My priorities as I turn 64

In what has become a birthday tradition, I like to start my “personal New Year” by reviewing my priorities. Are they the same as they were last year? Or does something need to change? 

As always, I used this morning’s meditation time to identify what is most important to me. For each priority, I set a long-term goal, evaluated my progress for the past year, and created an intention for the coming year. 

The past year has felt like one long roller coaster ride marked by repeated trips to the hospital for myself, family members and friends. Even our two kitties developed medical issues. So needless to say, some of my priorities ended up sidetracked or completely hijacked.

However, I decided the priorities themselves are good ones, so they will remain the same for now – my personal relationship with God, self-care, family and friends, our home, my writing, service to others, elimination of backlog tasks, and serenity/gratitude.

This little annual exercise helps me stay focused so various kinds of clutter – material, mental or spiritual – don’t crowd out what really matters.

Priority: Relationship with God

Long-term goal: Develop a better understanding of God, so I can fulfill God’s purpose for my life, discern what my core values should be and live accordingly.

Progress this past year: I’ve met monthly with my spiritual director, who has helped ease my doubts about God’s existence and guided me in exploring various kinds of prayer.

Intention for the coming year: I plan to continue working with my spiritual director to improve my prayer life. I’ll also use journaling, imagery and other exercises to sort through my beliefs about God, clarify my values and explore more of my burning questions.

Priority: Self-care

Long-term goal: Stay healthy for as long as possible and help my husband do the same.

Progress this past year: First, the good news – I persuaded my husband Pete to embark with me on a healthy eating plan, beginning the day after my last birthday, and I’m now down 30 pounds from my top weight. The not-so-good news – I’ve had several recurring medical problems, some of them stemming from the ever-growing pharmacopeia of pills prescribed to me by various doctors over the years. In March, the blood-thinning medication I was taking landed me in intensive care for two days. Since then, I’ve been weaning myself off nearly half those meds under the supervision of my primary care provider.

Intention for the coming year: Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit and I’ve resolved to take better care of mine! I’ve begun getting much more assertive with my health care providers regarding medications and coordination of care. Meanwhile, I plan to continue shedding weight and I’d like to experiment with recipes delicious enough to convince both my sweetie-pie and myself that healthy eating can be fun rather than torture! I also need to focus on developing a regular sleep schedule and improving my exercise routine. 

Priority: Family and friends

Long-term goal: Keep in contact and nurture good relationships with the people I love and care about.

Progress this past year: Again, there’s been good news and bad news. The good news is we got to see most of my immediate relatives at least once, including a cousin who lives in Denmark, and we reconnected with a pair of close friends we hadn’t seen in a couple of years. The bad news is, some of my family and friends have spent as much time negotiating doctors and hospitals as I have. And the really sad news is that, after more than a half-dozen hospitalizations over the past year, my beloved mother is now in hospice care.

Intention for the coming year: More and more, I’m confronted with the reality that I’m not always going to have all of my family and friends around me. I plan to spend quantity as well as quality time with Mom in the time we have left with her, and stay in contact with other family and friends through regular visits or correspondence. I also want to let the people I love know how much they mean to me and stay out of other people’s battles.

Priority: Our home

Long-term goal: Maintain our home as a sanctuary for ourselves, our family and friends.

Progress this past year: Alas! The goal of a perfectly clean house with a place for everything and everything in its place still eludes me.

Intention for the coming year: I need to commit to one hour each weekday for cleaning and sorting. I’d love for this to be the year I finally sort through all the accumulated STUFF in our house, recycle or give away anything we don’t need, and find a place for whatever we decide to keep. Then, develop a maintenance schedule to keep the house clean and neat on an ongoing basis so I can invite people over more often. I want to enjoy our beautiful home!

Priority: My writing

Long-term goal: Write articles, essays, blog entries and at least one book.

Progress this past year: I’ve actually been keeping up with my blog pretty well and have even acquired some followers. I’ve found that posting once every 2-3 weeks works for me.

Intention for the coming year: I’d like to devote at least one hour per weekday to my writing. I sincerely believe my writing ability is one of God’s gifts to me. If I can discipline myself to stay off the Internet unless I’m doing something useful such as research or communicating with real people – and avoid the kind of mindless surfing that wastes hours and hours of time – I could really start to produce an abundance of writing. I also want to make my blog more user-friendly and take advantage of all the cool tricks Word Press is capable of.

Priority: Service to others

Long-term goal: Use a portion of my time, money and talent to help others and create positive change in the world.

Progress this past year: Shortly after my last birthday, I followed through on my decision to walk away from an abusive volunteer work situation that had been poisoning my soul for way too long. I have no regrets about that decision. With all the trauma from medical issues, I’m glad I haven’t had to contend with this additional stressor on top of it all!

Intention for the coming year: I plan to continue my current church activities – choir, bringing treats for fellowship hour on Sundays, bringing soup or desserts for Advent and Lenten suppers – and my participation in a musical group that entertains residents at a local retirement center twice a month. That’s enough for right now, because I’m learning I can do a much better job in one or two areas if I allow myself to pare down my commitments and focus my energy rather than trying to spread myself too thin. 

