God Is Not A Coke Machine


I begin each morning with prayer and then have little talks with God all throughout the day until I end with a kind of good night affirmation of gratitude. My prayer life is rather ordinary and flawed. I know people who are inspiringly spiritual whose devotionals are profound, but mine are more akin to the kind that people utter from the bottom of foxholes as bullets are flying over their heads. I say a few thank you phrases acknowledging the Lord’s presence in my life, but all too often follow up with requests for this person or that. Of late my list of those in need has grown to the point that I sometimes can’t quite recall all of the names and causes. I simply suggest that God must indeed remember all of the situations and I ask that He care for each of them. I try to include some praises of His glory, but admittedly I often sound like a child begging a parent for goodies as I reel off my hopes and dreams in a rush of impatience. I sadly all too often grow anxious that the answers I seek are taking too long to materialize. I know, and so does God, that I still have a long way to go in my prayer life.

I’ve often laughed at how we humans pray. I’ve seen students silently pleading for a good grade as I am walking through the classroom returning the results of tests. Of course, by then it is a bit late to change the scores. The real intersessions should have come earlier and might have centered around guidance during the studying phase. By the time that the marks are being returned only an impossible miracle is going to change the number that I have already made on each person’s paper.

I suppose that many of us use prayer in ways that don’t make a great deal of sense. Instead of asking for strength to deal with the human challenges that we must all face, we all too often ask God to for very specific outcomes that would force Him to choose one person over another. We beg for a win in an athletic endeavor as if the Lord is wearing the same jersey as ours. We have a tendency to place time limits on our requests and wobble in our faith when the answers that we seek are slow in coming.

The best prayer warriors that I know have a completely different style of communicating with God that is based on trust. They do not presume to question the challenges that they face, but rather seek the courage and peace that they need to deal with realities. Instead of entreating a higher power to grant them favors they ask instead for the kind of character that they will need to withstand the buffeting winds of life’s difficult moments. They focus on becoming an instrument of peace, justice and love. They ask what they must do rather than imploring for gifts. It is definitely a better way, and the sign of a deep and abiding understanding of God.

Of course there are also those who think that the very idea of some all powerful force watching over us and guiding our way is absurd. To them prayer is a wasted effort that might better be served with action and effort. They cannot imagine that otherwise sensible people believe in some nebulous and unproven concept like God, or miracles. They see religion as a kind of fantastical crutch that we humans use to explain away our own frailties.

I have several friends who meditate daily. They read the Bible or find comfort in the writings of those who have somehow found wonderful ways of explaining how best to form a meaningful relationship with God. They emphasize the need for patience as our individual purposes unfold. They urge us to quiet our minds so that we might actually begin to understand what we must do to find contentment. Theirs is a beautiful spirituality that is elevated from the kind of babble that I seem to utter in my own haste to get on with the duties of the day. I suspect that I am not unlike many of my fellow humans in that that regard.

I was humbled during the recent floods in my city by a comment from a friend whose home had been inundated. She noted all of the people who were thanking God for not sending those waters into their own houses. She suggested that comments speaking of God’s goodness in saving them implied that those whose abodes were devastated were somehow not chosen for blessings as though they may not have had enough faith or goodness to deserve salvation. She suggested instead that those who were high and dry simply be thankful that they were lucky.

A priest once explained to me that God is not like a coke machine. We can’t just insert a coin of prayer and expect a certain outcome. He insisted that the object of prayer should be to praise the Lord and seek His guidance in navigating the arduous journey that is life. We become disappointed when our only goal is to achieve very specific outcomes. “He doesn’t work like that.” When we focus on wanting rather than asking what we must do we run the risk of losing faith and questioning the very existence of God if things don’t work out the way we had hoped. If we do it properly prayer can be a very beautiful thing with the power to bring us comfort. It helps us to find answers to the questions that concern us.

My mother lead a prayerful life. She never questioned the hardships that came her way. Instead she thanked God for living inside her heart and keeping her optimism alive. She saw the dawn of a new day as a great gift from her God. At the time of her death she almost appeared to wear a halo around her head as her eyes shone brightly with the confidence that she was heaven bound. There was no doubt in her mind that she was about to receive the only reward that really mattered. She had been a faithful servant her entire life. She had always understood how to pray.

