Who’s Throwing the Party

I had the urge to perform a random act of celebration at work the other day. As a friend was walking toward me, I suddenly wanted to shout her name out with great exuberance and throw my hands into the air. I hesitated because, after all, this was work, and that’s not exactly how one behaves at work.

So I announced her name to the hallway with less than the trumpet blast of volume I’d first considered and raised my arms—not too quickly—into the air with less than all-out enthusiasm.

She looked worried and said, “What do you need?”

“Nothing,” I said, “I’m just celebrating your presence.”

“You must need something,” she said.

I wonder how many times God and I have had a similar conversation without my being aware of it. I suspect God is always rejoicing in the great good news of our existence. My most likely response to this outpouring is “What do you need?” as if I had to do something to earn that goodwill.

I can fool myself into thinking I’m being responsive or responsible asking that question, but really I’m being a control freak. If I can earn God’s favor, then I am in charge. If, on the other hand, we recognize that God’s love is unreasonable, is always pouring out regardless of what we do, our whole world shifts.

Life is no longer about getting it right because as Richard Rohr says, “God does not love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good.” When we stop worrying about what we’re supposed to be doing, we’re free to participate in whatever God is doing, to enter the divine flow, to throw up our arms and say, “I praise you God for I am wonderfully made” (Psalm 139).

I don’t mean we have free license to treat other beings or the Earth poorly. God’s not throwing that kind of party.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” Perhaps the joy he is talking about is the kind that would arise if we stopped wondering what we needed to do to be good and entered into God’s celebration.

Can We Care Enough?

I don’t write about current events for a number of reasons: because a lot of other people do, because I’m often not well-informed, and because when I write about others’ actions I tend to blame and judge, which is not helpful. But it seems ridiculous to write a blog on July 7, 2016, that does not take into account the killings of black men on July 5 and 6 in Baton Rouge and St. Paul.

The problem is, I am white. I will never know what it means to worry that, despite all my warnings, my son will leave his hoodie on as he walks to school leaving me to identify his body that night instead of feed him dinner.

I read an op-ed in the New York Times by Michael Eric Dyson, a black sociology professor at Georgetown University, who had little patience for white people who understand privilege because we aren’t doing anything. He said, “We don’t know…how to make you [white people] care enough to stop those who pull the triggers.”

“Care enough”—this is not a policy matter; this is a matter of the heart. Can I truly say that there is nothing of me reflected in the actions of these police officers? I hope I wouldn’t have acted as they did, but until I can love my neighbor as myself—not as much as myself, as Cynthia Bourgeault once explained, but as myself, that is, with a knowing that my neighbor is more myself than other—until I can do that, I am participating in this and all the violence in the world.

So how not to crawl into bed and pull the blanket over our heads because if you are like me, you know that perfection is not within your reach. My prejudices are legion, and they’ll never fully go away.

As my friend Barb Kollenkark wrote recently, the only healthy way to deal with darkness is to bring it into the light. Can we care enough to recognize and act with love toward our own darkness? Loving is not condoning. Loving is seeing it as it is—the woundedness that lies beneath it as well as the harm we have caused and are causing.

I doubt any of this would offer comfort to the loved ones of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, nor, perhaps, should it. It is ours, white people’s, to bear the discomfort of what we have done—not by wallowing in guilt but by acknowledging our responsibility—to ask for God’s undeserved grace to heal us—because surely if we have done these things we are sick—and to act from this new place in a way that can help those we have decimated. “A pure heart create for me, O God.”

Being Incomplete

A professor working on the effects of sunspots on Earth’s soil said something like this to me this week: “You know the sun is about halfway through its life [I didn’t], so in five billion years….” When I heard “halfway through its life” I thought, this whole end of the solar system thing is closer than I realized. Then came the five billion years.

Also this week a friend sent a prayer written by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the first line of which I’d heard before: “Above all, trust in the slow work of God.” Fourteen billion years-ish so far—slow indeed. I worry about the way weeks and months speed up, seeming to contain less time every year. As they age, the stars say to each other, wow, a million years is just nothing anymore.

Teilhard’s advice is not surprising coming from a paleontologist and priest, nor is the end of the prayer:

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

“A new spirit gradually forming within you”—something that is not there now and has not been there before. That’s remarkable. The sun may apparently stop having sun spots right about now—give or take a few thousand or maybe million years—as this is something that can happen to stars halfway through their lives. Something new after five billion years, something gradually forming.

“Accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.” Whatever this new spirit is, it will never be complete, will never come to a point of stasis. I don’t know whether the sun feels anxious, but its formation—its birth—involved an epic, fifty-million-year struggle between gravity and fusion energy. And now it exists by burning itself up. It will die, but it will never be complete.

We are not somehow separate from this existence we find ourselves in. We are part of a grand becoming that has little or nothing to do with the way we want things to be or think they should work.

Over the next billion years, the sun will heat up and Earth will become inhospitable to life as we know it long before the sun engulfs the planet. “Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you.”

A Lot of Choices

I just activated a new credit card, and the helpful, robotic voice on the other end of the line said, “Thank you for using [our bank]. We know you have a lot of choices.”

We do have a lot of choices, and I often confuse the important ones with the unimportant. Should I push the snooze alarm? Can I wear brown boots with a black jacket? Will I miss the van if I take the time to put on lotion? And that’s just the first hour of the day.

