brings healing to the world.  Turning away from the posturing of mothering has affected us on all levels, even in the world of academia and the marketplace.

This beautiful gift of imparting being as mothers is the very gift women are trying to shake off.  I read recently that 40% of German female graduates are choosing not to have children.  The government said that if the birthrate in Germany does not go up, they will eventually have to "turn out the lights," meaning say goodnight to what was once "Germany."  Not one country in Europe has a replacement population level.  Whole populations are facing demographic crises as women define their lives away from the calling to motherhood. (I recommend the DVD, "Demographic Winter," a sobering evaluation by secular social scientists on the depopulation crisis).

America is a little better off, but the attitude toward childbearing is quite charged with ambivalence. Just follow the recent national conversation on motherhood in the Wall Street Journal or read the books on motherhood published in the last five years. 

Pope Benedict spoke to this resistance to bearing children:  "Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future.  Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present." So why are the women of our generation so ambivalent toward being mothers?  Well, it is hard.  And it is a sacrifice. And women say that there is a lack of childcare options.  But I think Pope Benedict put his finger on the real issue:  children appear to be a threat to self-actualization.

Women are resistant to the limitations motherhood imposes on their own ambitions--a limitation very different than fatherhood.  It is easy for us to think that men get it all--successful career and the chance to be a parent.  This creates resentment, partly because increasingly it seems to be the reality that when women have both, they lose on both fronts. That is because men do not create a home like women do, and women have a deep longing to bring soul to the home even if much of their energies are expended outside the home.  So they feel torn and stretched.  Men can sacrifice themselves for present success and gratification.  The sacrifices a mother makes are often invisible to the world outside, are not rewarded with a raise in pay, and the results are only manifested in the future. For this reason, a mother would have to be motivated by the future joy and assurance of her essential identity in the master plan of the world to make these sacrifices over and over.

From the outside, simply imagining motherhood or hypothesizing about it only allows a mathematical evaluation of loss.  The reward of LIFE, indeed multiple lives, however, that is woven into the fabric of her life, and even her body, becomes a masterpiece of art that is its own discovery and treasure, but is only unveiled as she steps into the sacrifice. The benefits and rewards are immeasurable.

I am going to share a personal story that carries a symbolic import of every woman's fear of giving life that results in her own loss of life.  After four happy births complicated by manageable post partum hemorrhage, my fifth birth was a beautiful and fast birth that quickly turned into trauma by bleeding that would not stop.  After a great deal of medical intervention brought the bleeding under control, I was relieved that I had been blessed with five healthy children and was alive to raise them.  Imagine the shock when three years later, at age 45, I found I was pregnant.  For nine months,  I suffered with fear of losing my life--not just for myself, but for my husband who would have to raise all these children alone, and for my children who would grow up without a mother.  I went in and out of trusting God with my life and knowing my times were in his hands.  I worked closely with a midwife, surgeon, a hematologist, and the hospital to do what we could to make a plan.  But I knew enough about birth to know that no plan could insure that I and the baby would make it out alive. This experience became for me the inner struggle played out in a physical way.

I think on a metaphorical level, we often face into a primal fear of losing ourselves if we give life to another. We forget that the one who maneuvers to save his life, finds himself without life in the end. The one who lays down his life for Jesus' sake and the Gospel's, will find life.  Imparting life by necessity requires parting with life as we understand it.  The promise is that life will be returned to us--a kind of divine exchange.  "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." (John 12:24ff)

I recently read a poignant article by the daughter of the stridently feminist author, Alice Walker.  Alice raised her daughter to despise motherhood.  Her daughter resisted motherhood in attempt to imitate her own mother.  When she finally had a child, she realized in deep regret what she had missed her whole adult life.  She was now awakened as a mother in her own being, and she had to reckon with the way in which the freedom that had been sold to her had robbed her of years of meaning that were unrecoverable.  You can access this article here:  

If you are a Christian, then you belong to Christ--the whole of you.  God gets to decide how your intellect is used and fulfilled, how your gifts are used, how your education is used, how your body is used, how your time and creative energy is used.  What if God decides that your children need your education, your gifts, a good parcel of years, and most of your creative energy?  Our current culture would say that it would be a waste for you to give all of that to children.  You were made for more or educated for more.  Our vision for the future has stopped with ourselves.  We cannot see that the future generation will have very little to give because it has received so very little from us.

Various legitimate reasons emerge for a woman to work outside the home, the details of which deserve their own conversation.  The point I am making is that we must give motherhood its proper priority.  In helping young women plan their future, we should be helping them plan a life that has room for imparting being (especially to children God may give them) because if not, their creative energy will be in so much demand elsewhere.  It is hard to choose to give that mothering FIRST to one's own children, and it is certainly not as gratifying in the short term.

Edith Stein said, "Whatever is surrendered to God is not lost but is saved, chastened, exalted, and proportioned out in true measure."  Mary is an icon for all of us of our relationship to Christ.  We are all called to carry Christ to the world.  We are all called to become less as Christ becomes more.  It is the seed that goes down alone into the earth and dies that bears much fruit.  I understand now what the Apostle Paul meant when he said that women would be sanctified through childbearing--it is how we can become like Christ in our giving up of self for the sake of new life.  It is the Christian lesson available to women in a particular way.

After nine months of trying to trust God for my life and future, the birth of our sixth child took place during a blizzard of epic proportions.  I began to bleed during labor from a placental abruption, forcing the hospital staff to go out with an emergency vehicle and get the surgeon who could not get out of his driveway.  As they wheeled me into surgery, I was panicked.  Would this sweet baby who I already loved live?  Would I live?  In my swirl of overwhelming emotions, I knew I needed to still myself and be present to God, who was with me in this valley of death.  I quieted myself and listened.  I was surprised at what I heard.  I heard God whisper to me among the beeps and buzzes of machines, in the gathering of the crowd of surgical nurses, anaesthesiologists, surgeon, and so many others, and this is what I heard:

"Thank you."  Thank you.  I asked you to walk into your deepest fear;  I asked you to lay down your body because I wanted this person at this intersection in history, and you had to be his mother.  Thank you for being open to giving life.  I can thankfully say that Becket and I are both alive and well.  It could have turned out differently but still with a result of the victory of life.

We as women have a choice before us:  will we ensure the survival and success of the human race?  This seems extreme, but it is exactly that crucial. Whole cultures and people groups are soon to disappear because women are saying, "No. I won't do it.  Make it worth my investment."

Sacrifice of self is required for future generations to thrive.  The beauty is that when we choose to make that sacrifice, we find we become someone we would not have become otherwise because we find that we walk into who we were created to be.  Our beings expand as we give being away.  Before I became a mother I had grandiose visions for myself.  I was going to change the world, write books, adventure into difficult places, be recognized for my gifts to the world...all for God, of course. What I didn't realize is that God wanted to perfect me in love.  He was not so concerned about all I would do for him.  Motherhood taught me the greatest lessons in becoming less. Instead of doing great deeds, I was taught to do small deeds and realize their secret grandeur.  All the desire for recognition was slowly rung out of me, and my desires became more aligned with God's call to smallness for the purpose of fruitfulness. 

Maybe it is time for women to give the world what it so desperately wants and needs--motherhood.  And in so doing, we might just find ourselves.