What Did You Learn?

“The older brother was so angry that he would not go into the house; so his father came out and begged him to come in.” (Luke 15:28)

The two boys really weren’t all that much different, when you think about it — the two sons in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. (Prodigal, in case you don’t know, means — according to our good friend Merriam-Webster — “characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure: lavish.”) They both were concerned primarily with themselves; they just expressed it differently.

The younger son wanted money so he could go off and do what attracted him — which unfortunately involved not only travel but reckless spending. The older son stayed with his father and worked, knowing that when his father died everything would be his; after all, his brother was long gone!

The difference between them was a fairly simple one. The younger son gained wisdom and humility. The older son’s heart was hardened and he remained selfish.

Whoa! I can almost hear you saying, “You’re misreading that parable.” Most of us identify with the older brother. Most of us, especially those of us who attend church regularly and try to do what is right, are in truth like the older brother in some respects. We shoulder our responsibilities rather than attempting to flee them. We do the work which must be done rather than heading off on adventures. We put one foot in front of the other, not expecting anything special — and sometimes getting exactly what we expect. (Occasionally, we have friends, families or co-workers who appreciate what we do and show us, but not always.)

We appreciate the father’s love for both of his sons — and are grateful for that metaphor of God’s love for us — but we understand the older son’s anger. We would be angry, too. And that’s what I should understand, right? It’s righteous anger that the older brother shows, not a hard heart.

Perhaps, but I strongly suspect this is another parable about personal growth. In the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1-9, Mark 4:1-9, Luke 8:4-8), we learn that our environment affects the way we receive the Word of God and the way it grows in us. In the Parable of the Weeds (Matt. 13:24-30), we learn that we must learn to live in a less than perfect world, and trust God with the harvest. I suspect this is about learning from our experiences, learning to have a right relationship with God.

The younger son didn’t want the life his father lived — he imagined something different and went out into the world to build that life for himself, failing abysmally. From that, he learned that he hadn’t appreciated what he’d had and returned as one who had grown in wisdom, capable of humility. The older son wanted what his father had and worked hard — like a slave, he claimed (v.29) — but this work didn’t deepen his relationship with his father or his appreciation of the life he had chosen. He lashed out at his father in anger when his father acted in love.

But his father doesn’t give up on him, either. Instead, he is the same loving father who greeted the wayfarer son with love. He goes out to meet his son and patiently explains their relationship: “You are always here with me and everything I have is yours” (v. 31). And then, he goes on to explain the celebration: “He was lost, but now he has been found” (v.32).

It’s not just about us, son, the father said. It’s not about what we do or what we have; it’s about relationship. In this case, it’s about creating a sanctuary so the lost can come home.

The parable does not end with the older son in his father’s arms. The parable ends with the father’s lesson  to his son. Because so many of us identify with that son, the question becomes: how do we respond? Do we learn to open our hearts and our lives to others? Do we learn to welcome those who have been lost? Do we embrace them and share with generosity?

Do we learn the lesson and throw ourselves into our father’s arms to receive his kiss? Or do we remain angry and walk away? The choice is ours.

 

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Taking Jim’s Advice

In case you opened this to see what words of wisdom my brother imparted — wrong Jim. I’m actually referring to Father James Martin, SJ.

Since reading his book, BECOMING WHO YOU ARE: INSIGHTS ON THE TRUE SELF FROM THOMAS MERTON AND OTHER SAINTS, (three or four times, actually) I’ve become a fan of his. I’ve read or listened to most of his books, including THE JESUIT GUIDE TO (ALMOST) EVERYTHING, which I also read more than once. In addition, I’ve become one of his 55,000 Facebook friends, and had the audacity to contact him personally on several occasions. He had the graciousness to respond, and signed his email messages “Jim.” And so I’ve come to think of him as Jim.

This morning, before I even crawled out of bed, I checked Facebook to see what he’d written about the Apostolic Exhortation the Vatican released today. Evangelii Gadium — or, for those of us more fluent in English, “The Joy of the Gospel” — is the first major document that Pope Francis himself penned. Earlier this year, an encyclical that Pope Benedict XVI wrote and Pope Francis lightly edited was released — Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith) — but it didn’t sound like the pope who has inspired me from the moment his election was announced.

