Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Handmaid of the Lord

I am trying to gain understanding of Mother Mary as Catholics see her role now. The pure young woman whom the Angel Gabriel visited and said, "Full of Grace! The Lord is with you," is known to all Christians. The young woman betrothed to a good man, bearing her child in a stable as portrayed in Nativity Story, I love. But I do not understand Mary's role now. Just as I struggle when I read the Book of Revelations, so I falter while reading accounts of Marian Prophesies.

I was confessing this to my friend Dana this past week, and she said that when she thinks of Mary she thinks of the woman who said, "Yes." This is what the Liturgy of the Catholic Church so often brings to mind, she pointed out. Mary said yes, when, as my friend pointed out, she was probably terrified, but she chose faith and trust in God in spite of any fear or personal reservations.

My good friend then added that when she reflects upon Mary saying Yes, it helps her to be a better Christian. Her inclination, she confided, is almost always to say No. She wants to say No. But then she recalls Mary, and it changes to alright...yes!

That I could grasp. For how many in the Bible questioned God and tried to deny His Will was possible? How often do I myself question God, squirming in my fear and uncertainty and self-preservation? And how many times have I said no or maybe....but what's in it for me? This is what society is trying to tell us all now in various "self-help" articles: the better way is to learn to say No! and to grab as much "Me time" as you can. This is a false road, but how tempting it is!

Let me explain a mistake I made recently, a time when I did not just say yes. A friend asked me to volunteer with her at our children's school. I was to write the newsletter for the parent volunteer organization. She was excited when she called me and told me that she thought I would be great for the job, that the principal agreed with her. But almost as soon as I heard the suggestion, I began to reflect on me. What would this opportunity bring me? How would it help me achieve my writing goals? How many new readers might I pick up from such an endeavor? In short, I was concerned only with myself - not the needs of the school, not helping to make my friend's load lighter. Selfishness reigned.

Eventually I did say a yes, but. I angled for a spot where I could write a short piece in every newsletter to highlight my writing or at least link to my blog. She was confused, but she agreed.

That next week, after things began to move more quickly than expected, my friend wrote me an email requesting my help. I told myself I would get back to it later after I had more time to consider the responsibility. I also did not recognize that she wanted my help right then. She left me a phone message, too, and again I told myself I would get back to her. But that whole weekend I did nothing.

My friend had to move forward on the project without me. She wrote me another email which I did not see until too late. In it she expressed her disappointment that I was not there when she needed me to be. She was right to admonish me. I did not just say Yes! and respond to a request. I hedged; I was selfish.

I tried to repair my damage later. I apologized profusely in emails and left a phone message. That is how it goes when you obey an inclination to say no to the opportunity to do good for others. I let my friend down. I broke trust, and our friendship is still not what it was. It is all my fault. The opportunity to strengthen our friendship has passed.

What is so terribly ironic about it is this: when my husband needed her to take our youngest children while I was in the hospital after our car wreck, she said Yes. She came quickly. She comforted our kids, distracted them and fed them. What a blessing from God that was! Through her.

So when Dana told me that she thinks of Mary as the pure woman who said yes to God, I thought almost immediately of how I said uh, maybe to my friend and then said no through my subsequent actions. I lacked faith; selfishness never leaves room for it.

In light of my sin, then, I understand more fully how amazing it was that Mother Mary said yes to such an extraordinary and strange plan. I need her to pray for me. She knows how to say yes. God needed a humble girl to say yes to his plan. He needs us to do the same.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

You Bring it With You

Recently I read the book Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. It was certainly an unconventional Christian tale, but I enjoyed it. The opening chapter is called Beginnings: God on a dirt road walking toward me. In it he discusses an encounter with God one Christmas Eve and how the experience moved him past the thin concept of the "slot-machine God" into real and uncomfortable territory. He also describes the journey toward God as a slow one - God's just a speck in the distance, eventually a discernible figure; finally one gets close enough to see His face.

