Would You?…Why?…For Whom?

“I want names,” he said.  I remember his words.  I remember his eyes, red and swollen.  I remember his face, creased with grief and pain, there on the nightly news.

His young wife had been struck with malignant melanoma while carrying their unborn daughter.  She was considered brain dead, but was kept on life support for three months in the hopes of the saving the baby.  The baby was born and lived for a few weeks, bringing joy in the place of sorrow.  But then the baby also died.

“They say God has a plan, that He can use our suffering for good.  That it can help others.  But I want a list of names.  I want details.  I want to know exactly what good will come from this…”

“I want names.“  Although it’s been many years, his words have come back to me recently.  It is easy, when in the throes of suffering, to question, to wonder just how such pain can come from a loving God.  Theology tells us that all things work for our good, but abstractions don’t comfort.  We know to trust, to hope, but how does one exercise this, practically, in the midst of darkness?

There is a game the kids play called, “Would you rather…?”  It is a conversation game, in which questions are posed: Would you rather be able to fly, or be able to change shape?  Would you rather be an elephant or a lion?  Would you rather have a pool full of chocolate pudding, or a pool full of skittles?

The questions suggested are silly and innocuous, but in my experience, they usually turn a bit darker (or maybe I know morbid kids).  Would you rather be buried alive, or burnt at the stake?  Would you rather go blind, or go deaf?  Would you rather be eaten by a lion, or by sharks?  But I have found that the real question is not “What you would suffer?” but “Why?” or, “For Whom?”

When my mother was first in the hospital in 2016, and I spent my days looking around for the adult in the room, for someone else to take over what I could not handle, it was my little orphan babies that gave me the strength.  Certainly the prayers of the six that I held, all baptized, before they went to heaven.  But it was the memory of little faces, little arms reaching up, little eyes questioning, seeking love, seeking to know they were not alone, not ultimately abandoned—these little ones carried me.  “Would you suffer this, for them?” a voice inside would ask.  “Yes!” was the only answer.

I had prayed to stay in China.  I had asked to give my life to rescue more little ones like these, to be love for the abandoned.  God said No.  But in the mystery of suffering, the economy of grace, He answered my prayer to help them in a different way.  To learn to intercede from afar.

More recently other suffering in the world, in the Church, has been splashed across headlines, across social media.  “Lord, something has to be done.  Help me be part of the solution.”

Would I suffer this (whatever I am going through)…to save a child from abuse?  Would I…to ease the trauma of someone who left the church because of unspeakable crimes by her clergy?  Would I…to stem the rising hate across the political spectrum?  Would I…to heal my friend from her disease, to save him from cancer, to stop the one about to commit suicide?

“The interesting thing about the Scriptures,” said the priest in a recent homily, “Is that they don’t speak of suffering as something that comes down.  They speak of it as something that is lifted UP, that is offered.”

The real offering of course, is Jesus on the Cross, Jesus lifted up for us.  But we with our little mustard seeds of love, can offer our little crosses in union with His.  And He can grow them, magnify them, until the smallest of seeds becomes the largest of shrubs, in which all the birds of the air come and find rest.

 

 

Mustard Seed

Image Credit:

Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing [CC BY-SA 3.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Be Found

“Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on the sabbath.
And a woman was there who for eighteen years
had been crippled by a spirit;
she was bent over, completely incapable of standing erect.
When Jesus saw her, he called to her and said,
“Woman, you are set free of your infirmity.”
He laid his hands on her,
and she at once stood up straight and glorified God.” (Luke 13:10-13)

Eighteen years. Whoa. Can you imagine her suffering? The demon had caused her such pain and grief that her whole body was crippled under the weight of it all. She couldn’t even stand up properly.

There is so much we can learn from this woman.

First of all, she was in the right place. She was in the synagogue, the Lord’s house. She was praying. The woman turned to God for healing. We don’t know her full story, but I would imagine it would’ve been tempting for her to have given up long ago. She could have become bitter and angry. She could’ve let what other people were saying about her and thinking of her eat away at her heart: she could’ve believed the lies that she was worthless, hopeless, not wanted, unwelcomed, inadequate. Yet she showed up in God’s presence. She put herself in a position to be found. She prayed. She let herself be vulnerable before the Lord, coming before Him as she was, brokenness and all.