The words of Pope Francis so often inspire me that I put the Pope App on my phone so I could read his homilies. And because I am trained to recognize an author’s voice — it’s absolutely amazing what years of college literature classes will teach you — I’ve come to know the way he uses language, the poetic way in which he uses repetition to create depth of meaning, the inviting way in which he shows us how our lives can be transformed by the Word of God. Pope Benedict’s writings inspired me, but Pope Francis’s words excite my imagination — perhaps just a difference of nuance, but definitely a difference.

And because Jim had read the interview with Pope Francis which was published in AMERICA MAGAZINE, a national Catholic weekly published by the Jesuits, before publication, I anticipated he’d read “The Joy of the Gospel” as well. Since I knew I wouldn’t get to it until after work, I wanted a hint regarding what it contained. What he wrote made it difficult to wait until this evening to begin it: “I cannot remember a papal document that was so thought-provoking, surprisiing and invigorating. Frankly, reading it thrilled me.”

As he briefly summarized Pope Francis’ vision for the Church I found it difficult to be the lone Catholic in this household. I wanted to share what he’d  written. “Francis is challenging himself … it poses a fierce challenge to the status quo … it seeks to overturn the way that we have done things, and to be fearless in doing so …  it is a hope-filled, positive and energetic view of the church actively engaged in the world….” Near the end of his blog, Jim wrote, “My advice to Catholics would be: Read the entire document.Take your time. Be generous with it. Let it excite you. Pray with it. And be open to the Holy Father’s call ….”

As I sat down with Evangelii Gadium tonight, I found I could only take my time with it. In fact, I read only the first section — eight paragraphs. Some sentences I read over and over, letting them seep into me. I made marginal comments and checked one Scriptural quotation. (Is that really in the Bible? Yes, it is! How could I have not seen it before?)*

Nearly an hour after I began to read, I knew I could read no more tonight. One passage had touched something deep and I needed to reflect on it, on the sense of affirmation I experienced as read those words for the first time — an affirmation as ethereal as an angel’s touch and yet undeniable. Pope Francis had written, “No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by [God’s} boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up, come what will” [3].

Start anew, as I am now. The other night as I sat knitting a blue cowl for Sara, I thought, “I’m pregnant.” Not literally, of course, but metaphorically. I am waiting, just as I did when I carried my beloved children, for the moment of birth, for that new beginning. It’s coming; I’ve felt it for months. Sometimes it’s powerful, almost tangible, as it was on those summer mornings when I felt I was living on the cusp of a miracle. At other times, it’s gentle, and the mystery of not knowing the shape it will take is balanced by a quiet certainty that in trusting God at this moment I am allowing his promise to ripen within me.

That is not to say I sit around and twiddle my thumbs — or knit. No, I get up in the morning and go to the $8 per hour Experience Works position that has been mine since mid-October, and put in the allocated hours (not to exceed 21 per week). At home, I do the laundry, help out with the dishes and the twins, and occasionally do a little cleaning as well. My primary job, though, is seeking employment. In the evening, I sit down at the computer I inherited when Sara and Brodie upgraded and do what must be done — job searches, resume revisions, application submissions.

But under the activity is a quiet assurance that God is at work, and when the time is right — hopefully sooner than later — a door will open that I cannot even begin to imagine at present. As I once rested my hand upon my swollen abdomen to feel my children move within me — not knowing in those pre-ultrasound days whether I carried a son or daughter — and knew an inexplicable contentment, I now rest my hope in the Lord and feel equally content, equally blessed, knowing my life will again be touched by the mystery of the new life.

This is me, lifting  up my head. This is me, not stripped of my dignity by life experiences that eroded my self-confidence for a time. This is me, experiencing joy which the Lord has restored to me. I may be 58 years old and virtually unemployed, but God has touched me with his boundless and unfailing love, and with great tenderness has opened my heart to the possibility of a personal resurrection.

Yes, Jim, I will take time over Evangelii Gadium. Thanks for the suggestion.

