Foolish Offerings

Almost every story is about more than one thing. Some stories are about the same thing for years, and then all of a sudden, they’re about something different. That’s how I felt about the story of the loaves and the fishes this year. (If anyone knows why this is the only time we say “fishes” instead of “fish,” please let me know.)

The plot is familiar to most. Thousands and thousands of people to feed, boy offers five loaves and two fish to Jesus, presto chango, full bellies and twelve baskets of scraps left over—hopefully bread scraps. Fish scraps would either smell nasty or require a lot of salt and a serious and immediate group preservation effort.

There are a lot of ways to think about this story, and most of the ones that I’ve considered over the years focus on the multiplication of the food. But this year it occurred to me—or maybe someone else said it and I am stealing her idea—that before any multiplying occurred, the young boy had to offer the loaves and fishes, and he had to do so foolishly.

Why even bother to offer such a paltry amount of food when there are thousands who need to be fed? Why open a soup kitchen when there is chronic homelessness? Why offer a blanket to a refugee who’s just left her entire life behind? Why send a card when someone’s beloved partner or parent has died?

None of these offerings will fix what’s wrong. None of them are sufficient, yet they are what we have and so it is imperative that we offer them. Without the boy’s gift, Jesus is looking at one unhappy crowd. Without you and I sharing our gifts, we’re looking at an empty world.

The multiplying is not up to us. We need only to find the courage to show up in the face of the impossible and say, here, take what I have. That’s when the miracles start.

I’m Here

There are some things you just can’t ignore. Last week I was driving to Vespers at the Monastery of the Risen Christ, and I was late, a typical state of being for me. You might think we late types stroll along with great aplomb, but usually, I worry and try to mentally hurl myself through time and space to somehow arrive earlier. Surprisingly, this approach has not actually worked yet, despite trying so hard I feel an internal pushing force.

As I neared the monastery, a group of vultures caught my attention and drew my eye to the meadow, at which point I had to stop the car in the middle of the empty road: a bald eagle flew low above the grass, quite close by, with prey in his talons.

In thirteen years, I’ve never seen a bald eagle on the Central Coast of California, and had I been on time, I’d have missed it. I know just enough about Native American spirituality to know that if you have the good fortune to receive a message from Eagle, the Divine really wants to get your attention. This message was unmistakable: I’m here.

I’m here when you’re running late and when you’re on time, when you’re messing up and when you’re succeeding. You can’t actually screw this up because I’m here regardless, and you can’t fix it for the same reason—I’m here so there’s nothing to fix.

There is perhaps no message I’ve resisted more strongly until now. How, you may ask, as I have, can this be true for the victim of a drive-by shooting or children caught in a war zone? I have no answer for that, and at the same time, this experience gave me a deep certainty that this here-ness is true.

It keeps popping up this week, or maybe more accurately breaking through. As I try to finish this presentation at work and everything else slips farther and farther behind: I’m here. As I fail again and again to live from my heart: I’m here. As I notice the flowers on the trees: I’m here. I’m here with you and inside you and with and inside everything else. I’m here.

Everywhere You Look

Here is what I learned last week: we absolutely must let God love us because it is the only way to help others see that God loves them. Or if you are not into God, we must allow ourselves to experience that the core of our being is divine—essential, complete, creative, unconditional, fully connected—love.

I’m not sure we’re here for much else than to realize that and practice it so that we can help others realize and practice it. I learned this most recently at the Living School for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, though I suspect we spend our lives learning it.

Our group of forty-five was invited to walk around imagining the words “Holy to God” were marked on our foreheads and to read those words on everyone else’s forehead. Then we formed a circle and simply looked each other in the eyes while listening to a song with the lyrics, “Everywhere you turn, you see the face of God.” People were weeping. I think they were weeping because it is true.

Then we left the circle, and I started worrying about who I would eat dinner with and whether I would be left all alone while everyone else went out and had a fabulous time together. A few minutes later, someone who I hadn’t connected with in the circle walked past me and stopped and saw God in me, and on the inside, I ran and hid. At that moment, I wasn’t capable of accepting what she saw.

I’ve always thought all the unworthiness stories I carry around inside contributed to self-improvement, but they are just another form of ego. They prevent us from seeing ourselves, and therefore others, as the love that we are.

Living in and from this love nature is obviously not going to be easy on the day the person in front of you at the grocery store is paying his bill in unrolled pennies and your spouse calls to tell you the washing machine broke and flooded all over your new wood floors—or even on a typical day at work, not to mention in a war zone. I couldn’t even hold onto it while staying at a nice hotel and having all my meals prepared for me. But that’s why we practice.

Who to Trust: God vs. Google

I follow the big G implicitly and without question—the big G being Google of course. I drove up to the Bay Area last weekend. I didn’t know how to get to my specific destination, but after plugging the address into Google maps, away I went, never giving it a second thought.

On the way home, the GPS took me on a rather circuitous route. I was vaguely aware that there was another, shorter route, but I didn’t pull off to see what it was or how to catch it. I just assumed the traffic on that freeway was horrible, Google was safely routing me around it, and my current route was the fastest available. Now that’s faith.

When things don’t go according to my plan in other areas of life, I don’t think, there must have been some traffic—or heartache or suffering—on that route I wanted to take; thanks, God, for safely routing me around it. Oh no.

My reaction usually begins with resistance, an attempt to immediately pull over to the side of the road and check the cosmic road map of life to see how I can get back on my chosen track. (My ability to see the cosmic road map of life has, thus far, proven annoyingly non-existent, but clearly if I just keep looking, the divine instruction booklet in which it is printed will reveal itself.) When this fails, I progress to wailing and gnashing of teeth until finally arriving at acceptance, at which point I often realize my surroundings are rather pretty.

