Monday, March 26, 2012

Confessing Who I Really Am

My palms were already sweaty.  I had only been in line for 10 minutes.  All day I had agonized about this moment.  I prayed, searched, reflected and managed to make a meager list.  Surely, I had more sins than these.  What was I leaving out?  The line moved forward.  It is hard to look at the people leaving confession.  Why were they crying?  What was going on in that room?  My mouth was starting to get dry. 

Of all the things I love about the Catholic faith, confession is not one of them.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  Theologically, the sacrament is beautiful.  It is amazing.  And I am fully aware that it is commanded of us by our Lord.  However, it is not easy.  It is somewhat messy. And it turns me into a nervous wreck.  In fact, I feared it so much that I stayed away from the sacrament for a number of years.  So, I know how un-confessed sin can eat away at one’s soul.  The brick walls I built between me and the Lord were thick and cold.  But all it took was one confession, and the bricks started to crumble.  I remember that feeling of freedom as the mercy and love of the Lord washed over me in that confessional.

So, why does getting in this line still create such waves of anxiety?  Why does the idea of saying my sins out loud to a priest send me straight for the Xanax?  I know the consequences of staying out of the line.  And I know the wonderful benefits of staying in the line.  But it doesn’t seem to help me choose the line. 

I could blame it on past experience.  I could blame it on the ministers that were happy to see me leave their church all those years ago.  Maybe that is why I don’t want to trust the Priest with who I really am.  But, I feel like I am past that.  I confronted those demons years ago.  I took those burdensome rocks out of my back pack and I have moved on.  I made peace with the fact that if they didn’t do what they did, I wouldn’t have found the Catholic faith.  My past seems to be my excuse rather than the true issue.  Besides, I now work in the Church.  I work alongside the priests, deacons and other ministry staff and I am perfectly comfortable in their presence.

The line inches forward again and I am now just three people away from the door. I look at my list.  It seems silly and laughable.  I don’t know why I am even here.  I am not good at this.  A child could come up with a better list.  I would like to get out of line and get some water, but there are at least 50 people behind me.  I know I wouldn’t get back in line.  

I didn’t grow up in the Catholic faith.  Maybe that is why this is so difficult for me.  I never had to do this in the Baptist church.  In fact, because we believed that your sins were forgiven when you invited Jesus to live in your heart, sin was never really talked about or focused on.  We never examined our lives for sin but rather tried to live the life of a good Christian.  We focused on making the right choices for that morally upstanding, charitable life and we did not focus on the mistakes we made.  Searching for sin in my soul is a foreign concept.  Even after 14 years of being a confirmed Catholic, I am still epically bad at it.  Why can’t I figure this out?

There is now only one person in front of me.  I feel my heart beating faster.  The adrenaline is reaching atomic levels.  Why do I get so worked up?  Why do I let the anxiety capture me is such a way?  What do I fear?

As I stand here thinking about the reason for the fear, an image of a mirror enters my mind.  Yep, that is what I fear.  I fear that mirror.  I don’t want to see who I really am.  I don’t want to see my soul the way Christ sees it.  In this world, I can hide my sins pretty well.  I can be the person others admire and look up to.  I can act the part eloquently.  But the picture I paint of who I am is not reflected in the mirror.  In order to examine my conscience, I have to take a long look at myself in that mirror. 

I am such a fallen human.  I would make the same choice as Eve.  I would throw the first stone at the adulterous woman.  I would be in the crowd calling for Jesus’ crucifixion.  Why do I know this?  Because I possess the same sin as this crowd- pride.  I don’t want to look in that mirror because of pride.  I am too proud to admit what I have done because it reflects who I really am.  Pride is the root of this anxiety.  Pride keeps me from the confessional.

It’s my turn.  I walk into the dimly lit room like a bull in a china shop.  I almost knock over the plant as I trip and pretty much fall into the chair across from the Priest.  He smiles.  He knows I get myself undone over this experience.  It is a little humorous that a confident woman who enjoys speaking to large groups of teens and adults about the love of Christ can get so undone in this small room with and audience of one. I smile back as we both find humor in the irony.  He knows me well, and the shared smile sets me at ease.
Recently, in prayer experience, I had a vision of myself wearing a black, ugly coat.  I looked horrid. The coat was heavy with dirt, ragged and torn.  I really hated the coat and I wanted to take it off.  I tried and I couldn’t figure it out.  I quickly gave up.  I looked up, and I saw Jesus in all of his splendor walking towards me.  He was radiant and beautiful.  As he got closer, I realized I was still wearing the coat.  I tried again to get it off.  I couldn’t do it.  I started to panic as Jesus approached me.  I wanted to hide, but there was nowhere to go.  Jesus was now standing in front of me.  He lifted me chin so that he could look in my eyes.  I was pulling at the coat, trying to get it off.  I apologized that he had to seem me this way.  I told him I couldn’t get it off and that I was sorry I had let my coat get so horrible.  He smiled and to my amazement, he took the coat off of me.  He threw it on the ground.  Then, he took off his white, spotless coat and put it over my shoulders.  I told him that I couldn’t accept it because I was going to get it dirty.  It was much too nice for me to wear.  He looked in my eyes and said, “If you get it dirty, just come back to me, and I’ll make it clean again.  I love you very much and I want you to look your best when I finally present you to my father.”