Priority: Backlog

Long-term goal: Eliminate backlog tasks and clutter that drain my energy, render my life more chaotic than it needs to be, and distract me from achieving my long-term goals. 

Progress this past year: I got our taxes done on time for the second year in a row! I’m not sure if our accountant has recovered from the shock.

Intention for the coming year: I need to make a list of tasks that are hanging over my head and commit to crossing off one thing each week. Large tasks can be broken down into bite-size chunks if necessary. I also need to avoid nerve-wracking deadline pressure by getting things done before the last possible minute! This unfinished business only keeps me in crisis mode and turns my focus away from important priorities like writing, healthy living, keeping our home looking nice and spending time with family and friends. What I also need to commit to, for now, is to not take on any new projects until I have everything crossed off my backlog list!

Priority: Serenity/Gratitude

Long-term goal: Achieve serenity by practicing mindfulness and finding at least one thing each day to be grateful for. 

Progress this past year: With my own health problems and with my mother in hospice care, I’ve experienced quite a bit of stress for the past several months. But the good news is I’ve been blessed with a tremendous amount of support from family, friends and church people. For that, I am VERY grateful! 

Intention for the coming year: If nothing else, this past year has reinforced my desire to actually live my life rather than sleepwalking through my days while I rush-rush-rush through deadlines and appointments. I want to be AWAKE! While we Christians may talk a lot about heaven, I believe God also meant for us to enjoy and appreciate life in the here-and-now. If that’s not true, why did God create flowers, beautiful sunsets, majestic trees that turn gorgeous colors in the fall, and small furry animals who curl up with us in bed? I need to reserve mornings for Pete and I as much as possible, take walks when the weather is nice, notice my surroundings and remember to count my blessings. 

And each morning for the coming year, I plan to start my day by reminding myself, “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”

Nature prayer

Martin Luther is said to have observed, “God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars.” 

Tertullian is quoted by Galileo (link HERE) as saying, “We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine; by Nature in His works, and by doctrine in His revealed word.”

In other words, one can think of nature as God’s “other book.”

Regardless of the weather, I like to start my day by feeding the birds (and squirrels) while my morning coffee brews. During the growing season I tend several veggie, herb and flower beds. On warm sunny days, I take walks along an amazing tree-lined bike trail that runs beside a creek near our house. Sometimes I grab my camera and visit a neighborhood park.

Whether I’m feeding the critters, admiring the flowers in our backyard, snapping photos of flora and fauna at the park or strolling along the bike path, experiencing God’s creation with all my senses ranks as one of my favorite activities. Not to mention one of my most effective forms of relaxation and stress relief. (It sure beats arguing with complete strangers about politics on Facebook.) 

Immersing myself in nature’s majesty continually reminds me there is an ultimate Creator. As I’ve said before, I find it almost impossible to deny God’s existence when I’m outdoors with the evidence all around me. So, to ward off those nagging doubts that surface from time to time, I try to get outside as much as possible and engage in what has become my most potent form of prayer: Nature prayer.

According to the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, author and editor-at-large of America magazine (link HERE), nature prayer is simply being “attentive to the presence of God in nature.” 

For me, this form of prayer doesn’t even necessarily need words. Just looking at the vibrant colors of spring blossoms and fall leaves. Listening to birds singing and cicadas humming. Drinking in the scent of lilacs. Feeling a gentle breeze against my face. Tasting the sweetness of a vine-ripened strawberry. 

I’m aware some Christians eye nature prayer with suspicion. Isn’t it too “New Agey?” Too “pagan?” Aren’t we worshipping creation instead of the Creator? Resistance to nature prayer has always baffled me, frankly, because the Bible itself is chock full of passages that extole nature and invite us to immerse ourselves in it, appreciate it and learn from it.

Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” 

Luke 12:27 says, “Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” 

Being in nature not only brings us close to God, but can restore us physically and spiritually. The opening verses of the 23rd Psalm affirm, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.”

Psalm 104:24 exclaims, “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” In fact, Psalm 104 in its entirety presents one long ode to the natural world – mountains that smoke, melodious birds, wine that gladdens the heart, trees and streams that protect and feed wildlife of all kinds.

Even Jesus found nature conducive to prayer and meditation. After a long day of healing, teaching and preaching to crowds, “he withdrew himself into the wilderness and prayed,” says Luke 5:16.

For those interested in pursuing nature prayer from a Christian perspective, the Web site Busted Halo (link HERE) offers suggestions for an “outdoor retreat.” Designed to “deepen our relationship with God and nature,” this retreat has three parts, each involving prayer and reflection – seeing God, listening to God, and breathing in God. To access the retreat guide, click HERE.

As I engage in nature prayer, I sense God speaking to me every bit as directly as God speaks to me while I’m in church or reading the Bible. 

When I watch a brilliant sunset dance along the tops of rioting fall leaves, I sense that God loves beauty.

When I watch a hummingbird flit from blossom to blossom sipping nectar while its tiny wings flap 70 times per second, I sense that God wants to inspire awe.