* “My child, treat yourself well, according to your means … Do not deprive yourself of the day’s enjoyment.” (Sirach 14:11,14)

Bless the Lord

Bless the Lord, O my soul;
and all my being, bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits.
He pardons all your iniquities,
he heals all your ills.
He redeems your life from destruction,
he crowns you with kindness and compassion.
Ps. 103:1-4

At Mass this morning, Pope Francis recommended praying this daily because it teaches us what we must say to the Lord when we ask for a grace. He also spoke about courage before the Lord and tenacity.

I know this because I have the Pope App on my phone. Each day, when I sit down to pray, I check the app to see what points he made in his homily. I have been deeply moved on more than one occasion when his words encouraged me in exactly the way I needed on that occasion.

Most memorable to me was a homily in which Pope Francis said unity is not uniformity, but diversity with harmony. Today, in celebratingthe Feast of the Patrons of Rome, Ss. Peter and Paul, he said something similar. He said we need to be “united in our differences: there is no other Catholic way to be united. This is the Catholic spirit, the Christian spirit.” I find remarks such as these to be comforting.

I usually reveal this with caution, because in this part of the country, the following pronouncement is tantamount to painting a bull’s eye on your forehead, but I am not a conservative. God calls me to take the gospels quite literally, which means I can’t do the mental gymnastics that conservatives do quite naturally. Because this attitude is found not only in the political arena, but also in the Church itself, I often feel like an outsider — attending Mass for the grace of the sacrament, not because I experience a sense of community among those who applaud a priest whose homilies are political in a way that on occasion troubles me deeply.

When Pope Francis speaks about diversity and differences as part of the Church’s charism, as part of our identity, he’s drawing on a heritage that goes back to the time of the early Church. St. Paul wrote to both the Romans and the Corinthians about the body with its many parts. “We have many parts in the one body, and all these parts have different functions. In the same way, though we are many, we are one body in union with Christ, and we are all joined to each other as different parts of one body”(Rom. 12:4-5).

And, in I Corinthians, St. Paul elaborates on this: “For the body itself is not made up of only one part, but of many parts…. If the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I don’t belong to the body,’ that would not keep it from being a part of the body. If the whole body were just an eye, how could it hear? And if it were only an ear, how could it smell? As it is, however, God put every different part in the body just as he wanted it to be. There would not be a body if it were all only one part! As it is, there are many parts but one body” (I Cor. 12:14,16-20).

Since Pope Francis has begun to speak of this diversity as positive, I no longer feel as alienated from the Church as I did just a few months ago. The Church does not have to accept the either-or paradigm that is the political arena. The Church has room for all of us at the table. Ah! How sweet it is to have this affirmed!

That is among the four answered prayers which I have been remembering this week. Remembrance is such an important part of the spiritual life. We remember how God has worked in our lives and this strengthens us when we’re going through a difficult passage.

The first answered prayer for which I have been giving thanks is my daughter Sara’s marriage to Brodie. I knew when Sara was growing up how difficult our family life was for her. Sara needed a large, loving extended family. I don’t mean to imply that we had no family; we simple weren’t a close family, one which shared holidays and vacations. Sara needed that, and so for years I prayed she would marry into a family that could provide what she needed. When I went to Oregon for her wedding, and met Brodie’s family, I knew that God was answering my prayer. There was the family Sara had needed her whole life.

The second answered prayer for which I am giving thanks is my daughter Katie’s decision to join the Catholic Church. I left the Church when I was young, made a detour through evangelical Christianity and Zen Buddhism before returning to the Church 20 years ago with a deep love of Scripture and an appreciation of meditation (what Catholics often call centering prayer). I knew that I could not suddenly spring the Catholic Church on my girls; I could only invite them to join me. Katie, I sensed, had a spiritual nature and would be nurtured by the life of the Church, but I knew I could only pray and wait. That I did, right up to the day she received the sacraments for the first time. What a blessed Easter that was!

Pope Francis, as I have already shared, is also an answer to prayer, but the fourth which has moved me to the point of tears occurred just last week. When I was 12, my mother — a seamstress — made vacation outfits for a family from the neighboring community. One of the girls in that family, was my age and we became friends. For nearly 35 years, I considered her to be my best friend, a sister with whom I shared nearly my whole life. Then, a little over 10 years ago, we had a disagreement that escalated until our friendship was strained to the breaking point.