As I tell Father all about my pride once again, I can feel the coat coming off.  I can see the sins being washed away.  The coat is becoming beautiful as the day Jesus gave it to me.  Jesus puts it back over my shoulders and Father sends me on my way with a clean coat- a clean soul.  All the anxiety is worth this experience.  It is incredibly awesome to show Jesus who I really am and to hear him say, “It’s alright.  I love you anyway.  Keep trying.  I am making you a beautiful gift for my Father.”  Yep, that is much better than Xanax.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Great Coffee Fast

“Really, Lord?  Don’t you think the children would be safer if I could have coffee?”

This conversation begins each morning around 9am, the time the last little darling arrives at my home for child care.  By this time in the morning, I’ve usually changed eleventy million dirty diapers, read Dinosaur Roar at least 400 times and built, rebuilt and rebuilt the Island of Sodor because it’s just never quite right according to the 5-year-old train engineer.  Yep, by this point in the morning, my get up and go has gotten up and went far, far away to a distant land flowing with coffee and chocolate, and where dinosaurs and trains never existed.  By this time in the morning, my craving for coffee is profound.

For Christmas, my parents got us one of those new fancy coffee machines- the Keurig.  It makes GREAT coffee at the touch of a button.  It’s like magic.  You turn it on, put your k-cup in, put your mug underneath and press the button.  Then the most wonderful aroma fills the room as the hot, steamy, caffeinated liquid fills my cup of joy all the way to the brim.  I LOVE it.  I even find it a little sexy. 

And now we come to my Lenten fast.  Except for the year I gave up facebook for Lent, I usually give up three things: coffee, chocolate and alcohol.  I give up not one, but three things because I am an over achiever.  I have an A-type personality and my perfectionism is border line obsessive-compulsive.  Besides, I am an adult and an adult should be able to give up silly things like chocolate and wine.  Well, each year when I gave up these three things, I failed in an epic manner.  By the end of the first week, you could find me in the fetal position on the bathroom floor surrounded by candy wrappers or desperately hiding in the laundry room at 7 in the morning with my elicit cup of joy, I mean coffee.  “Maybe if my husband doesn’t catch me,” I rationalize, “then I haven’t really failed.”  Ha!  And it’s no wonder I fail, because let’s face it- this sleep deprived mama and wife with two jobs is attempting to give up three of the four major food groups. 

So, this year, I decided not to set myself up for failure.  This year, I decided to seek God’s will for my Lenten fast.  Surely, he would have a better idea than me.  I mean, he is God of the universe, omnipotent and all that fun stuff.  Anyhow, I made this decision while sitting at the kitchen table, and as soon as the thought entered my head to let God tell me what to give up, my eyes fell on the Keurig.  It was as if a ray of sunshine fell on it, giving the heavenly machine a divine glow while angels sang their hallelujah chorus marking the significant moment with awe and wonder.  My heart sank.  “Really?  Really, God?  Are you sure?  Because, I thought that when I prayed to figure out what your will was, I thought for sure you understood I was ABANDONING my ideas, I mean, my will, and therefore I could have coffee, chocolate and alcohol during this Lenten season!  I thought that was the plan!”  And then I heard the voice in my heart say, “but I am only asking for one- not all three.  Let’s focus on just one sacrifice.”

I felt like such a child.  In the back of my head, I thought that maybe God would give me a grown up task.  I read all these Lenten articles about what adults should do for lent in order to grow closer to God.  My ideas of giving up something like chocolate seemed childish.  And yet, I fail at it- EVERY YEAR!  So, here God was bringing me back to square one.  Here is he was showing me exactly what was best for me- 40 days with no coffee.  I wonder if he is absolutely sure that is what’s best for everyone around me. 