When I observe the more than three dozen varieties of flowers just in my own backyard, I sense that God prefers diversity.

When jonquils poke up through snow, I sense that God encourages us to feel hope. No matter how cold, dark and bleak life may seem, spring will come eventually.

Most importantly, when I’m immersing myself in nature, I understand at the deepest level that we are meant to appreciate and care for God’s creation. Because nature is part of God’s creation and a gift to us, we have an obligation to protect and preserve it.

A lesson in acceptance

Sometimes compromise really is the best answer, especially when one’s conflict is with a small animal.

I used to get so frustrated with the squirrels in our backyard because they wouldn’t stay out of the bird feeders. I tried everything to thwart the little trespassers – putting feeders in hard-to-reach places, using safflower seeds (which they’re rumored not to like), and investing in every allegedly-squirrel-proof contraption I could find.

As anyone reading this will probably guess, nothing worked for very long. Squirrels, I discovered, have amazing problem-solving skills. Give them a day or two and they’ll figure out how to overcome every obstacle we place between them and the tasty treats we were hoping would entice cardinals and goldfinches.

One day when I stopped at Wild Birds Unlimited to pick up some goodies for my feathered friends, a photo of a chubby-cheeked squirrel greeted me at the front door along with a sign that read, “Oh go ahead. Feed them too.” Just inside the door sat a display of feeders and a feast prepared especially for them. We could choose from corn on the cob, peanuts in the shell, or a special Wildlife Blend. We could put this bounty in a simple tray feeder or opt for a fancier Squirrel Table and Chair Feeder.

At long last, I decided to enjoy the squirrels instead of fighting them. After all, I’m pretty sure our bushy-tailed buddies never got the memo that all the enticing delicacies were for birds and not for them. Besides, where is it written that we’re supposed to feed birds but not squirrels? Yes, I know they’re rodents, but hey – they’re really kind of cute little acrobats.

I’ve now installed a couple of the tray-style feeders so my furry marauders can sit instead of hanging upside-down while they eat. If they want to …

Both the birds and squirrels love that tray and have even gotten somewhat good at sharing space – except for the blue jays, who dive-bomb squirrels and other birds alike when they decide it’s their turn to eat.

But the jays seem to come later, after the other critters have been gorging for a while, and hey – blue jays are really pretty and they don’t understand memos any better than squirrels do.

Spiritual lessons from animals

But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind. – Job 12:7-10

God has blessed me with a fine parade of pets over my lifetime, and these precious companions have taught me valuable spiritual lessons. 

Throughout my childhood, I often related to pets better than I could to people. From this photo, it’s clear that Dad and our first dog taught me to respect animals from an early age.

Mewlinda, a friendly gray farm cat who lived to be about 25 years old, exhibited saintly patience with small children – which is fortunate, since I liked to dress cats in doll clothes. I wish I had a photo, but she looked a lot like this cute girl we met at a state park last fall.

My pets prompted me to learn healthy assertiveness. When I first lived on my own, any “no pets” rule was a deal-breaker, no matter how nice the apartment I wanted to rent. I offered to pay an extra deposit if necessary, but potential landlords had to understand that my furry roommates and I were a package deal.

The critters in my life continue to impart lessons. Here, Oley gently coaxes me to keep my priorities straight …

… while Champaign – basking in a small patch of morning light on our sun porch – teaches me the importance of mindfulness and living in the present moment.

They remind my husband and I that companionship makes just about any activity more fun – or at least more endurable. Here’s Oley, helping Pete grade papers …

Torbjorn helping me assemble a newsletter …

… and Champaign helping me wake up in the morning. (Who knows? If I didn’t have that little cat alternately purring and howling in my ear at 6 a.m., I might sleep all day!)

The creatures who share our space in the backyard have taught me we don’t always need to fear strangers, especially when we learn more about them. My first impulse when I discovered a fox living under our deck was to call animal control. But a bit of quick Google research assured Pete and I that foxes pose no threat to humans as long as we maintain respectful distance, and we grew to love Roxy and her kits.

Several animals demonstrate for us the art of seizing opportunity: Oley likes to sneak a drink of water straight from the bathroom faucet.

Vixen and DW, the horses who live next door to our North Carolina cousins, know they’ll probably get a treat if they greet visitors at the fence.

A goose in our neighborhood park eagerly anticipates a slice of bread.

And the squirrels in our backyard figure, “Why let the birds have all the good stuff?

My friends and relatives have some cuties I adore almost as much as my own. Piccolo shows us how to be way cool without even trying – by simply being himself.

Nala derives pleasure from simple things … like watching the popcorn popper perform its task.

Millie, an adorable beagle we like to think of as our semi-official church dog, shows us how to win friends and influence people as she visits sick congregation members (including me, when I was in the hospital). She’s such a good sport, she allows us to dress her up as a sheep for our annual Christmas pageant. 

Animals have thoroughly convinced me that some angels have four legs, fur and whiskers.