I try to improve. I watch people like my mom and others whom I greatly admire. They teach me what I must do and tell me that it is okay to have feet of clay. I just have to keep trying to get it right. God knows that I try. 


Finding The Godliness Inside

screen-shot-2016-02-09-at-3-31-32-pmThe calendar can be quirky at times and this year is especially so. We found ourselves celebrating Valentine’s Day and ushering in the Lenten season on the same Wednesday this week. When Easter rolls around we will celebrate that holiest of religious feasts right alongside April Fools Day. Sometimes the heavens enjoy a bit of humor or perhaps just a bit of irony.

I’ve long believed that donning a hair shirt and beating my chest on the first of the forty days before Easter is a rather fruitless task. In fact I generally dislike the idea of the inwardness of artificial sacrifices such as giving up sweets or eschewing joyful celebrations during Lent. For that reason I find it particularly appropriate that Valentine’s Day reminded us to show our love on the very day that Lent began. In fact it served as a hint of what the season should be all about.

I’m not suggesting that we shower loved ones with gifts and cards and boxes of chocolate, but rather that we imbue our forty days of reflection with daily doses of efforts to love even the seemingly unloveable. Perhaps the most productive thing that we might do as we prepare for the joy of Easter is to emulate the life of Jesus, who over and over again in His teaching emphasized the best of our human attributes like compassion, forgiveness and love. Even a nonbeliever must admit that His philosophy was punctuated with a kindness and understanding that is all too often missing even among His most faithful followers. Self proclaimed Christians all too often ignore His message even as they pronounce their self righteousness. Our human tendency to hypocrisy becomes especially noticeable whenever we cloak ourselves in indignation and anger.

It’s fine to prepare for Easter by denying ourselves certain luxuries that we do not need as long as we couple those sacrifices with loving gestures. Now is the season to forgive and to choose to understand. Perhaps through self reflection we might consider the possibility of learning more about people with whom we disagree. This is a time to begin to openly dialogue with people that we have hurt or even those who have hurt us. This is when we should begin reaching out to those who are suffering, and they are many. We should be conscious of our prejudices and close mindedness and work to be less judgmental. Doing such things is always difficult and definitely more meaningful that denying ourselves a piece of cake.

Humanity is suffering all around the world and there are good people working hard to help them. If each of us chose to do something small but remarkable not just everyday during Lent, but all throughout the year think of how much things might improve. Surely we see opportunities for doing good everywhere that we go. Letting a car move in front of us in a traffic jam may literally make someone’s day. Telling the cashier at a crowded store how much you appreciate his/her courtesy may be all that they need to feel less harried. Helping a neighbor with a task or even just shouting a greeting will lift spirits. Responding to anger with love may calm a precarious situation. Attempting to really see a differing point of view will enlighten. Stopping to take a breath and just smile even on a difficult day will make you feel so much better and it will bring a bit of joy to those around you. These are the kinds of things that will make Lent more meaningful and all persons of good will might begin to focus more on acts of kindness than solitary denial.

I suspect that I would want to live like Jesus even if I did not believe in God. Every aspect of His story was an act of love. He was a kind of rebel who was willing to lose His very life in pursuit of what was right. He embraced lepers and sinners and outcasts of every sort while pointing to the artifices of self righteousness that were more centered on ridiculous rules than the needs of people. I have always believed that if He were to return to earth today He would patiently demonstrate one more time the simplicity of His message of love. He would teach us how we must be more aware of those among us who are suffering, and show us how to minister to their needs.

It’s comforting and easy to link ourselves only with those with whom we agree. What is far harder is also loving those whose ideas we abhor. We demean ourselves and lose our credibility when we crawl into the gutter with them and spew the same brand of hatefulness that is their stock and trade. We need not allow them to bully or harm us or those around us, but we also do far better when we fight them with reason rather than engaging in wars of ugly words and insults. Even as they spit in our faces, we must stand honorably and without rancor, never willing to simply run away from defense of the least among us.