It’s been 17 days since I’ve had coffee.  Now, I take that back.  I did have coffee at a friend’s house last Saturday night, but my friend’s Dad, who happens to be a famous Catholic theologian, explained to me that since it was after sun down on Saturday, we weren’t technically in Lent and that I could have coffee.  Since he’s a famous Catholic theologian and I was at his house, I decided to go with it.  Anyhow, it’s been 17 mornings since I’ve had coffee.  And for someone who’s often up late working and then up early with kids, this is a true test of my will power and endurance.  Exhaustion has a whole new meaning.  In these 17 days, I’ve learned about myself and the benefits of fasting. 

The first lesson I’ve learned about is desire.  When we fast in this nature, we physically withhold something our bodies need and that creates a physical desire.  That physical desire mirrors the spiritual desire our souls have for God.  In this secular world, we can easily choose to ignore those spiritual longings- but physical longings are harder to ignore and they can remind us of how much our souls long for God.  My experience with this physical longing was most clearly played out on Ash Wednesday.  Not only did I give up coffee cold turkey, but the only thing I had to eat all day was bread.  I was determined not to eat a real meal until after I received Jesus in the Eucharist.  By the time 7:00 pm rolled around, I had a headache the size of Texas and I was beyond hunger.  When the Priest held up the host for consecration, my mouth was watering.  That was when I realized that this is what my soul experiences at every Mass.  My physical hunger was but a shadow of my spiritual hunger.  When I received Jesus in this physical state, it felt as if every cell in my body was nourished.  God used my body to show me what my soul experiences when I receive Jesus in the Eucharist.  Now, that was awesome.

The second lesson is all about waiting.  When we fast during Lent, we are waiting for the day when we can end the fast.  That is right, I have about 30 more days until I can fire up the Keurig!  Now, I realize that I could fire it up on Sundays, but remember, I’m an over achiever.  Combine that with the perfectionism and catholic guilt, and you have woman who cannot touch the Keurig until Easter morning.  So, I’m learning about waiting.  And I don’t know about you, but I HATE waiting.  I don’t like waiting in lines, sitting in traffic or even being on hold on the telephone.  When I’m waiting, I am thinking about all the other things I could be doing with my time and it drives me bananas. But when we are waiting, we are forced to be still and it’s in those still moments that God can seek us out.  In my professional life, I am in a place that requires me to wait.  I am not sure where I am supposed to go next but there is nothing I can do but wait it out.  I have been frustrated by this IMMENCELY.  I want to know what the future holds, but I can’t.  I must wait.  This fast has taught me that in order to get through the waiting, I must be still and listen for God.  I must seek Him instead of formulating all the possible scenarios of my professional future.  I must anticipate God’s presence in my life as much as I anticipate that steamy cup of caffeinated perfection on Easter morning.

Finally, this particular Lenten fast has taught me that it is important to take one thing at a time.  Instead of tackling the Lenten fast with multiple sacrifices that lead to fasting failure, God wants me to pick one thing and be successful.  This is enlightening because I am the queen of multitasking.  Now, don’t get me wrong, multitasking is essential to motherhood.  If I didn’t have this gift, my children would be running around with dirty underwear and only one good meal in their tummies.  But there are some things in life that deserve our full, undivided attention.  This year, my attention has been divided.  I have had a lot of irons in the fire.  I am realizing that some of these irons need more of my attention and the only way to make that happen is to take some of the irons out of the fire.  I can’t do it all.  I can’t work 12-15 hours a day and still be the mother and wife this family needs.  There doesn’t seem to be enough of me to stretch between the two jobs I love.  At this moment, I know I am right where God wants me.  However, I think He is preparing me for some tough choices in the future.  I must admit that giving my full and undivided attention to giving up coffee has felt a little good.  It is nice to only have one sacrifice to juggle instead of three.

So, what is the best way to go about fasting?  One day at a time.  Every morning I look at the Keurig and let the devil on my shoulder tell me how stupid this fast is.  I let him call me childish.  I let him try to convince me that giving up coffee is more trouble than it’s worth.  But my heart knows it is worth the trouble.  Although I thought I needed a 12 step program in the first week, I have been able to stick to it.  And after just 17 days, I have gained more understanding about fasting and myself than I ever thought I would.  The coffee will return at Easter.  On that day I will raise my beautiful cup of caffeinated perfection in celebration to the God who gave up more than coffee for me.  Maybe as this fast continues to progress, I can gain a little more understanding of that love- a love that drove the God of the universe to die a terrible death to gain the soul of this sinner.