When I got back from China, I was overwhelmed by the entire aisle of salad dressings in the typical American grocery store and the immense selection of deli meats. I almost ran away without my meat when the kind person behind the counter asked me whether I wanted cheese with that.

Because we experience such an onslaught of this type of decision every day, it’s easy to confuse the trivial with the essential. Even those decisions that often seem the biggest—what house to buy, what job to take—will not shape our lives as profoundly as the essential choices, as in, having to do with the essence of things.

Some true choices we face every day:

  • Will I practice forgiveness?
  • Will I be kind?
  • Will I be patient?
  • Will I do whatever I am doing with love?
  • Will I listen to my mental tapes of self-destructive messages?
  • Will I accept help?
  • Will I let others love me?
  • Will I believe that there is something bigger and more hopeful than I can see at this moment?

The list goes on, of course, but our attention to this kind of question truly determines how alive we are. It is so, so hard to believe this in a culture that constantly asks us to quantify ourselves based on whether we selected ham or turkey. Clearly, there was a right one and a wrong one and we better have picked the turkey.

Personally, I answer “occasionally” or “sometimes” to most of the above list, and those may remain my answers until I die. But that’s not important either. What’s important is to keep asking the real questions.

Making New

In other parts of the world, it is still spring. A friend who lives in the Colorado mountains posted a beautiful description of the new life frolicking outside her window: baby foxes, cranes, and birds.

I easily fall into thinking that nothing really changes, or perhaps more exactly that I am not making things change fast enough or am incapable of doing so at all. The thing is, as usual, it’s not me who changes things. “See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” God says in Isaiah.

Fr. Bruno Barnhart, OSB Cam., looked out at the beauty of the Big Sur coast and wrote, “Within us…is to be discovered a free, imaginative power which has been given us so we can actually bring forth the beginning of a new creation” (from his essay “The Big Sur Coast—Sixty Miles of Music to the Eye”). So how can this bringing forth be both within us and not from us?

It is not our power, as in something that belongs to us. It has been given to us, Fr. Bruno says, not the way we’re given a set of cutlery to use every day but rather the way we’re given the gift of baby foxes playing outside our window.

We didn’t do anything to make it happen. We can’t do anything to make it stay. We can’t use it to do whatever we want to because it’s a “free, imaginative power.” It’s never separate from us, but we can’t hold onto it. It works through us, sometimes in spite of us; it both does and does not need our participation.

If you’re thinking right now that this doesn’t make any sense, I agree. This power is not especially interested in making sense—it’s interested in making new. And it’s important to remember that we, too, are part of the new creation, that we are being brought forth, continuously, from the inside out.

Hard and True

Jim Finley often counsels “keep[ing] faith with your newly awakened heart.” It sounds abstract, but I experienced it as practical advice this week.

Finley has a few examples of moments that awaken our hearts: “a flock of birds descending, seeing children when they’re really children.” I’m not sure what it was for me this week—the blooming jacaranda trees, a feeling of playfulness that resulted from a spontaneous trip to In ‘n Out—but there was a time when creation felt porous, as if the things we consider insides and outsides are separated by much less than we usually think, by something more akin to a cell wall than a cement one.

Then there comes the time to sit back down at the computer at work or read the news, and it is suddenly very difficult to believe in what a few moments ago was readily apparent. This is where the being faithful comes in.

It might help to admit first that it’s hard to do. It’s hard to remember that the jacaranda trees matter when there are Things to Get Done. It’s hard to believe that existence is evolving toward a greater consciousness of love while watching the news.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not true. We’re being asked to keep faith not with something abstract and far away but with something we’ve felt deeply. These experiences are every bit as real as those we see on the news. We don’t need to choose one over the other; we only need to trust the reality of our own path through life.

Everything is harder when we first start doing it, from walking to using power tools to trusting our hearts. Practice helps. Community helps. Remembering that we will fail again and again but that it doesn’t really matter because creation is there waiting for us to join in the fun helps, too.

Being Love

I often have a hard time remembering what I’m on this Earth for, which is to love and be loved. I am not referring only to interpersonal relationships, though they are likely our truest guide, but rather to a way of being in the world, a participation in the life of God.

One conception of creation is that it’s a result of God pouring out God’s love. My understanding of a recent talk by Jim Finley is that we are called to live in this love and let it flow through us until we’re just one big love exchanger with God, both the unimaginably bigger than we can understand God and the God within all that we see and meet. That’s what creation is, including us, and that’s what keeps it unfolding—this reciprocal flow of love.

I’m not very good at this. There’s something about being human that makes it often difficult, but it’s desperately important. As a friend pointed out in an online discussion this week, if we’re not practicing love, we’re practicing something else—fear, retribution, take your pick among several nasty alternatives.

So I started reminding myself by saying, for example, “I have to do the dishes with love.” Whatever it was that was on my list, I added, “with love,” the way you add “in bed” to the advice from a fortune cookie.

Then an interesting thing happened: I realized that “with love” and “have to” don’t go together. Love is always free, never forced. I changed it to, “I would like to walk down the stairs with love.” The current iteration is “Grant me the grace to write this blog in love.”

I am sorry to report that I’m not walking around in an aura of glowing golden light yet, though I’m sure that’s right around the corner. Maybe I was more patient with a friend or my cat or the garbage disposal. Practice, practice.