Look around and you will find beautiful examples of individuals who carry the spirit of love in their hearts wherever they go. Learn from such beautiful souls. Practice being like them and remember to be kind to yourself if you fail. Each day is another opportunity to try again to overcome the frailties that plague us and to reach outside of ourselves. The true spirit of Lent is found in our efforts to be more and more like the godly natures that live inside our souls.

A Time To Remember

prodigal_sonI grew up in Catholic schools and we were not exactly Biblical scholars. I understood the gist of the stories and parables in that great book, but I would be lost if I had to name the chapters and verses that contain various elements. Still I have enough familiarity with the four books that comprise the volume that I am able to relate both the history in the Old Testament and the story of Jesus in the New. What I learned is that Jesus was all about love and redemption. Over and over again he pushed back against the rule oriented Pharisees and preached the importance of understanding that He had come to remind us all that God is open to each and every one of us and that it is never too late to ask for forgiveness.

Jesus was often misunderstood by the people of His time which ultimately resulted in His being hung from a cross like a common criminal. So it is little wonder that even people who profess to be experts in the interpretation of His words might come up with ideas that appear to be more in line with the Pharisees than with Jesus. Somehow we can all hear or read the very same passages and come up with differing interpretations of them. It’s been happening for centuries and no doubt will continue as long as we humans attempt to unravel the instructions of how best to use Jesus’ instructions for how to behave toward one another.

One of my favorite parables was that of the Prodigal Son. Jesus told this story after the Pharisees and other critics suggested that He was often sinful in the selection of people with whom He associated. They disliked that Jesus was friends with tax collectors and women of dubious character and such. They worried about how He flaunted the religious laws by performing miracles on the Sabbath. They felt that Jesus too often excused bad behavior when He should have instead condemned it. What they didn’t appear to understand is that Jesus was preaching a new way of living that promised every human a pathway to amnesty regardless of how egregious their sins might once have been. Somehow large numbers of people who purport to be loving Christians have forgotten this message and instead use fire and brimstone passages from the Old Testament to defend their unforgiving stances on various issues.

The whole idea of illegal immigration, and in particular the Dreamers is a perfect example of how very religious people have somehow become unwilling to even consider the idea of forgiving those who broke the law or those who were brought to our country without consent when they were children. We have forgotten the story of the the Prodigal Son, perhaps the most powerful tale that Jesus ever related. In it he spoke of a very wealthy man who had two sons, one of whom became impatient to receive his inheritance and asked his father to give it to him immediately. The errant son took his father’s treasure and went away with it, forgetting about his family and living a profligate life. After losing everything he was starving and desperate. He came back home with the intention of begging his father to take him back as a servant to earn his keep. Instead when the loving father saw his son returning he rushed out to meet him, instructing the servants to clothe his child in fine robes. He not only forgave his son but planned a celebratory meal for him. When the other son who had been faithful to his father heard what was happening he was irate, questioning why his brother should be honored when he had been so thoughtless. The father reminded the angry son that a parent’s love is unconditional and that by prostrating himself the prodigal son had demonstrated his willingness to change and seek forgiveness.

I think of this parable whenever the subject of illegal immigration is mentioned. I realize that we cannot as a nation continue to allow people to break the law without consequence, but there are people here who came for very good reasons which we may or may not understand. They have lived peacefully among us, working hard and doing their best to fit into our society. Since we did little to turn them back initially they have little hope of returning to their native countries and finding a livelihood because they have been gone for too long. The truth is that we sat back for decades and did nothing to stop them. Now many among us want to simply turn their backs on these people and send banish them without any thought to what doing so may mean. There are even some who wish to punish their children who were brought when they were too young to even understand what was happening. Like the Pharisees so many Americans and lawmakers only see the rules and not the humanity of the situation. They shout down any plan that might rectify the status of these individuals without giving them actual citizenship, but requiring them to come out of the shadows. They speak of amnesty as if it is a dirty word rather than one that Jesus Himself would no doubt have appreciated given His propensity for forgiving people thought to be hopelessly broken. 