I had always know that possibility existed. During adolescence, she felt she had outgrown me at one stage and we were out of touch for a couple years. Too, when you lose a parent while growing up, as I did, all relationshipships feel tenuous, and you’ll do just about anything to maintain those that are important. I had gotten into the habit of not standing up for myself out of fear of losing the only person in my life with whom I had a shared history, the only person who had known my mother, celebrated holidays with me and my children, supported my various attempts at building a life out of the shattered pieces of early traumas. That wasn’t healthy, and as with most unhealthy relationships, a time came when that dysfunctional pattern ceased to work.

I grieved deeply, and kept the lines of communication open. As did she. We exchanged birthday greetings, Christmas cards, the occasional gift. However, when we made an effort to get together, the meetings had none of the naturalness that marked our friendship for so many decades. I prayed for a true reconcilliation, though. Day after day, year after year, not beginning to know whether a reconcilliation was even possible, I prayed. And then, earlier this year, she asked me to assist with a project — and the collaboration worked. She asked if she could visit and I agreed. Last week, we got together, and it was a graced experience. We made plans so that we would have something to do in case conversation was strained, but we discovered we had much to say to each other. And I was so grateful for that time together.

Today, when I read the news release about the pope’s homily at Mass and his admonition to be tenacious, I found myself smiling. Yes, we need to be tenacious in prayer. I think when we’re tenacious in prayer, we are doubly graced when those prayers are answered. Not only do we know that God has heard us and said “Yes,” but the experience is so profound, that we are given a gift to remember when the going gets tough.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.

The Snowy Day

Sometimes I can see the church across the street and sometimes I can’t. After a week of beautiful weather, with temperatures into the 50s (which is warm for South Dakota at this time of year) and glorious sunshine, I woke this morning to dismal grey skies. When I crawled out of bed to evaluate weather conditions, the sight of a semi fishtailing — though not completely out of control — down the hill and snow creating a picturesque burden for the pine trees across the street suggested I cancel my planned roadtrip.

I had wanted to travel to Rapid City to spend some time with Katie. Work — and an ultra-conservative priest who delights in praying for our “misguided president” during the celebration of the Mass, leaving me feeling isolated instead of included — have encouraged the winter blues to visit a tad bit earlier than usual this year. Usually, they don’t hit until February — and last year after the joy of spending several weeks with my granddaughters, they didn’t hit at all. I suppose that hiatus makes this year’s early arrival seem more burdensome.

Fortunately, age has given me a little self-knowledge and I know I need to resist the blues — or at least make the effort to do so. My instincts are to withdraw and suffer in silence. However, I know that getting out of my apartment and engaging in social activity usually brings a modicum of temporary relief. And so, that was my plan for the day.

I was going to engage in a little shopping therapy. I have discovered that my stash of art supplies from the long ago days of landscapes doesn’t lend itself very well to my intimate little Simple Gift series. I have huge tubes of blue paint in every hue from the warm and pale cerulean blue to the dark and cool phthalocyanine blue. I even have the dark, almost black, prussian blue that can add richness to the right palette.

I needed blues for landscapes, went through them faster than Dove’s chocolates, in fact. It’s just another color on my palette these days, and I’ve discovered a desperate need for other colors. A similar situation exists with brushes. The marvelous filberts and flats — brushes with long bristles — I preferred to use with landscapes because they encouraged greater spontenaity, don’t give me quite the control I desire with my Simple Gifts. Unfortunately, the brights — brushes with short bristles — from my portrait-painting days are so dry they lack flexibility.

I had planned very carefully what I was going to purchase and eagerly looked forward to picking up a few things. Then, Katie and I were going to test drive a few vehicles since she’s in need of one these days. I was going to end the day with Mass at the Cathedral, where the priests tend to be a little more inclusive in their prayers of the faithful. Just thinking about the day filled me with greater peace than I have experienced in weeks.

But, with snow and hazardous road conditions stranding me at home, I decided to go into my studio and work on a piece that hadn’t been going very well. The joy I experienced in painting again after my six-year break from the activity has been tempered in recent weeks by the unwelcome arrival of The Harsh Critic. THC made his presence known when a piece that showed great promise turned into garbage that even a grid salvage operation (i.e. adhering strips from shredded journals) couldn’t save. His most effective technique with me is pushing me to overwork a painting so it loses its vitality. However, he’s nearly as effective when he simply plants the seeds of general discontent. That can keep me out of the studio altogether.

