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Message from the Heart

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All day last Wednesday, I felt a tightness and an ache in my chest every time I inhaled. It took about eight hours of chest pains for me to text my doctor friend and ask her if needed to do something. Her answer was yes, which led to a few hours in the ER and a battery of tests. In the meantime, I typed and planned and did my thing with my MacBook:

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Then they gave me a prescription dose of Tylenol and diagnosed me with muscle pain and sent me home. 

All this brings me to Jesus Calling: Devotions for Every Day of the Year by Sarah Young. 

I have a hard time with prayer. And getting myself to church, to be honest. Last fall, I recently joined the choir at our new church in St. Louis in large part because I needed to sing and be part of the service to show up. Sometimes I still don’t show up. At the same time, I’m an emotional, spiritual person for whom there are moments when I feel God’s presence so closely that I tear up and I can’t explain why. I tend to believe that it’s grace, and not weakness, that moves me to tears at random moments of my life. We think by feeling, my favorite poem reads. 

With all my feelings, I have mixed feelings about the Catholic liturgy through which I worship every week. The repetition and the deep traditions are affirming, grounding, comforting… But they can have the effect of dulling the senses, for me. 

The unique quality of this devotional is that it mixes scripture with the firm, loving, generous voice of Jesus as author Sarah Young imagines Jesus would speak to us. This approach goes a long way to strengthen my prayer life, helping me to break through the silence that I sometimes feel on the opposite end of my petitions. 

It seems to be a universal experience that has something to do with free will: the reality that God — the least controlling, nagging teacher — chooses to speak to us through the quiet, persistent voice of our own conscience and inner moral compass. Right now my husband Padraic is reading Silence (recently turned into a movie), about how Spanish priests grappled with their perceived silence of God in an inhospitable, persecutory Japan. 

So the silence is universal, and perhaps, meaningful; but it’s also worthwhile, as Jesus Calling does for me, to imagine the voice on the other side. I especially connected to this reading from April 1st about “not making an idol of your to-do list.” This is something I consistently do, separating me in some, gradual, corrosive way, from the people I love and the God who loves me so much more than I can imagine: 

I am calling you to a life of constant communion with me. Basic training includes learning to live above your circumstances, even while interacting on that cluttered plane of life. You yearn for a simplified lifestyle, so that your communication with Me can be uninterrupted. But I challenge you to relinquish the fantasy of an uncluttered world. Accept each day just as it comes, and find Me in the midst of it all.

Talk with Me about every aspect of your day, including your feelings. Remember that your ultimate goal is not to control or fix everything around you; it is to keep communing with Me. A successful day is one in which you have stayed in touch with Me, even if many things remain undone at the end of the day. Do not let your to-do list (written or mental) become an idol directing your life. Instead, ask My Spirit to guide you moment by moment. He will keep you close to me.

— 1 Thessalonians 5:17; Proverbs 3:6

How do you break the silence?

Finding the Spirit This Christmas

matee, but who cares? Christmas Tree CC BY-NC-ND 2.0I haven’t exactly been a model of good cheer this holiday season. Christmas tree? Meh. I hung a wreath on the door, pieced together an advent wreath with a few candles, and called it a day. Fresh batches of Christmas cookies? More like pragmatic pots of potato soup. Christmas carols? Instead, my ears have been ringing with Cuban jazz and NPR. Last weekend, I saw a group of decked-out carolers cavorting through the streets of Chicago and felt myself marveling at their energy from a comfortable distance.

So I was grateful when at church last week the priest mentioned a different way to prepare for Christ’s coming: repentance, seeking forgiveness. It’s so easy to get caught up in traditions that might best be described as decorative, that punctuate the holiday season much like the garlands on a Christmas tree, but never quite penetrate its central meaning. In the midst of preparing our homes for Christmas, it’s a refreshing prospect to do the more sobering work of preparing our hearts for the Lord.

What does this mean exactly? When I take good, long, honest look at myself with Jesus’s coming in mind I feel like one of those handmade, cobbled looking ornaments, my faith clumsily pieced together, a shadow of the smoothly crafted, well-integrated Christian life that I aspire to. But perhaps this is what the priest’s suggested examining is meant to yield — a reminder of how much we need the God who is coming for us on Christmas day, a humbling awareness of our own mediocrity and our unceasing need for him.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the book Quiet, including the author’s reflections on evangelical Christianity, how the evangelical movement is a bastion for the extrovert ideal, rewarding and revering those who live their faith out loud. I happen to be both an introvert and one who quickly became disillusioned with the non-denominational, evangelical church partially on the grounds of its bias toward extroversion, but for a short while I found the evangelical community very alluring, I’m sure partially owing to the charisma, aka extroversion, of its leading members. One of the phrases I remember being tossed around was called “active dependence,” the notion that we are called to proactively cultivate our dependence on God, to live fully in the reality of our need for him. Perhaps the most authentic preparation we can make this advent is to deepen our dependent relationship to the Lord.

In the meantime, there’s soup. Along with prayer, a good bowl of soup goes a long way toward refreshing the soul, I think. The pot is a repository for disparate elements, slowly transforming them into something new and life-giving, not unlike a prayer. You might consider this potato soup a token of my resistance against all the pretty, powdered, finely shaped edibles of the Christmas season, an invitation to pare down what is tangible about Christmas and leave space for the invisible turnings of the heart. Here’s the recipe:

Potato Soup
Adapted from the Pioneer Woman

Ingredients 

6 slices bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
Medium onion, diced
3 whole carrots, diced
3 stalks celery, diced
6 small Russet potatoes, peeled and diced
8 cups chicken stock
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Paprika
Cumin
Red pepper flakes
Chili powder
Freshly grated cheddar cheese

Tools

2 Cutting boards
Chef’s knife
Potato peeler
Mixing bowls
Measuring cups
Measuring spoons
Frying pan
Plate
Paper towels
Wooden spoon
Whisk or fork
Immersion blender or blender

  • Chop the vegetables and the potatoes. Measure out the stock, milk, and heavy cream.
  • Cut the raw bacon into pieces using a separate cutting board and cook in a frying pan over medium heat until crisp.
  • Remove the bacon to a plate and pour out most of the grease.
  • Cook the onions, carrots, and celery in the same frying pan over medium-high heat.
  • After about 2 minutes, add the diced potatoes. Cook for about 5 minutes, adding the salt and dashes of paprika, cumin, red pepper flakes, and chili powder.
  • Add the chicken stock and bring the mixture to a boil. Cook for 10 minutes, or until the potatoes become tender.
  • Whisk the flour with the milk and add to the pot, cooking for another 5 minutes.
  • Using a blender or an immersion blender, process the soup until completely smooth.
  • Stir in the cream. Serve with cheddar cheese and bacon bits.
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