I tend to believe that our political leaders who continually oppose all immigration plans that propose even a smattering of forgiveness are mostly concerned about losing political power. They don’t seem to realize that their unwillingness to bend and compromise even a bit is only exacerbating the problem. They spread silly ideas that they should not concern themselves with the fate of immigrants rather than the safety of Americans. They point to the lawlessness of those who would cross our borders without permission and insinuate that most who come here are criminals. They raise the fears of our citizens by suggesting that terrorists will be coming if we do not have a hard line. Instead of telling us what chain immigration is and why we have it, they just make us afraid of it. They point to criminals who came here through chain immigration as though such incidents are the norm. They constantly speak of rules that must never be broken, forgetting how often Jesus did just that to emphasize our need to be compassionate and loving. They conveniently forget the ultimate message of redemption by His death on the cross.

As I write this the government shut down for a short time because our leaders were at an impasse. A few days later they grudgingly agreed to a short term fix, but left all of the big problems for another day. Who knows how well those discussions are going to go given the fact that we haven’t had many bipartisan moments in years. We appear to no longer be able to compromise. I suspect that if our Founding Fathers had been this way we might all still be part of the British Empire like Canadians. They would have argued infinitely and gotten nowhere, which is where we are now. 

There are those who want to lay blame for the state of our union and I would like to suggest that there is plenty to go around to everyone including those of us who vote. Of late we have turned our backs on anyone who has shown the desire to bring the country together for the general good. While we are bickering real people are being hurt and we are forgetting about all of those beautiful parables that Jesus taught us, and yet Jesus Himself would be loving and understanding even of those of us who have sometimes forgotten or ignored His message. Maybe the time has come to remember it the way it was intended to be.


Lion Kings

the-lion-king-disney-rebootThis year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Broadway musical The Lion King. On any given day the shows for each performance are sold out, and there is no indication that interest in the story has waned since it rocked the entertainment industry two decades ago. Aside from the stunning costumes and the enchanting music, its story of loss and love resonates with virtually everyone. We are all Simba, and have felt both the sting of death and the exhilaration of love and friendship as surely as he did.

As I think back on this past year I recall moments of great pain and sorrow that have been balanced by lovely times shared with family and friends. My journey through the past twelve months has been marked by more than enough dark days, but somehow those times were always followed by sunshine and loveliness so exceptional that they seemed to blot out the sorrow that I was experiencing. In the course of a full revolution of the earth around the sun I felt the circle of life with all of its ups and downs and like Simba I survived to stand at the mountain top and rejoice.

I’ve attended far too many funerals this year. I suppose that it is inevitable that such occasions have become more and more frequent given my age. Many of my elders who were blessed with long lives and were nearing the century mark succumbed to the inevitability of our existence. We all know that there is no infinity for any of us, but we push the envelope of our lives as far as we are able. Sometimes when someone lives a very long time we lose sight of the reality that we may not have them forever, so when they leave us we are almost as surprised as when a young person dies. It is always difficult to let go no matter how old someone may be.

I have also lost peers this year, people who have walked along beside me from the days when we were young and so full of dreams. My book of memories is overflowing with images of the fun and laughter that we shared. We grew up together and then we began to grow old together as well. Somehow our human tendency is to ignore the years and the images of ourselves that we see in the mirror. Instead we think that we are as young and spry as we were when we were in our twenties. It is shocking to us when someone from our own generation dies. Somehow it doesn’t seem right. It causes us to falter just a bit. It reminds us that our time here has an expiration date and we secretly wonder what our own will be.

In that moment when my husband lay helplessly on the floor of a bathroom after having a stroke I was filled with terror. While I understand that neither of us will live to any guaranteed age, I had not even considered the possibility that death might come so soon. Both my brain and my heart were jolted into reality in that split second and it was a painful and devastating experience. I still have flashbacks that remind me to cherish every single moment that I have with the man who has filled my days with so much happiness.

My life has changed during this year. I don’t take much for granted anymore. I somehow appreciate the breathtaking beauty of life far more than ever before. I love with a more open heart and I find particular joy in being with young people who still possess such a zest for living. I have been to weddings and graduations and birthday parties that have brought me incredible joy. Seeing love unfold before my eyes is like experiencing the most enchanting miracles that we ever enjoy. It reminds me that there is a season for everything and that I am a part of the glorious unfolding of the cycles that have repeated across the centuries.