I’m not suggesting that all of life’s detours are pleasant, but how might my way of existing be different if I placed at least as much faith in the creator of the universe as I do in a search engine? Here’s a poem from Hafiz that suggests an answer:

I Vote for You for God
by Hafiz

When your eyes have found the strength
To constantly speak to the world
All that is most dear
To your own
Life,

When your hands, feet, and tongue
Can perform in that rare unison
That comforts this longing earth
With the knowledge

Your soul,
Your soul has been groomed
In His city of love;

And when you can make others laugh
With jokes
That belittle no one
And your words always unite,

Hafiz
Does vote for you.

Hafiz will vote for you to be
The minister of every country in
This universe.

Hafiz does vote for you my dear.
I vote for you
To be
God.

From The Gift by Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky

A Good Week

There are small mysteries in this world, such as why no one seems capable of producing a generic band-aid that sticks to your skin for more than an hour.

Then there are larger mysteries, such as why right when you are feeling hopeless about the writing business, you win a contest, as I did this week. I won the Peter K. Hixson Memorial Award—$1800 of services from Writer’s Relief, a company that handles submissions for authors. They will submit excerpts of my novel to seventy-five magazines for me for free. That’s a rather fabulous number of magazines, and I am ever so slightly excited. (Check it out—my name appears on someone else’s website!)

The day before this happened, I said to God, “OK, I know I’m supposed to be trusting you, and I can see that when it comes to getting things done and to writing, I’m not. Nothing else is working, though, so I will.” I guess God enjoys a good spectacle now and then—parting the Red Sea, smiting folks, the Transfiguration, and winning writing contests.

I don’t think you need to be someone who talks to God for this kind of thing to happen to you.  Grace—“that blind benevolent side of even the fiercest world”—happens to everyone (“Grace Abounding,” William Stafford). Sometimes it comes when we are at our lowest and have done nothing to invite its presence except perhaps needing it.

But I think oftentimes, trust creates a crack in our doubt, our routine, our self-sufficiency—whatever it is that needs cracking—for grace to sneak in through. Sometimes trust might feel more like letting go or giving up, not resignation, but relaxing our death grip on having to do it ourselves or needing events to resolve in a certain way.

So keep the faith, whatever your faith happens to be, and may we all learn “that floating, that immensity waiting to receive whatever arrives with trust” (“Afterwards,” Stafford again).

Note: I will be at a writing workshop next week, and so the blog will be on vacation. Yes, I realize there is a certain irony in not writing because I’ll be writing.

Why Wait?

My life would be a lot easier if impatience were a virtue. Or if I could learn patience faster.

Recently, I’ve been telling myself to buckle down and do more of approximately everything. Myself and I have had this conversation often with no discernible results. So for Advent I decided to stop trying to figure things out and wait and listen instead. This may be what some people refer to as praying.

Our culture doesn’t particularly value waiting, and after two weeks of practicing it, I understand why. The first couple of days you can feel all la-dee-da and enlightened about it, but beginning day three it’s just not fun. The subtitle on the Advent reader they handed out at church says, “Waiting in joyful hope.” I’m not sure where the joyful hope people are, but I’m hanging out in the annoyed get-it-over-with-already camp.

Today I decided that two weeks is quite enough time for God/the universe/whatever to have straightened out my life and revealed at least the next few steps in a clear, concise road map. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, God/the universe/whatever doesn’t appear to be on my timeline, despite my having told her/him/it very sternly in the car on the way home that I’d had about enough of waiting.

But here’s the thing, the point of these four weeks is for people to make a straight path for God, not the other way around. We’re getting ready to celebrate a birth, and though I don’t have any kids, I’ve attended enough baby showers to know that requires a lot of preparation.

Once it happens, your life, as I understand it, does not get easier. Suddenly your time is no longer you own, and this tiny being has the power to disrupt your sleeping and eating and showering in ways previously unimagined. It also has the power to open up a richness and a depth of love that little else can provide.

So that’s what we’re preparing to celebrate, that opening of love in our lives. I suppose it might be worth waiting for.

Running the Universe

I have an atheist friend who always wants to know what I gave up for Lent. This combination of question and questioner is one of my favorite things in the world.

I don’t enjoy failure, so I don’t choose things like chocolate or sweets. Plus, I don’t really believe in the utility of suffering. Instead I give up an attitude or action.

This year I gave up being worthy, meaning earning God’s love. I think this could translate into non-religious language if you thought about earning being alive. No matter what you do, you can’t make yourself somehow good enough to have deserved coming into being; it’s all gift. I soon realized not being worthy also had to go because it gives me a reason to refuse that gift.

Letting go of worthiness is one step in my ongoing attempt to recognize that perhaps I am not running the universe. It’s risky, though, allowing God to try her hand at this particular task because clearly omniscient and omnipotent have nothing on me.

I confess I haven’t gotten very far. I like being in charge, and it’s easier to maintain the illusion of control if my actions are filling up some imaginary scales that will determine how nice God is to me.

My main practice has been remaining mindful of these few lines in St. Romuald’s Brief Rule for Camaldoli monks, “Remember above all that you are in the presence of God.” The rule goes on to suggest being, “…content with the grace of God,” which takes earning or controlling anything out of the equation. I sometimes translate the first line into, “Remember above all that you are in the presence of infinite love,” which helps me trust God a tiny bit more.

There are two more weeks of Lent, and my odds of achieving enlightenment by Easter are low. I’m not sure I’ve even given up enough control to fill a mustard seed. But occasionally I remember to stop and imagine myself surrounded by God’s presence, and in those moments, the world opens up and out and offers a sense of another way to be.

In case you’ve lost count, God, I think I’m at thirty-seven moments—approximately.