During a particularly challenging time in my life – when I was enduring both work and health problems – our sweet Angie Cat sat with me in my recliner every single morning as I poured my feelings of fear, anger, resentment and despair onto my journal pages. I can only aspire to practice such unconditional love. May you rest in peace, my beautiful little friend!

Bear, a magnificent Great Pyrenees, helped his human buddy though some of his darkest hours, staying faithfully by his side as he put his life back together. And then, one day this past winter, this beautiful boy was gone. Everyone in his Nashville, Tennessee neighborhood misses him greatly.

Members of our church had only begun to love Creed – our new pastor’s dog – when God called him home suddenly. Creed left behind a heartbroken congregation.

Finally, some animals teach us to risk loving again, even after a painful loss. 

When I’ve lost beloved pets over the years, I’ve often been tempted to say, “Next time I’m not going to get q-u-i-t-e so attached.” Friends have confessed similar thoughts. Invariably the new pet has other ideas – and before we know it, we’re absolutely smitten. Again. 

“Grief isn’t just something to endure,” says clinical psychologist Mary Pipher, author of Women Rowing North, Reviving Ophelia and several other books. “It also is a reflection of our capacity to love.” Our new fur babies don’t replace the ones we’ve lost, of course. Instead, they expand our hearts and show us that love is an endlessly abundant and renewable resource.

My friend who lost his beautiful Bear over the winter posted a photo last week and asked, “Should I take him, yay or nay?” Of course the pup went home with him. Who could possibly resist this furry little bundle of pure tail-wagging joy?

Gospel, our congregation’s newest church dog, came home with our pastor a few days ago. How long before our pastor and the rest of the congregation start spoiling him absolutely rotten? Can anyone count to one?? Oh wait … I can see the spoiling has already begun.

Perhaps the most important lesson our animal companions teach us is this: LOVE WINS.

Every. Single. Time.

Praying for pets

Pete and I live with two furry bundles of love and mischief – Olaf DaVinci, a gorgeous Maine Coon, and Champaign Le Chat, a beautiful cream-colored domestic longhair. Needless to say, we absolutely adore them.

About four months ago, we noticed Oley had started to limp and could no longer jump up onto the bed or his other favorite perches without a struggle. He was insatiably thirsty and peed copiously. I took him to the vet. The verdict: Diabetes.

No sooner had we begun to absorb this distressing news, when the vet delivered another whammy: Champaign had early-stage kidney disease.

Is it permissible to pray for pets? I certainly hope so, because my intercessory prayers began the minute I got the news about our furbabies:

Dear God, please take care of our sweet kitties. Help them respond to treatment and don’t let them suffer. Please, please, please! I love these little guys. Amen.

Fortunately, I’ve never encountered anyplace in the Bible that suggests we shouldn’t pray for our beloved companions. “Ask, and it shall be given you,” says Matthew 7:7. The verse doesn’t tell us what to ask for – it simply says, “Ask.”

While I haven’t found specific references to pets in the Bible, several passages indicate God cares about animals and expects us to care about them too.

“You, Lord, preserve both people and animals,” says Psalm 36:6.

 “Not one sparrow … can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it,” says Matthew 10:29.  

“The righteous care for the needs of their animals,” says Proverbs 12:10.

The Bible points out that animals can impart spiritual lessons. “But ask the beasts, and they will teach you,” says Job 12:7. 

Animals even show up in the Ten Commandments. Not only should we take time off on the Sabbath, but our animals should as well, says Exodus 23:12: “Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest.” 

And who can imagine heaven without critters? In God’s future kingdom, “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them,” says Isaiah 11:6. 

In other words, God loves His creation – all of it!

As if I needed further assurance that God listens to prayers on behalf of our furry (or feathered or finned) companions, I’ve learned that many Christian churches ranging from Lutheran and Methodist to Catholic and Episcopalian hold a special “Blessing of the Animals” ceremony on the Feast Day for St. Francis of Assisi, who was famous for his love of all living things. 

Kevin E. Mackin, OFM, a Franciscan friar of the Holy Name Province, offers a delightful description of one such service in an article on franciscanmedia.org [link HERE]: “Usually the Blessing of Pets is held outdoors. But I remember it rained one year, and all were invited inside St. Stephen’s Church in Manhattan. It was quite a sight to see pairs of creatures—one human, one animal—sitting in the pews. The pastor joined right in with his beagle. Noah’s Ark was never like this!”

“It’s okay to pray for anything that is on your heart,” says Linda Evans Shepherd, an evangelical Christian speaker, author and president of Right to the Heart Ministries (link HERE]. “After all, God not only created animals, but He’s interested in the things you’re interested in.”

At any rate, I’ve concluded it’s absolutely appropriate to keep Oley and Champaign in my prayers and I’ve been asking God for wisdom to make the right decisions regarding their medical care. 

The vet prescribed a diabetic diet for Oley and a kidney-support diet for Champaign. I would need to give Oley medication twice a day and bring him to the vet’s office every other week for testing. 

At first the logistics seemed impossible. With the kitties on separate special diets, how could I keep them out of each other’s food? Besides, Champaign was such a picky eater. What if he simply refused to touch the food prescribed for him?