She allowed Jesus to heal her. Do we allow Jesus to heal us?

Then, when Jesus cast the demon out of her, she immediately glorified God! She gave Him all the glory for His goodness and faithfulness. She was unafraid and unashamed to praise God for her healing, even though the synagogue leader and the crowd were furious with Jesus for healing her on the sabbath.

Jesus heals the woman with compassionate, tender care. He sees her. He knows her. He calls her “woman,” intimately acknowledging her dignity as God’s daughter when she probably didn’t feel very confident in her womanhood. He lays hands on her, an act not just of healing but a physical sign of His love. He knew that she needed to know she was deeply wanted, seen, and beautiful. He doesn’t define her by her suffering, but by who she is in Him.

God made us, body and soul. Sometimes when our souls are sick and hurting, our bodies can become physically ill, as with the crippled woman. While you may not have suffered from something for eighteen years, we all have things that cripple us. Maybe you’re going through a particularly difficult season of life right now that leaves you feeling like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. What is crippling you? Does a situation in your life right now seem hopeless? Has your heart been hurting for a long time, so long that it feels like the darkness won’t end? Whether it’s sin or a wound or both, bring that to Jesus today. Do not be afraid to step into His presence and reveal your whole heart to Him. He sees you. He knows you. Ask Him to heal you. He surely will, in His perfect timing and goodness. He so desires your healing. Sometimes we have to take the courageous step to lay it all bare before Him and let Him in. Put yourself in a position to be found. God is faithful.

The Cave

Jesus said to the crowds,
“When you see a cloud rising in the west
you say immediately that it is going to rain–and so it does;
and when you notice that the wind is blowing from the south
you say that it is going to be hot—and so it is.
You hypocrites!
You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky;
why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
—Luke 12:54–56

In the daily rush of work deadlines and subway delays, I often lose touch with an awareness of God’s presence. I’m so focused on my own plans and worries that I’m not really looking for Him. To use the analogy Jesus tells the crowds in today’s Gospel, if the “signs of the time” are being revealed through rising clouds and blowing winds, I’m not even looking up at the sky. I’ve closed myself off into a cave of my own complacency, safe from the winds but unable to hear the voice of God speaking to me through Creation. My desire for normalcy is greater than my desire for intimacy with God, and so I fall into a routine of keeping the status quo.

So how do I begin to take those first steps out of the cave and into the light? I think the most important step is to move beyond perfunctory prayer and to be truly honest and open with God. I know that I can fall into the habit of treating prayer as a chore to be completed rather than a conversation to engage in. As in any human relationship, if we come to each encounter with an agenda, then we aren’t able to fully see the other person and simply appreciate them for who they are. I’m trying to find more times in my week when I can simply be with God, without any agenda. My requests and petitions can come later; first I need to soak in His presence, and then everything else will flow from that.

And when we are attentive to the signs of God’s presence, we are called to point them out to others, to wake them up out of their own complacencies and reveal to them the beauty that surrounds us all and the greatness to which we are called.

Fire and division: Preparing for Advent

Dear fellow pilgrims,

Today, I feel like the readings today are so strong and self-explanatory they do not even need to be discussed. St. Paul is speaking such fire to the Ephesians in an amazing series of verses we should all memorize. (Check out my brother’s blog post about how a changing understanding of this verse was pivotal for his decision to become Catholic). And, Jesus is challenging our view of Him as the one who brings only comfort and joy and peace to our lives.

Across the two readings, here is what I see…

These readings leave no room for Christian mediocrity or laxity. St. Paul longs for the Ephesians to be filled with the “fullness of God” that “surpasses all knowledge.” Jesus longs for the world to be set on fire with His love, and already aches for it to be “already blazing.” Jesus goes on to say that He has come to incite division, which says to me that if your belief in Christ and discipleship with Him are not producing any friction or difficulties in your life, you’re not really living out His teachings. Jesus’ message does not fit into a neat and tidy box we can open and admire when it’s convenient and put away when it’s scary or inconvenient. Jesus anticipates His own death (the “baptism” He speaks of), which itself would testify to the boldness of His message and its implications.