He was using that approach with the last painting I started. However, after being forced to abandon my plans for the day, I felt I had nothing to lose in working on it. I started listening to “The Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon, the first in a series of books I enjoy and the only one I have on CD. Before long, I couldn’t hear THC any longer. I was immersed in Claire’s story and Jamie’s, and allowing my intuition to guide my color selection and brush.

Lo and behold! By mid-afternoon I had finished a piece that satisfied me. THC tried to tell me the colors weren’t quite working, but I told him I didn’t care. It felt like joy to me, like falling in love, like seeing my grandgirls, and that’s all that mattered in that moment. Joy falling like a feather into the darkness that has been smothering me.

I decided I didn’t need to go to Rapid City to engage in shopping therapy. I went online and ordered some paint and brushes from Dick Blick, where I purchased all of my supplies for years. They’ll arrive in a couple weeks. And I decided that sharing time isn’t the only way to reach out to loved ones. Writing outstretches the hand at well, and I sat down to write another post for those few friends who actually read my blog.

This snowy day didn’t bring the experiences I had anticipated, but it brought blessings. I think that’s one of the ways God shows his love. It affirms that I am still am part of the family of believers, despite the priest’s efforts to make me feel otherwise, and that brings additional comfort as well.

I am grateful.

Saying Good-bye

Sara hates this story, but I have to tell it one more time.

After she left home to attend the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, a friend of hers gave me a present — a small gray and white kitten — telling me that with Sara gone, we needed something temperamental in the house. That was nearly 15 years ago.

We named him Michael, having just seen a comedy of  that name in which John Travolta portrayed an angel named Michael — a rude and obnoxious angel, and he became part of the family. Pets do that, take up residence not only in our homes, but in our hearts.

Like other family members, they begin to influence our decisions.

Ever after Michael joined our family, it was necessary for me to find housing that allowed pets. That led me to a wonderful apartment in Pierre that overlooked Hilger’s Gulch, which would watch turn gold as the sun set. That led me to a house in Lake Preston owned by a man who allowed me to paint the walls, so finally I was surrounded by color, which was a joy and comfort for me. That led me to my current apartment and the friendship of a 95-year-old woman who also lives here.

Michael didn’t do well as an only cat, though, so his presence expanded my family in another way, too. For the first ten years, his companion was a classy black cat with white tuxedo markings named Claude. Their bond never ceased to amaze me.

I picked up Claude on the last day of my work week so I could be around and negotiate their getting-acquainted period. I separated them briefly so I could introduce Claude to the litter box, and then I allowed them to meet. Surprisingly, after a brief hiss, Michael laid down on the floor  about six feet from the box in which I brought Claude home and waited.

Claude was a little dandy, about three months younger than Michael, who was eight- or nine-months-old at the time. I had chosen him because he managed to hold his own with puppies at the pet shot, even though he appeared very delicate. Michael, by this time, was quite large. The vet had told me he needed a companion, but I wasn’t sure how he’d  react to an interloper. I didn’t want his companion to be afraid of him.

With those two, I really didn’t have to worry. Claude hopped out of his box, did a Halloween cat routine with arched back and fluffed fur, and waited. Michael just laid on the floor, flicking the tip of his tail. Claude hopped a little closer and repeated the routine; Michael didn’t move.

A couple hops later, Claude was cautiously sniffing Michael from one end to the other. By this time, Michael was purring loudly. When he finished sniffing Michael, Claude laid down beside him and Michael began to groom him. That was it. They’d adopted each other and began to emulate each other.

Claude died during my last year in Pierre. It was a grueling death, not because I hadn’t tried to put him to sleep, but because, unknowingly, I had chosen a vet who didn’t believe in euthanizing animals. Finally, when Claude began to go into convulsions, I stopped believing in her and called someone else.

Since Michael was older, I decided not to introduce another cat into our family. However, Michael’s insistence upon being the center of my universe eventually wore me down. With companionship, he still wants to be held on a daily basis, and still wants to sleep with me, but he doesn’t feel I needed to devote every waking moment to him.