I went to a wedding in Cancun in the summer with a group of very special friends. Two of the sweetest men that I have ever known pledged their unending love to each other. It was a beautiful ceremony wrought with so much emotion that we all cried tears of joy. I never imagined that I would be blessed to be part of something so wonderful, but there I was, and I felt so much renewed faith in mankind. I was surrounded by such an abundance of love and good feelings that it carried me through the tough times that I did not yet know lay ahead.

There have been other occasions that have kept my optimism flowing. Two of my former students were married this year and I rejoiced at the ceremonies that they invited me to share with them. I saw the expressions of devotion on their faces and thought of all the wonderful times that they would experience together just as my husband and I have. I sensed that their love is so pure and strong that they will even be able to endure tragedies and everyday problems. I felt so much happiness for them and wondered if they realized how much hope they gave me as well. Weddings allow us to come together in celebration of the most wonderful traditions of unity and commitment to one another, the joining of lives that has transcended history.

Recently my husband and I traveled out of town to a magical party at my niece and nephew’s home in Dallas. They feted us with good food, incredible generosity, and so much fun. I doubt that they realized that it was the first time that we had dared to venture so far away since the incident of the stroke. That trip meant so much to us and our family’s outpouring of love only made it all the better. It reminded us that we have never been alone and that we will be fine no matter what the future brings.

Simba the lion cub thought that all was lost when his father died. He saw his world coming to an end. He ran away from the reality of his situation and experienced the deep hopelessness that sometimes creeps into our lives. His world fell apart and he felt as though there would never again be a way of controlling it. He found small comfort in the generosity of strangers who ultimately became his friends and taught him lessons in taking what the world offers one day at a time. In the process of providing for one another the unlikely friends all changed for the better, so much so that Simba began to realize that his situation had not been as dire as he had imagined. He embraced love and his own destiny, and then found his way back home. In the end he understood that he was never truly alone in his battles and never would be. He also realized that as we travel in the circle of life we have to learn how to deal with both the good and the bad.

While 2017 might be viewed as a terrible year in so many ways, it has also been a year of discovery. Somehow when life appears to be at its worst, that is the very moment when we have the opportunity to see the best of our blessings. This year has taught me to love more deeply and to set my worries aside as much as possible. The future will unfold with or without us, and it will up to each of us to decide how we will accept its challenges and its blessings. If we open our eyes and our hearts we will surely know that the spirit of all of the people who have loved us lives forever inside our souls. We will be lions. We will be kings.    


The Best Gift Ever

24910097_1677760535622078_6615890065848693126_nI’ve always had my own ideas about religion and politics. I’m an independent renegade when it comes to both, but I still believe in those institutions even though I am quick to critique them whenever I see problems. Thus it was a great surprise to me when I was asked to head the religious education program for pre-schoolers and elementary students at my church many years ago. It was to be the first time that lay people would fill such positions because the sweet nuns who were beloved by the parish were moving away and there were no religious replacements.

Since I am loathe to shy away from challenges I accepted the job and learned that my partner in the endeavor was as feisty as I was. Ours was a collaboration made in heaven if you will. A staff of assistants already existed and the two of them agreed to stay to help us after the good sisters had left. Judy Maskel would be our secretary and all around font of knowledge. Much as it is with outstanding office personnel she had been essentially running the place for several years, and she would prove to be a strong foundation on which we would build a new way of doing things. It didn’t take us long to realize that without Judy we would have been running for cover within weeks. Instead she was an unflinching ally to our cause who somehow managed to very quietly gloss over our mistakes and help us to feel competent even when we were struggling with the task. Over time Judy became far more than someone who kept us from appearing to be fools. She became a good friend, a person whom we loved for her unending patience and sincerely sweet demeanor.

Judy was a beautiful woman with a shock of ginger colored hair and the fair complexion of someone of Scandinavian decent. Nothing was quite as important to her as her faith in God and her beautiful family. She was devoted to her husband and her lovely children and they returned her love. It seemed as though Judy had discovered the secret to balancing life’s demands so seamlessly that she maintained a kind of calmness and perfection in everything that she did. Being around her was an exercise in relaxation. She had a way of soothing even the most tempestuous situation and I grew to truly adore her.