I also see a theme of family being the place where either division or wholeness manifests.  The readings speak of families as the Church as well as domestic families and across generations. God “names” each one of these families, He knows in advance in what context we will encounter our faith in Him and also challenges to that faith.  Most often, it is the hardest to evangelize and talk about God with those closest to us… but we must do so to be authentic in our faith.

It is so difficult to speak with family about difficult issues of faith because of the fear of division, but without genuine sharing and knowledge of each other, how authentic can we claim these relationships to be? Of course there are complex family issues that take a long time to pray over and find the right time and way to communicate in the most effective way, but how often to we use that plan to shield our own sense of responsibility instead of propelling us to deeper prayer and discernment? How deep is our belief in Heaven as our one true home, heaven as the undivided Heart of God?

(Note: I also have to mention that I have seen many Christians abuse this verse, and other verses in the Bible that talk about how the world was against Jesus, to justify uncharitable ways of confronting people of their sin. As St. Paul says, we must first be “rooted and grounded in love,” but this does not mean being endlessly accepting. There is space here to jump off into a broader discussion and more research into a “right” way of having conflicts between Christians and between Christians and Non-Christians that I encourage us all to have in conversation with others in person!)

As we approach the beginning of Advent, I invite us all to examine how we long to keep our relationship with Jesus in a comfortable space where we are not challenged but always affirmed.

In what ways have the fires of love for Jesus in our hearts grown dim?

How have we compromised the authenticity of relationships with family members or close friends over not wanting to cause division, when we are really being called to witness to the truth of His love?

How can we anticipate celebrating a very warm and fuzzy holiday season with wide-eyed wonder, but also humble reverence and holy fear of why God came to us as a helpless infant?

I don’t have all the answers for you, but I can assure you that if you ask, God will guide your heart to special treasures of contemplation that He has in store for you this Advent.

Pax Christi,

-Alyssa

Kingdom at hand

In looking at Today’s Readings, I was struck by the universality of the Word. Simply put, the message of Jesus Christ is meant for every human being: The Kingdom of God is at hand!

But how much of our lives are spent waiting for the right conditions to live/move/have our being?

“Once I have…”
“When I’m finally able to…”
“If someone would only just…”
Some of those sentences hurt for me to type, because they ring so true. I feel like I’ve spent years deferring, blaming, excusing, or avoiding. I’ve yearned to burst forth like a bolt of lightning, chasing down my dreams, passions, and callings with holy excitement and energy, yet I often seem to find some little hindrance or struggle to which I give too much power and pump the brakes.

“But I’m so tired…”
“I’ve got these other responsibilities…”
“I wish I could afford to…”

To be fair, there are seasons of life where waiting is the calling. For example, my life as a husband and father to one toddler and potential Christmas/New Year’s newborn is not necessarily the time to travel the world and broaden my horizons. These days, it’s more like running in circles around our apartment hallways and babyproofing my horizons. But a life season of patience does not mean we are waiting, or that we are hamstrung, ineffectual.

Jesus told us, and continues to tell us, that the Kingdom of God is at hand! Right now! God is calling me, calling you, to greatness (in His eyes, not the world’s). All of the excuses and rationalizations I’ve listed above betray one big need in my life: my faith in God needs to grow!

Two variations of one of the most profound messages I heard during my time as a campus minister come to mind: 1) God does not call the equipped, he equips the called, and 2) God will always give you enough time, energy, and resources to pursue His calling for you. If it’s His calling in your life. He will make it work. We need not wait; we ought to act. If you truly believe that Jesus Christ brought about the Kingdom of God, brought Death to its knees, and brought everlasting redemption, WHY WOULDN’T YOU ACT?!