I found the book in a Lutheran Church's library, the same library where I had picked up a couple of great anthologies by Christian writers. I read it over several mornings while waiting to drop my little girl off at preschool. As soon as I read the subtitle of that first chapter, I had an image of myself from childhood running toward God on that dirt road, stumbling, tripping, sweating, eating dirt, picking up myself to run again. God knows I'm coming; I am so eager, and yet sometimes it feels like I go nowhere or I wake up after an uneasy doze and head in the wrong direction.

Yesterday I told my friend that I feel like I am building cubicles in my mind: here go the Catholic ideas; here the Protestant ones; and here the ones from my first spiritual mentor - my dad. It's a little uncomfortable, but all of them make up my unique spiritual territory.

As a child I was taught to seek God in what many would call "home church" but what my dad called "family convocation". We read the Bible together and discussed it and prayed together. I was baptized in the creek down the lane from our home by Dad. As a very young child, I knew I loved Jesus mightily, and I made up songs about Him as I skipped around the yard. When my family read together, I felt like He was right there in the room with us, a very real and warm presence.

We moved to Idaho when I was a teenager. All my dad's brothers are Protestant preachers. Dad headed adult Bible study at my Grandpa's church, and my Uncle Kip preached most Sundays. Most of my conversations about God still happened, as they always had - nearly every day, with my Dad, but I was grateful for the insight of so many others.

Then at 20 years of age, I fell in love with a newly baptized and confirmed Catholic man. I couldn't believe it when I found out he was Catholic. I had never really been Protestant; more than anything I was running on that dirt road toward God as Dan Hylton's daughter. But I had all the vague but virulent prejudices toward Catholics that most Protestants have.

Then I went to Mass with Matthew, my Catholic man, and I was astounded. Every Mass they repeated Christ's words from the Last Supper. I had never seen communion offered in such an authentic and holy way. In the Creed I heard and recited ideas from scripture and prophesy. The Our Father was prayed by the whole parish as they locked hands, and then a "Peace be with you," was said to all one's neighbors. I thought it beautiful.

But I held on to my Protestant pride for a good ten years before becoming confirmed last year, and I don't think it has left me completely yet. I am not a cradle Catholic. I am not a charismatic Protestant. I am some kind of hybrid spiritual creature.

When it seemed as if I was too much at war with myself, fractious cubicle dwellers taking up arms, I went to speak with a retired priest who sometimes says Mass at our parish. I sat down with him before the Palm Sunday liturgy and told him all about being baptized in a creek and our Bible-centered family convocations, about my Protestant family, about my mistakes in taking the Eucharist, about my ambiguous feelings toward confession and so on. He listened intently. Then he told me that he found it fascinating. He was almost envious of the diversity, because he was a cradle Catholic. He pointed out the advantages of the strong Biblical foundation that my dad had given his children, and that through every aspect of my faith formation, God was there.

"God was working through your Dad, through your Protestant family...and now through the Catholic Church. You bring it all with you...and He's not done. It's not like He has dropped you off at the grocery store and is saying, 'Okay, you're on your own!' Then He's off to pick up some new person. No, He's still working on you. There's more to come."

I found that comforting, so very, very comforting. And my joy, my confident stride, on that road toward God was restored.

But now I'm struggling with old doubts, old arguments between various ideas I've accumulated from different sources. I'm getting hung up on rules, wondering if I've skipped essential steps, asking if I have to pray a certain way instead of talking to God in sound bites every little bit throughout my day as I think of people and struggles, needs and hopes.

I need to get back to my Bible. I should remember the wise words Father Bill spoke to me on Palm Sunday, words I was still so grateful for when I ran to hug him the next week to wish him a Happy Easter. I want to live by the passage my dad so often quoted to his children to explain what God wants from all of us, the passage where God told Abraham to walk upright before Him and be sincere.

We are individuals. We walk or run toward God from different places on that dirt road, and He is undoubtedly walking toward us, reaching out through our neighbors, and illuminating guideposts along the way. We have to believe that we'll get there, be sincere in our efforts, no matter how many times we trip over stones and fall on our face along the way. We trust we will someday see His face distinctly and cry, "Abba, Father!"