I worried that medicating Oley might prove to be an insurmountable task. In the past, when I needed to give him meds, he resisted me to the point of running and hiding whenever he saw me. How on earth would I be able to do this twice a day for the rest of his life? 

And the doctor had to be kidding about bringing Oley to the vet’s office every two weeks, I thought. Both cats had let me know in no uncertain terms how much they hated vet visits – and that was when I only took them once or twice a year.

However, when we went on Facebook to solicit some crowd-sourced prayers, several friends shared their personal experiences of caring for pets who had either diabetes or kidney disease. After hearing their stories, Pete and I began to relax.

The good news: Treatment has gone better than we dared to hope. 

We keep the cats out of each other’s bowls by feeding them in separate rooms. I’ve minimized trips to the vet by learning how to do some of Oley’s testing at home. And whoever invented Pill Pockets deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. Oley thinks his pills are treats!

When an office visit can’t be avoided, I try to reduce Oley’s anxiety as much as possible by giving him a mild sedative. One of the vet techs has invited me to call her when I’m in the parking lot so we can take him straight to a room where he doesn’t have to meet any dogs. 

Lately, I’ve been offering prayers of thanksgiving:

Dear God, getting a urine sample from Oley was WAY easier than I thought it would be. Thank-you for inspiring the person who invented Nosorb kitty litter!

Dear God, I was worried that Champaign might not eat enough. But I’ve been sneaking more and more of his prescription food into his Gravy Lover’s salmon. So far, this is working. Thank-you! 

Our experience of the past several weeks has even taught me to be grateful when our little darlings get ornery – especially Oley, since mischievous behavior signals that he’s feeling better. Here he is, eyeing Pete’s cereal. 

“Some people criticize the amount and cost of care given to pets,” says Franciscan friar Kevin E. Mackin. “People are more important, they say. … However, I believe every creature is important. The love we give to a pet, and receive from a pet, can draw us more deeply into the larger circle of life, into the wonder of our common relationship to our Creator.”

“So when you pray, pray for the provisions you need, your family members, your church, nation, hurting friends and world peace,” says author Linda Evans Shepherd. “Only don’t forget to pray for your pet. God’s grace is big enough to cover your prayers for even the little paws in your life.”

For me, the fear that we might love and care for our pets more than we love and care for other people represents a false dichotomy. I love people and pray for them. I love my pets and pray for them too. This is not an either/or proposition. Love and prayer are not limited commodities or finite resources. There is enough of both to go around!

Meeting the Risen Christ in a hospital room … and at church

When I visit various churches, I usually encounter one of two symbols – a crucifix or an empty cross. During my recent hospital stay, however, I came across a symbol I hadn’t seen before. 

While propped up in bed doing my morning meditation, I noticed what looked like a crucifix – only different somehow – hanging on the wall a few feet away. I had begun to recover after a stint in intensive care, so I got out of bed and walked over to take a closer look. 

Jesus stood in front of the cross – alive – his arms outstretched as if beckoning me to follow him. 

When I looked it up online later, I saw the cross advertised on a Catholic web site as “The Risen Christ.” I’m pretty sure it’s been around for a while and I had simply never noticed it. At any rate, I liked this particular cross.

The traditional crucifix reminds us of Christ’s suffering and sacrifice on Good Friday, while the empty cross prompts us to meditate on Easter and the resurrection. But as I stood looking at the cross in front of me on that Sunday morning just before the beginning of Lent, I found myself meditating on a different subject: “What does it mean to actually follow Jesus?”

I must say that question took on a bit more urgency in the face of a medical trauma that forced me to look my own mortality straight in the eye without blinking. Not only that, but my mother had just been in the hospital twice in as many months, and I’ve had to face the fact that I may not have her in my life much longer. For good measure, my brother-in-law was hospitalized the same time I was and both my cats had just been diagnosed with chronic medical conditions. Yikes!

The cross on the hospital room wall seemed like an appropriate symbol for the occasion. It not only signified the death and resurrection of Jesus, but the cross we all are asked to bear when we become followers. There will be hardship, sacrifice and struggle, the Bible tells us. But this cross also reminded me that we can overcome hard times with God’s help.

This morning I encountered the same “Risen Christ” symbol again, this time at church. 

The altar was all decked out for the Easter Sunday service. A white cloth and a crown of white and yellow flowers draped the empty cross. Easter lilies and other spring flowers filled the entire front of the church. The sanctuary was gorgeous! As was the music – complete with a trumpet, maracas and drums. (The photos below don’t begin to do the scene justice.)

In the middle of all this, I saw the now-familiar figure of “The Risen Christ” on the processional cross carried down the aisle and placed in a stand behind the altar. Jesus was alive, arms outstretched, beckoning us all to follow.

Congregation members and our minister exchanged this greeting:

“Christ is risen!”

“Christ is risen indeed!”

In her sermon, our minister spoke of emerging from our personal “tombs” – sickness, loss of loved ones, broken relationships – and I reflected on the hospital rooms I’d been in over the past couple of months.