St. Paul tells us today that we have Jesus Christ has given everyone on earth both a Word and a Mission. We are to receive and preach “the inscrutable riches of Christ.”

The Kingdom of God is at hand.
Act like it. Then go tell everyone.

Saints I Don’t Like

One evening in August I heard a piercing scream from the living room.  I quickly ran to find my mother shrieking and pointing at a large black shadow that dove about the room at extreme velocity.  “There’s a bat in here!”

I found myself paralyzed with fear.  “God—you’ve got to help me!!!”

The bat continued to dive about.  Later, after I had recounted this story to a friend, she sent this video [language warning] of a family who attempted to get rid of a bat in their dining room.  In the video, the bat fluttered about creepily, but did not dive.  Our bat, in contrast, behaved like a kamikaze.  “That’s because it’s a young bat, not an old bat,” my mother explained.  “It is stupid and scared…”

It was not as scared as I was though.  When God did not answer my prayer, I brought in the big guns: “PADRE PIO YOU HAVE TO HELP ME!  You have to get rid of this for me.  I cannot kill it.  I cannot.  There has to be another way!”

The bat flew upstairs, and into the guest room, where I quickly slammed the door and continued to plead with Padre Pio.

Suddenly, I remembered that this was the one room in the house with a door to the outside.  It is one that is never used, but which opens out to a little porch.  I moved quickly over to the door and opened it, praying for the bat to fly out before others could fly in.  Meanwhile my mother, who had followed me upstairs, shut the door leaving me trapped with the bat.

I endured an eternity of terror—at least five minute’s worth—while the bat dove at my head, then back up and around the room, then at my head again.  I cringed in the corner until finally, it flew out into the night.

“Thank you Padre Pio!” I exclaimed, my relief mingled with surprise that in fact, he came through for me—again.

*            *            *

You would think, hearing this, that I must be a great fan of Padre Pio.  I am not.

Padre Pio has worked many miracles for me, but I can’t bring myself to like him. I’ve wanted to like him—felt that I ought to—but I cannot.   He seems too austere for my taste; too cranky; too intricately linked with suffering.

I know that had I met him in real life, I probably would have really liked him.  We might even have become great friends.  I know that someday, soon perhaps, we will in fact be great friends.  I know this because it’s happened to me before.

People who’ve seen me wearing my St. Thérèse necklace will doubtless be surprised to hear that I used to dislike her too.  The saint whom I now credit with my spirituality used to be one I avoided at all costs.

Lots of people love Thérèse.  Scores of friends have asked for and received roses from her on a regular basis.  I knew I ought to love her too, but when I first read her story, I wanted to punch her.  (True story). She seemed way too saccharine, too spoiled (first by her family, then by God), and it was impossible to take her protestations of littleness seriously.  Yet she claimed to be “little” and to be in need of Jesus’ carrying her to become a saint.  Please.

I’ve written elsewhere and at length about learning to receive God’s love and depend on God’s mercy, a lesson that I’ve come to appreciate precisely from St. Thérèse.

*            *            *

Last Friday, I was reading a reflection from St. Isaac Jogues.  I’ve never disliked Isaac—he was in fact rather useful in teaching fifth grade boys, who relished the graphic details of his torture and martyrdom.  But personally I found him a bit too gory.

“It is only my cowardice and bodily weakness which form powerful obstacles to the designs God has for me and for this country” he began, and I immediately wanted to roll my eyes.

This was the guy Erin wrote about last week—the guy who had his fingers chewed off, among other tortures—but who then WENT BACK VOLUNTARILY to minister to those same people.   That he should call himself a weak coward reeked of absurdity and untruth.

“But what if it’s true?” a voice spoke within me, seemingly out of nowhere.  “What if he really was that weak?  What if he really was a coward?”

As often happens when I hear this Voice, I was deeply challenged and more than a little afraid.  What if…?

It is much safer, I realized, to believe that saints are super-human, to believe that they are made of different material than I.

But what if they’re not?

What if they are in fact, made of the same stuff I am?  The same weakness.  The same fears.  The same sluggishness of heart.