Jake (Jacob) and Izzie (Issaac) were small orange bundles of fur when they joined our household. That transistion was not easy. I needed to put gates between rooms to keep them separated. Michael would stand on one side hissing and snarling. The kittens vacillated between hiding behind furniture and standing on the other side of the gate hissing back.

I can’t honestly say I know how they eventually resolved  their differences. Michael, clever cat that he is, learned to jump the gate and I could no longer keep them separated. Eventually, the kittens began to curl up by Michael — one at a time, not both together — and they’d groom him. This peace-making happened while I was at work.

I’ve recently learned the name Michael is from Hebrew and means “who is like God.” Somehow, I wasn’t surprised. More than once over the past 15 years, I’ve come to understand the gentle way in which God works from that cat. He tends to be persistent and creative, but also very loving in his efforts to direct this household.

Most often, I’ve noticed his intervention when I’ve resisted prayer. Sometimes, I admit, I’m not entirely happy with the life God has given me, and when I’m feeling that way, I don’t want to talk about it — not too God, not to anyone. I just want to read until the raw feelings inside have been numbed by fiction and I can face the world again.

Michael would never leave me alone at times like that. He’d insist on being held, or complain until I fed him, or indicate that scooping the litter wasn’t enough, it needed changing. Once he pushed me past the inertia, I’d find myself making a cup of coffee and heading for my prayer table, where I would journal and pray myself into a place where I was open once again to God’s will in my life.

I don’t know what I’m going to do now. For the past couple months, I’ve noticed that he was slowing down and losing weight. I thought his age was catching up with him. At 15, he was definitely an old cat.

Last week, though, I noticed he was drooling more than usual, and when he tried to eat treats, they just fell out of his mouth. That made me watch him more closely. I noticed his wasn’t eating very much, and decided I needed to take him to the vet. I had planned to make an appointment for Monday, when I wasn’t scheduled to work, but when he didn’t sleep with me Friday night, I knew it was more serious than I realized.

On Saturday, the vet found a growth on his tongue. She couldn’t tell whether it was an infection or a tumor. Before deciding whether to try treating him or to put him to sleep, I had her run a few tests to see if he was otherwise healthy. He was, and received a powerful antibiotic injection. It didn’t help.

It’s a tumor, so today my friend, my personal messenger from God, will leave me. Over the past few years, when I’ve been exasperated with him, Katie has told me I would miss him if anything happened to him. If tears are any indication, she’s right. My heart is breaking — for that stupid cat.

Starstruck

I should be in bed.

I really should be in bed. It’s after midnight and Mass is at 8 a.m. If I don’t get some sleep, my mind won’t be functioning tomorrow, but I am on a theater high again.

I couldn’t resist. I went to GODSPELL at the Black Hills Playhouse again. What incredibly talented young people!

They brought the gospels to life. They interpretted the songs, words and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, in a way that allowed those sitting in the audience to encounter Jesus. I know that sounds cliche, especially to those familiar with evangelical Christianity, but it is true nonetheless.

We live in a nation that has forgotten fundamental Christian values. We have forgotten that Jesus made it clear while he walked on this earth that one measure will be used at the Last Judgment — how we care for those in need (Matt. 25:31-46). Currently, there’s an offensive post making its rounds on Facebook comparing those receiving food stamps with wild animals. Jesus of the gospels would undoubtedly give that a thumbs down, but I strongly suspect many who consider themselves Christians find it clever.

We have forgotten that  Jesus instructed his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them (Matt. 5:44). “If you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?” Jesus asked in Matthew’s gospel. “Do not tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?” (Matt. 5:46-47).

Instead of turning the other cheek, as Jesus taught (Matt. 5:38-39), and being a moral example to the world, when terrorists successfully attacked the United States, we went to war. We invaded a country under false pretenses as well as embarked upon military action in another which was believed to harbor terrorists. The number of lives lost as a result of this decision far exceeds the number of lives lost as a result of the terrorist attack, but that’s just a small portion of the price our country has paid as a result of failing to be guided by Christian values at that pivotal point in history.

