I had this one fear when I realized that Lucia had Aicardi-Goutieres Syndrome and would likely live a rather unconventional life. It wasn’t that she would be different–as an anthropologist (and a minister), I’ve learned to embrace difference, and the foster mothers I studied in China had enumerated the ways in which people very different from us often expand our very knowledge of ourselves and what it means to be human.
But I whispered to a few people and I worried in my heart of hearts that while Lucia might be able to receive love, she might never be able to give or express it.
I don’t think I worried it selfishly (although certainly naively), but I just thought about my own life and how much I’ve learned and received and grown by the very challenging act of learning to love others–not just receiving love–and I guess I couldn’t quite imagine, amidst days on end of shrieks of pain, colossal brain damage, and multiple disabilities, what that would really look like for Lucia.
On the eve of her first day of school and just past her third birthday, however, I not only finally see how much I underestimated her and God but how much a person can say without much purposeful movement, without words, or without rolling or crawling or walking or talking. I underestimated how much joy can emanate from such tiny, immobile person–how by the age of 3 Lucia has taught me more about love than I’d learned in maybe three whole decades–how her way of loving would change everything I thought I knew about God and life and love.
“Do you think she knows you?” people will ask my husband and me, and there are things we will tell them, like how she cocks her head and her eyes focus for just a split second when she’s really listening or when perhaps her limited vision has allowed her to take in some glimpse of the world. Or how she recently started to erupt into fits of giggles when she hears her daddy make farting noises or how a slow smile seems to creep over her face when my husband or I set foot upon the creaky boards in our noisy house. Or how there are times when you take her in your arms and she seems to wrap her rigid little arms around you in a way that makes you feel known and held and real.
But it’s all very hard to tell or describe, because you can’t break joy or love down to a science. How do you know your child loves you? You just do. There’s a feeling between you and it doesn’t go just one way when it’s felt–it’s a shared cultivation, this business of living and being loved. And how I ever thought it possible for that love to be unrequited now feels so distant and so foolish and so naive.
And so I can’t really find it in myself to worry about how Lucia will do when she goes to school. Lucia will do just fine. We know she will grow so much by being around other kids and by learning and by moving–she’ll thrive in a social environment, for sure. But those people around her–I’m almost more excited for them. Because they will be loved with a joy so deep and so profound and so beyond any of our imaginations that they will grow in these ways that none of us ever imagine to be possible.
Lucia reminds me how much more there is to be learned from those who seem the least capable, the most impaired, the least adept at the things in life and that there’s something of God’s love in every speck of our beings however imperfectly or perfectly made we may appear.
We love because God first loved us. Every single one of us. Even my Lucia.
A few weeks ago I sat in the pews as my colleague and senior pastor led the prayers of the people, and I lifted one for Lucia’s upcoming surgery. My voice wavering, I asked for prayers not just for the doctors, for health, and for our little girl, but for my husband and for me. I explained that in facing another surgery that could have mixed results, I’d grown a bit weary and leery, and my faith was faltering. It’s so hard as a parent to make decisions for your child that involve both risk and reward. Lucia was doing so well, and I wondered whether another surgery was the most faithful decision. Could the congregation be my faith, could they lift prayers for us even as we were feeling weak? I wondered aloud.
Mind you, I’m one of the pastors of this church, and I wasn’t sure how prayers for faith from one of the spiritual leaders in their midst would be received. But not a person came up to me that Sunday scolding me for my weakness, my fears, or my lack of faith. Instead, I remember lots of assurances that prayers would be lifted, many looks of concern on their faces as I spoke my prayer, and many knowing, earnest nods as I let them know that even for a pastor, sometimes faith is hard to come by.
Several weeks have passed, and Lucia’s surgery has not only brought her incredible comfort from reflux, but she is now feeding into her stomach (instead of her small intestine), an intervention that seems to bring her the satisfaction of feeling full and the comfort and freedom of having natural breaks from feeding throughout the day. However, it is hard to describe the extent of the intangible transformation for her and for us: it feels as if there’s a part of her spirit that has been set free, and we are all growing closer, as she’s more alert, communicative, and joyful.
As I reflect on the miraculous results of this surgery and this transformation, I am left with no other explanation than that God did that. This summer I felt that Lucia’s intestinal feeding tube had provided her unprecedented comfort, happiness, and tranquility, but these past few weeks, a transformed Lucia has smiled up at us, and I am in awe and so deeply grateful.
But God didn’t just surprise us by transforming Lucia; rather such transformation is apparent in us as parents because of the faithful who love Lucia for who she has been, will be, and who she is. I’m writing this today because it’s so important to talk about what God has done and what God can do even when we struggle to believe, how God’s faithfulness transcends our wildest imagination. And I believe that those people in the pews who love Lucia so unconditionally are part and parcel of who I know God to be. What a gift it is to be part of a community of faith who accept me for my weaknesses, who pray for my child, and who do these things not because they expect results or know what’s in store, but because they desire to trust God–they are the faithful.