As I came forward for communion, I thanked God for having shepherded me – and my mother and my husband and my brother-in-law and my cats – through this unusually challenging Lenten season.

And the real Risen Christ, alive and present among us, seemed to say, “You won’t be able to avoid pain and suffering, but you will transcend it.” 

Happy Easter, everyone!

Prayers of petition and intercession: Can we ask God for things?

A week before Ash Wednesday, I landed in the intensive care unit at St. John’s Hospital after losing more than a third of my blood from a lesion in my stomach aggravated by blood-thinning medication. At first I thought I might be coming down with the flu – I had awakened with nausea and general achiness – but the symptoms grew progressively worse and by evening, I had muscle cramps and dizziness so severe I found it nearly impossible to walk. 

Fortunately, I decided to call an ambulance rather than try to tough it out and sleep off my “flu” symptoms. Emergency room staff told me I had dangerously low blood pressure, tachycardia and dehydration, and had already lost about 30 percent of my hemoglobin – which carries oxygen to my brain and other vital organs. Over the next 24 hours I received four units of blood. (Thanks to all you blood donors out there!)

To say I was scared would be an understatement. At one point, when I became increasingly worried about the mental confusion I was experiencing, staff sent for the hospital chaplain. Undeterred by my difficulty finding and forming words, the chaplain simply asked me to repeat after her: “Dear God, please help me.” We said this in unison several times, and I found the repetition amazingly calming.

Meanwhile, my husband alerted our pastor and church congregation, then got online and activated the Facebook prayer warriors. (I like to think of this as “crowd-sourced prayer.”) He even contacted our local Dominican Sisters community, which accepts prayer requests on their Web site – one doesn’t need to be Catholic to avail oneself of the service. 

My hospital adventure capped a rough couple of months which saw my mother hospitalized twice, my husband and I both sick with viruses and even our two kitties both newly diagnosed with chronic illnesses. One might say I had plenty of opportunities to practice prayers of petition and intercession – that is, prayers on behalf of oneself or others – along with some good old-fashioned foxhole spirituality.

Now I understand some people get squeamish about asking God for things. There is legitimate concern about regarding God as a combination Santa Claus/magic genie to whom we bring our shopping lists. In fact, I must acknowledge my own impatience with people who say “it’s a God thing” when a parking space opens up for them. However, the Bible is chock full of prayers of petition and intercession – not to mention a heavy dose of foxhole spirituality. 

Just a brief glance at the Psalms offers plenty of examples: 

  • Psalm 77:2 – In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.
  • Psalm 27:12 – Give me not up to the will of my adversaries; for false witnesses have risen against me, and they breathe out violence.
  • Psalm 69:1-2 – Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold.

Several Biblical passages actually invite us to pray for ourselves and others this way:

  • Psalm 50:15 – Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.
  • John 15:7 – If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 
  • Philippians 4:6 – Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 

One could say the entire Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) qualifies as a prayer of petition:

Pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread;
12 And forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors;
13 And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.

I have to admit at least half the prayers I write in my journal during my morning meditation sessions are prayers of petition/intercession – and that’s when I’m not facing a life-threatening emergency. 

A 2017 Barna Group study of American adults indicates I have a lot of company. In a recent article for the magazine Living Lutheran (link HERE), Kurt Lamont and John Potter make this observation about the study: “Aside from ‘gratitude and thanksgiving’ at the top and ‘reciting scripture passages, meditation or liturgies’ and ‘other’ at the bottom, all other prayer topics are asking for help in some way.”

So … is it okay to ask God for things? Based on my reading of the Bible, extensive church practice and my own experience, I think I can confidently say, “Absolutely!” 

Prayers of petition may encourage us to rely more on God and even rethink some of our priorities. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 1501), “Illness can lead to anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God. [But] it can also make a person more mature, helping him discern in his life what is not essential so that he can turn toward that which is. Very often illness provokes a search for God and a return to him.” 

Prayers of intercession may remind us to consider the needs of others. During Sunday services, our church offers up prayers of intercession for everything from world peace to comfort for a congregation member who has lost a loved one. Our church secretary keeps a prayer list of people facing illnesses or other crises, as well as a list of people serving in the military, and the entire congregation is asked to keep these people in our personal prayers. Those who participate in our weekly men’s and women’s prayer breakfasts also use these lists as the basis for their group prayers. 

“Our praying does not change God. Instead, it is a way for God to change us,” Lamont and Potter  point out in their Living Lutheran article Pray without ceasing: A Lutheran approach to prayer. “In prayer, we admit that we are in need and we ask God to help us with those needs.”

The good news: I’m healing. My mother now has someone staying with her at night. Even our kitties are doing better. And my husband deserves a gold medal for his unwavering support for all of us over the past couple of months. 

But why is it that I often think to pray only when I’m in some kind of trouble? Foxhole spirituality has its place, but I would agree it should not be our sole motivation for prayer. That is why I’ve dedicated this Lenten season to experimenting with other kinds of prayer as well. 

And when God does answer my prayers, I must remember to say, “Thank you!” 