We have forgotten that making the accumulation of wealth a priority in this life is short-sighted. In more than one place, Jesus talks about the danger of this. In the Sermon on the Mount, he bluntly stated, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth … but store up treasures in heaven … for where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Matt. 6:16-18).

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man was told when he found himself tormented in the netherworld (Luke 16:22-23), “you received what was good during your lifetime” (16:25). I’d venture to guess that part of his torment was realizing his priorities had been terribly out of whack, that he could have changed the outcome had he used the gifts God gave him to manage finances to benefit those most in need. But in our country, we glorify the wealthy, even those who prey on the poor, allowing them to stick their names on buildings, and,  indirectly through financially supporting  political candidates, to shape our nation to further benefit them even though it places our nation at risk.

In watching GODSPELL, in following the narrative line which cleverly brings the gospels to life, and in listening to the music, we are reminded that Jesus calls us to go beyond professing to believe in him. We are called not only to believe he died for our sins, but to  live in a way which reflects  what he taught. Anything else falls short.

If we don’t live in love — a love that reflects into this world God’s great love for us — we’ve missed the point entirely. But, when we strive to truly live the gospels, we discover the kind of intimacy with Jesus that we see between him and his followers in GODSPELL.

What a blessing! Thanks to all the awesome young people who reminded me of this by using the gifts God gave them in the Black Hills Playhouse production!

Under God’s Spell

I love God.

He works in such marvelous ways — when we need it most. In my case, it was GODSPELL at the Black Hills Playhouse over the weekend.

It had been a rough week and I was discouraged. I kept saying to myself, “Anything, I said, ‘anything,’ and this is God’s idea of ‘anything,'” but my heart wasn’t in it.

Despite Scriptural evidence and historical anecdotes, my human nature expected — when my heart opened at a retreat last fall and I surrendered completely to God’s will, murmuring over and over ‘Anything, Lord, anything’ — to find the tatters of my life healed and blessings poured into the new skin of a life dedicated entirely to God. Ha! I remained unemployed for another five months and now find myself working at a convenience store.

Granted, that synopsis doesn’t reflect the awesome experience of spending weeks with my granddaughters, which was only possible because I was unemployed, or the way in which hours of prayer during my period of unemployment transformed something within me in ways I’m still  discovering. Still, I’ve worked hard most of my life and lived with poverty during much of it. I was hoping ‘anything’ would encompass a different type of experience, not more of the same in which I would need to say to myself over and over ‘thy will be done, thy will be done’ in order to serve the people who enter the store as though each were Christ present to me in that moment.

Last week I was challenged with both sleep deprivation and staff issues. I wanted nothing more when I finally had a day off than to curl up and sleep — forever. However, remembering how inspired I’d been last  year by the Black Hills Playhouse’s production of JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, and recalling how much I love the music from GODSPELL, I decided a little theater might be good for my soul.

It was! Three days later, I am still on a theater high. The set was stunning. Enhanced by the lighting. And the musicians were incredible.

But for me, personally, GODSPELL  brought the gospel to life at a time when I desperately needed it — and in a memorable way. I sit here now, listening to the soundtrack — the Broadway cast, unfortunately, rather than the Black Hills Playhouse cast — and images from the production rise up before my eyes.

All those incredibly talented young people! What a testimony of God’s goodness! He is first and foremost a Creator, and in those who have been given creative gifts, he is present in a powerful way. When we turn our backs on those gifts, as I have in recent years, something goes out of us as well as out of our lives.

To be close to God, we need to live authentically. We need to live as though we were created in the image of God. We need to express in this world the gifts of himself he has placed in us — and recognize them in others.

Because God is infinite, the variety of gifts we will see in one another will be infinite. They will be seen in those who produce our food, heal our sick, build our homes, work for peace and justice, care for the environment, and help us navigate our daily lives with the work they do. The whole, each person’s gifts appreciated by others, is what makes us a community, what reminds us that we are a people of God.

The lyrics of one song in GODSPELL, “All Good Gifts,” brought this home to me during Saturday night’s performance. Yes, I’d had a bad week. No, my life wasn’t what I would hope. But those really are minor in the grand scheme of things.

In the grand scheme of things, “All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above. Thank  the Lord, thank the Lord for all his love.”

And he does love us immeasurably.