And I am so grateful that in faith, we don’t have to go it alone–that God’s transformation happens through people, through prayer, and in us. I am so grateful that after all these years God is still full of surprises and one of those is that even when you falter, there’s faith enough for the least of these, for the faithless, the weary and the leery. In a world which doesn’t always recognize Lucia as fearfully and wonderfully made, it’s kind of miraculous that I’m surrounded by people who actually keep reminding me of that.
And the fact that God did all that–well, these days my faith runneth over! And you can borrow it when you need it someday, I’m deliriously humbled and happy to owe you all a prayer or two. Perhaps that how faith works: we owe it all to God and to one another, but in being bound to one another, we are set free.
It’s just one of those weeks where despite the busy-ness, and the ups and downs, I’ve felt God’s presence so palpably, and I’m giving God praise.
I give God praise for speaking into the silence, for meeting us simply and whole-heartedly.
I give God praise for listening ears and spiritual guidance on the journey.
And I give God praise for fellowship.
Last night I had a phone call with a few girlfriends from seminary in which we got to affirm one another’s call, talk through challenges, and pray together. It reminds me how much we were meant as human beings to rejoice together–in community. And it made me realize all over again how powerful experiencing grace is, and how deserving of praise our God is for granting us grace.
When we look around and can see God’s hand in our lives, let us not take that for granted–let us praise God.
This time of year there’s always a flood of meditations on Christ and Christmas, on what counts as consumerism versus what counts as Christmas, what is profane and what is sacred. Last week, I appreciated thoughts on the subject from a Lutheran advent blog which pointed out the vehemence with which we attempt to divide Christ from culture can become an obsessive act, the focus of devotion in and of itself.
Sarah Wilson writes,
“There’s a lot of self-righteous delight in pointing out how far the culture has traveled from Christmas’s authentic meaning. There’s a snide pride in saying ‘my liturgical year kicks your practically non-existent liturgical year’s butt.’ There’s a temptation to make Advent our own good work of getting December right and being really properly set up to get the most out of Christmas. Then it’s about our coming rightly to Christ and not about his coming graciously to us.”
I’ve been reading a lot this week in preparation for my course about how the images of the manger scene we cling to are not really all that Biblical or culturally accurate. They’re inaccurate because they present the manger family as nuclear, quiet, and sterile, which neatly represent ideals we import from Western culture, not from Israelite or Biblical culture. On the other hand, my Mexican friend told me the other day how their nativity scenes are kind of like our Christmas villages here in the states–kids relish the opportunity to add new characters (Biblical and extra-Biblical!) to the scene every year, creating elaborate vistas of mountains, crowds of children, lakes, dance floors, and parking lots!
Shifting our focus to the futile act of seeking cultural purity in our faith also causes us to miss what might be surprisingly central to both Mary and Joseph’s pilgrimage and Mexican nativity scenes (and problematically absent from ours, it seems), and that is community.One of the important reminders for me this season, whether it comes from the Lutherans, the Mexicans, the Pagans, or the tribes of Israel, is that joy is best when it is shared.
Now I’m not an especially evangelical Christian, but I feel God’s call during this season to share joy with those who I meet. Of course, in my mind, joy is a lot like love–it doesn’t impose, demand, or judge–it, like the birth of our Lord, is not about us, but about Christ graciously coming to us and living within us. I feel God’s call to let others in on this gift and especially not to worry who was really there in the manger or who belongs there today. I feel blessed to live in a time and a place where great diversity exists from door to door, and where life is fuller because you and I are both in it. And most of all, I feel humbled to realize that this joy is not my own.
I feel like I’ve entered a phase where I’ve been forced to live here a bit more, to let others care for me, and receive the grace and abundance of this community.
And while sometimes I feel sad and confused that China and her people are feeling more distant to me day by day, at my wisest, with God’s presence near, I realize it’s not an either/or. God doesn’t want me to or ask me to choose between people in China and people here, but to believe that God’s omnipotence leads to impossible community and connection.
But it’s not just God, it’s God’s people who do that kind of work–the people in my life who generously let me babble about the foster mothers I’ve met until I’m breathless, the people who sat through my presentation last night and inspired and encouraged me with their enthusiasm for my study of families in China, and the people who value and understand that work is not just work to me, but the stuff of vocation, passion, and calling.
And so as we enter this season of giving thanks season, and China feels further and further away, I count the blessings so near and pray for God to come closer. Not just closer to me and mine, but to God’s people in China and people everywhere, because that’s God’s thing–doing the impossible globe-trotting ministry of presence.