Morning meditation

Ever since I embarked on my 12-Step recovery journey 26 years ago, I’ve started my day with morning meditation whenever possible.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines meditate as “to engage in contemplation or reflection.” In 12-Step groups, members like to say prayer is talking to God and meditation is God talking to us. For me, meditation is a time set aside for both prayer and reflection. While my personal morning meditation ritual has evolved over the years and may change content from one day to the next, I’ve found that my meditation time easily accommodates several forms of prayer. 

Most days I begin with “nature prayer.” I feed my cats, the birds and (yep!) the squirrels. If nice weather beckons, I may stroll around my backyard and admire the flowers. Right now, early spring has arrived in central Illinois and my snowdrops and crocuses are blooming. Soon they will be joined by jonquils, violets, tulips, pear and crabapple blossoms and the ever-ubiquitous dandelions. These flowers make me so happy! 

Back inside, I settle in my recliner in front of the fireplace with a cup of coffee by my side and Oley Cat in my lap and engage in “writing as prayer.” I may journal about my priorities for the coming day – or what I think they should be, at least. I’ve also used this time to write out my thoughts and insights generated by homework assignments my spiritual director gives me. 

Some mornings the journaling portion of my meditation largely consists of prayers of petition and intercession. Other times I may make a gratitude list or offer prayers of thanksgiving. Sometimes I even get to enjoy music when my husband joins Oley Cat and I to serenade us with sacred songs on his dulcimer.

Lately I have adopted a suggestion from my spiritual director as well: As I pray, spend some time listening. Say (or write) a prayer, then be silent. Quiet my mind for a few minutes and wait for God’s response. What is God saying to me?

Some Christians express concern that meditation is too “New Age,” or that it’s somehow inappropriate because religions other than Christianity practice it. However, from what I’ve read, meditation is firmly rooted in the Bible. Here are just a few passages that speak about the practice: 

  • Joshua 1:8 – This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful.
  • Psalm 19:14 – Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
  • Psalm 119:15 – I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways.
  • Psalm 145:5 – On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
  • Philippians 4:8 – Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things. (Note: Since “think on” is one synonym for “meditate,” this verse would certainly speak to the practice and it’s also one of my favorites.)

Meditation also has a long history in Christian practice, engaged in by everyone from the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the early church era to Ignatius of Loyola, Augustine and Martin Luther in the Middle Ages to folks participating in the liturgies of many modern church services. 

Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, shared a personal experience of being so preoccupied that she once arrived at work with no memory of how she got there. Eaton’s own spiritual director offered the following advice about meditation as one remedy for this type of distracted thinking: “Wait for the Lord. Disengage the autopilot. Notice. Just this. Just now.” (Link to her article HERE.)

In my own case, God seems to tell me I need my morning meditation ritual. While I may skip it occasionally – if I have to leave the house for a doctor’s appointment at 7:30 a.m. sharp, for instance – I’ve found that I start to feel a little less “centered” if I miss too many days in a row.

For me, meditation is a way of staying focused on important priorities. Listening to Oley Cat’s soft purr and the crackle of the fire, or watching the squirrels’ antics as they invade the bird feeders helps quiet my mind – a little, for a few moments anyway – and allows me to open up to God’s presence.

So I continue to commit myself to this wonderful and compelling morning ritual.

Conscious contact

Now that I’ve discovered a reliable way to address my occasional doubts about God’s existence – immerse myself in nature – it’s time for the next step in my spiritual direction journey: Addressing my questions/doubts about a “personal God.”

Matthew 10:29-30 says “not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered.” How do I quell my periodic doubts about whether God really cares about me and other people, let alone sparrows? Does God truly have a plan for my life and does God honestly try to communicate directly with me?

With these questions in mind, I’ve dedicated this year’s Lenten season to improving my conscious contact with God. And the logical way to do this is through prayer. 

Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of In All Seasons for All Reasons: Praying Throughout the Year, suggests using Lent as “a time to explore new ways of prayer.”

Among the forms of prayer suggested by Father Martin and my spiritual director, I’d like to focus on the following. While I’ve used some of these prayer techniques off and on for years, I’d like to commit to doing them on a more regular, disciplined basis. Others, such as the “examen” and “lectio divina,” I’ve never tried before and find intriguing.

  • Morning meditation. A time set aside for prayer before I start my day. 
  • Prayers of petition and intercession. Prayer on behalf of myself or others.
  • Prayers of thanksgiving. Expressing gratitude for answered prayers and other blessings.
  • Nature prayer. Encountering God through creation.
  • Writing/journaling. Keeping a journal to record the fruits of prayer, or using writing itself as prayer.
  • Music. Both making and listening to music as a form of prayer and meditation. 
  • Lectio divina. Sacred reading as a prayer method and guide to living.
  • Examen. Prayerful reflection on the events of the day to detect God’s presence and discern God’s direction for my life. 
  • Mindfulness in church. Paying closer attention during church services, and trying not to get distracted by my own random thoughts. 

As I pray, my spiritual director suggested I spend some time listening as well. Say (or write) a prayer, then be silent. Quiet my mind for a few minutes and wait for God’s response. What is God saying to me?