Eventually our parishioners accepted the reality that we would never again have nuns to educate the children in the tenets of our faith. The transition was successful in no small part due to the support of wonderful people like Judy Maskel. She was so admired by those who knew her that folks began to feel that if she liked us, then perhaps they should as well. We pioneered a change that would not have gone so well without Judy.

In the meantime I had finally finished my degree and earned my certification as a teacher. Although I had loved my work at the church I wanted to move into the next phase of my career as an educator, and so I left for a position teaching mathematics. Nonetheless, I had grown so attached to Judy and the others who had been my daily companions in our endeavors that I was determined to continue our relationship.

As so often happens life took hold of all of us. We were busy with our jobs and our families and getting together proved to be more difficult than we had expected, so I began the tradition of gathering with the group at Christmas time each year. In the beginning there were five of us who met on an evening in December to sample goodies and talk for hours about our children and the events that had occupied us since our last rendezvous. It was always a glorious time and I began to laughingly refer to our little group as “the church ladies.” At some point we decided to bring little gifts for one another and it was always fun to exchange the goodies that we had either created or purchased. One of our members made homemade jams and breads that were always the hit of the season. Judy liked to bake little cookies and such now and again depending on how crazy her own schedule had been. Always she came with her smile and a laugh that looked at life from a vantage point of unadulterated happiness and optimism.

The years seemed to go by so quickly. Our children grew into adults and we rejoiced in becoming grandmothers. One by one we began to retire from jobs that had occupied us for decades. Judy had faithfully continued working at the church, watching over the children and the teachers and the directors with the same compassion that she gave so generously and effortlessly. Somehow she always felt like an anchor to everything that is most important in this world, so the annual celebrations with her had a very uplifting effect on me. Whenever December rolled around I simply could not wait for the day when I would get to see the ladies who had meant so much to me, and to enjoy that twinkle of mischievousness in Judy’s bright blue eyes that always brought a smile to my own face.

As we grew older our conversations began to be punctuated with stories of health problems that we were experiencing. One of our members developed cancer and ultimately lost her battle with that disease. Somehow her spirit always seemed to continue to be with us whenever we met, even as the years began to mount along with our own troubles.

Judy had been diagnosed with a rare disease that runs in the DNA of Scandinavians. At first her symptoms came in small doses and she was able to come to our gatherings with her old hopefulness and sense of humor. Over time the illness progressed, and even though she complained very little we were able to see her decline. She became quite thin and there were signs of worry in her blue eyes that twinkled less and less. She seemed preoccupied with her thoughts and her pain, but she was determined to hang in with us and to show us a brave front.

Last year she spent time in a rehabilitation facility. When two of us went to visit her she was struggling with her fate. It was apparent that the disease was overtaking her in spite of her courage and determination. She wanted to reassure us, but she no longer had the energy to protect us from the truth of what was happening. When she recuperated and returned home we were overjoyed and hopeful that she would somehow overcome what had seemed to be her ultimate demise. Even when she was unable to be with us at our luncheon we all managed to laugh and rejoice in what appeared to be her recovery.

As we began to plan for this year’s reunion we learned that Judy was in a nursing home in League City. A kind of pall came over those of us left in the group when we realized that she had become so sick. We were planning to visit her when we learned that she had died. Somehow it was shocking even though she had often explained the ultimate effects of the disease that had overtaken her. In a strange twist I found myself experiencing the same calmness that she had always provided me even as I felt the pangs of sadness. I smiled at the thought that she had truly become an angel in heaven.

That same night our city filled with a lovely dusting of snow. Our first sight upon awakening the next morning was heavenly and peaceful, and I immediately thought of Judy Maskel. It would have been so like her to find a way to ease our sadness. I wondered if perhaps she had been somehow responsible for requesting that God send us a little gift to make us smile. It’s certainly something that she might have done. She was always so thoughtful and giving like that.

There are only three of us left from our original group. We have plans to meet later this month. We will miss Judy because she represented the very best of us. Hers was a beautiful soul that always lit up the room with her unconditional love and patience. She quietly impacted everyone who ever knew her. She was a helpmate and a font of wisdom. The most remarkable gift that she gave us was herself, and that was the best gift ever.