And the rest–the believing and the boldness and the taking in big armfuls of grace just as we do extra helpings of mashed potatoes and turkey–well, that’s all up to us.
I remember vividly that my love affair with centering prayer began in my senior year of college.
I was pursuing a call to ministry, poised to move first to Puerto Rico and then onto Washington, DC to serve the poor, and becoming exhausted with finding myself betwixt and between empty praise and worship and stodgy skepticism. I longed for a place where the presence of God, not our wanton human wisdom, was paramount.
Somehow I found my way to the little Catholic circle on my Presbyterian campus, a motley crew led by a renegade lady who didn’t seem to think it weird that everybody called her Pastor and who was convinced that service and contemplation went together. In the little workshop in which she roped me in, she taught us the ins and outs of lectio, the intentional listening for God while reading scripture (in contrast to the very real Bible school temptation to try to unravel the whole meaning of the verses in just a few minutes).
We were reading Ephesians 3:14-18, incidentally one of my favorite passages since youth, closing our eyes and earnestly seeking God, and then going around and sharing the words or the phrases that stuck out to us. When the Pastor got to me, I shared my word, “grasp,” only she revealed to me that that word wasn’t actually in the text for today.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “that happens frequently,” with a smirk and a chuckle, and I was awestruck by how nonchalant this Catholic woman could be about minor miracles in our midst.
It turns out that repeatedly hearing the NIV version of that scripture growing up probably put that word in my head, but maybe God wanted me to hear it, too. When I began to come to the Catholic circle with regularity, where they not only closed their eyes and listened to scripture with their hearts, but sat for thirty minute silent prayer sessions, I also began to use grasp as my prayer word, to which I could return my heart, as I did with my eyes to the candle burning in the center of the room, if my mind wandered.
Pastor Barb, despite her high energy and her electric personality, had this ease about her, this sense that prayer was about so much more than words, and that communion with God was meaningful even when it didn’t feel like anything, even when nothing happens.
As far as my own life is concerned, the mystery of centering prayer seems to be just as much about what happens outside of the prayer as in it. During nearly six years of practicing centering prayer in the barrios of Puerto Rico, in our nation’s capital, and on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary, that word grasp took me on a journey from grasping for God, to realizing that God has been ever and always grasping for me.
“Maybe I am getting in best when nothing happens. Maybe I am on to something when there is no reward for me. Maybe the closest I can be to awareness of holy is just to be with the mysterious attraction that the Creator put in me. And, maybe when I don’t even sense that, still the transforming work of Christ goes on, unknown to me. Maybe that’s just the point: no effort on my part, only divine action.”
But what’s active in centering prayer is explicitly not the mind–the mind’s to be quieted to allow for the Spirit to grow, reside, and even meander. My discipline has changed as I’ve grown. Whereas earlier on, I was very conscious of clearing the mind and letting go of all thoughts, I’ve become less legalistic and more open to some of the lingering, nagging voices that exhibit themselves in that silence, more open to the myriad manifestations of God’s presence.
I’ve closed my eyes in just about every fabulous place I’ve ever had the privilege of traveling to. But I’ve never regretted those moments of silence, nor have I ever been really alone. You see, doing centering prayer in community way back in my college days always made sense to me. It’s not an easy thing to commit to those fifteen or thirty minutes on your own, but with safety in numbers, it’s somehow easier to open up to God fully and freely.
At Princeton Seminary, we’d sit in my crowded dorm room and attempt to block out the stress and the theology and the gods we often worshipped to welcome God in a very intentional way. And in China, my dear friend joined me over skype, across an ocean, and a twelve-hour time difference, and yet the practice couldn’t have been more fruitful. She says that after all these years, because we both still have a hard time with silence, it sometimes helps her to look up and see my peaceful face, the ups and downs of the breaths in and out of my chest, and my eyes closed, and and I feel the same way.
Believe it or not, silent prayer isn’t meant to be a solitary, distant practice. As Pastor Barb made clear back in the day with her penchant for social action, it’s meant to take us from detachment, to intention, to communion with God, and into community. I know it sounds impossible, bogus, even, that a practice of silence and contemplation would awaken Christians to community, to love and to justice. And I know it’s not for everyone, my own husband doesn’t take refuge in silence the way I do, and I think that just speaks even more clearly to God’s myriad of manifestations.
This one, this discipline, is not for everyone. But if you’ve ever struggled to hear God above all the other voices, if you’ve ever lost touch with your heart or your spirit, or wondered about the work of the Holy Spirit, you may want to start closing your eyes and listening to your breath, reading scripture with the eyes of your heart, seeking communion rather than answers, and being open to God’s presence not just in these times of silence but everywhere in the world.