Questions allowed!

“It’s God’s will. You mustn’t question God’s will.” 

If I’ve heard this admonition once, I’ve heard it a gazillion times – usually when I’ve challenged some aspect of religious dogma or someone’s interpretation of a Biblical passage. And I must admit, I tend to become innately suspicious when any person (or church denomination) does not want me to ask questions. 

The Bible itself brims with stories of prophets and apostles who questioned God’s will – or tried to change God’s mind, or expressed doubts out loud – and lived to tell about it. 

When God commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh and prophesy against that city, Jonah tried to flee rather than carry out the command and got angry when the people of Nineveh actually repented of their sins. When Job fell on excruciatingly hard times, he didn’t lose his faith, but he did confront God, demanding to know why these things were happening to him.

Wikipedia defines a doubting Thomas as “a skeptic who refuses to believe without direct personal experience” – a reference to the Apostle Thomas, who refused to believe the resurrected Jesus had appeared to the other apostles until he could see and feel Jesus’s wounds for himself. Even Jesus, as he faced crucifixion, pleaded with God, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.”

But when people “caution” me not to question God’s will, I’m not sure it’s God’s will they’re worried about. I suspect what some of them really mean is, “Don’t question my interpretation of God’s will.” I haven’t yet decided whether it’s worth the effort to question God’s will, but I can certainly challenge another human being’s interpretation of it.

My own questioning of “received wisdom” began early. At age 8, I listened in shock as a mainline Protestant minister “explained” to the congregation that “God does not intend for black people to be equal to white people.” As a teenager, I simply refused to believe someone who claimed my baby sister would not go to heaven because my parents were unable to have her baptized before she died. 

When I was in college, some evangelical classmates talked excitedly about The Late, Great Planet Earth, a book by Hal Lindsay which speculated the Catholic Church was the Great Whore of Babylon mentioned in the Book of Revelation and the Pope was the Antichrist who had the number 666 engraved on his ring. I may not have agreed with every single aspect of Catholic teaching, but I was repulsed by the blatant bigotry and said so.

More recently I’ve debated folks who think God favors capitalism over socialism or America over other countries, the so-called “prosperity gospel” promoting the idea that God wants us to be wealthy, the assertion that God cares whether we sing traditional hymns or contemporary music at our church services, and the whole concept of predestination. 

One reason we have so many Christian denominations is that we have so many different interpretations of “the truth.” The various sects and denominations offer contrasting teachings on everything from baptism (sprinkling or immersion? infant or older?) to communion (wine or grape juice? open or closed?) to how one gets “saved” (baptism or personal decision?). And then there’s the debate over whether a church should take positions on hot-button “political” issues such as immigration and gun control. When Christians can’t agree on the “right” answers, how do I sort these things out for myself if I can’t ask questions?

I’ve discovered it’s not only important to question other people’s ideas, but my own as well. I must admit I occasionally notice cognitive dissonance between my stated values and my actions. For example, I say I care about the environment (God’s creation!), yet keep contributing excessive waste to our ever-expanding landfills. I say we all ought to invest in solar power, but have yet to install the panels on our own house. Along with Pope Francis, I decry consumerism, yet can’t seem to stop accumulating STUFF. I share the Bible’s concern about the poor, yet avoid looking too closely at the impact of my spending and investment habits on economically disadvantaged people. I could go on.

Whether we’re talking about church dogma or political/ideological positions, one thing I’ve been asking myself lately is, do I really believe everything I claim to believe? Or do I pay lip service to certain ideas to please my peer group? Do I secretly think someone else should be responsible for upholding certain values while I’m exempt? Could a fearless moral inventory of the type promoted by 12-Step programs be in order? (For those unfamiliar with 12-Step groups, the fearless moral inventory involves seriously examining one’s own attitudes and behavior.)

I’m aware that the mere act of asking questions carries risks. Will I stop believing in God altogether if I express too many doubts? Will I decide the church I’m attending is no longer appropriate for me? Will I stop agreeing with friends on certain issues, and will they no longer consider me an ally or want to be friends with me?

Yes, it is possible I could end up wanting to go to a different church. (Again.) Or I could stop believing in God altogether. Or I could lose friends. But it’s equally possible that answering questions to my own satisfaction could strengthen my faith, encourage me to appreciate my current church even more, and allow me to discern who my real friends are.

Matthew 22:37 says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Your mind, it says. Your mind.

I’ve been encouraged by reader responses to recent blog posts in which I’ve acknowledged struggling with various aspects of my faith. 

Chrissie, author of the blog Word Quilt (link HERE), had this response to one of my posts: “To doubt and still believe [is] a real definition of faith, but not blind faith.” Exactly, I thought.

Elizabeth, author of the blog Saved by Words (link HERE), responded to another of my posts: “If you didn’t question the very basis of your faith, you would be merely borrowing someone else’s faith.” I like that. And I completely agree.

Ultimately, what I want is my own personal faith – one that will stand up to reason and scrutiny. What that means is, I will probably be questioning God, myself and others until I draw my last breath. And for now, I’ve decided that’s okay.