But what if the mustard seed is allowed to grow, the leaven received in order to transform?  What if God’s life really does have the power to change us?  To make us into more than we might dream?

When I was a child, I loved the butterfly.  I marveled that something as ugly and crawling as the caterpillar could become something so beautiful and free.

If the caterpillar were a thinking creature, would it know what lay in store?  Would it hear whispers from the butterflies of what they used to be, of their former lowliness, and doubt?  Could it even imagine, a creature of earth with so many legs that moved so slowly, could it even imagine what it would feel like to fly?  When it was finally ensconced in its cocoon, did it feel as though it were buried, trapped, that things were finally over?

I don’t know if a caterpillar can imagine flying.  But it will be transformed into something that can.

Of course, in humans this transformation is not inevitable, nor can it be achieved by effort alone.  It requires cooperation with grace.  We must allow God to plant and cultivate the mustard seed.  We must allow Him to incorporate the leaven into our very being.

But what then, if His words are true?

Jesus’s first miracle was the transformation of water into wine; His last was the transformation of wine into His blood.  But His most remarkable is the transformation of us into Himself.

Lord I believe; help my unbelief.


Quotes:

St. Isaac Jogues, just before he died:

“I do not fear death or torture. I do not know why you would kill me. I come here to confirm the peace and show you the way to heaven.”

C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:

“Christ says ‘Give Me all.  I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work.  I want You… Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit.  I will give you a new self instead.  In fact, I will give you Myself; my own will shall become yours’…  The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for.  Nothing less.  He meant what He said.”

St. John Paul II:

“We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son.”

**Disclaimer:  Alert readers will notice that I’ve actually posted about next week’s Gospel, not the one for today!  A big mea culpa–I didn’t realize my mistake until too late!

 

Butterfly

Image from Wikimedia Commons

© <a href=”https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Ram-Man”>Derek Ramsey</a> / <a href=”https://derekramsey.com”>derekramsey.com</a&gt; / Used with permission

 

 

Deemed Worthy

“But God, who is rich in mercy,
because of the great love he had for us,
even when we were dead in our transgressions,
brought us to life with Christ (by grace you have been saved),
raised us up with him,
and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus,
that in the ages to come
he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace
in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:4-7)

How unworthy we are to receive this gift, the gift of God’s mercy. God chooses us anyway, and He never stops choosing us. In the midst of our sin, He is already working to bring us back to life with Christ.

I’ve often thought, “Why does God love us so much? Why does He do things that are seemingly irrational in human terms?” We run far, far away—He chases us down and relentlessly pursues us, leaving the 99. We hide in our shame and sin—He comes to rescue us and is the Light that shatters all darkness. God sent His only Son to die for us in the most brutal and physically, emotionally, and spiritually horrifying way. He didn’t have to. He could’ve left us alone in the misery of our sin, saying, “Well, I gave you a chance…” But no. He is always after our hearts, no matter how far we try to shove Him away and no matter how steeped in sin we become. There is no extent to which He won’t go to rescue you.

Why does God forgive us over and over again? Why does He forgive so easily? Well, we can look to today’s Psalm for a simple yet profound answer: “The Lord made us, we belong to Him.” We are God’s beloved sons and daughters. Of course He wouldn’t want to lose us. Of course He would chase after us and do everything He could to give us His grace, hoping that we will ask for mercy and accept His love.

We are unworthy, yet He deems us worthy.

When I was 16, I got into a pretty scary car accident. I was driving down a street in my neighborhood a few blocks from my house, and someone pulled out from a stop sign and hit me. Thankfully, the other driver and I were not seriously hurt. When I called my parents to tell them what had happened, they came running down the street to find me and hugged me tightly. Even though the accident was not my fault, I was afraid they would be upset with me for what happened. Instead, the first words out of their mouths were, “Are you okay?” They spoke with the utmost love and concern. They didn’t care about the car, they just wanted to make sure I was alive and safe.

Brothers and sisters, this is God’s question to us when we fall into sin: “Are you okay? Is My son okay? Is My daughter okay?” How blessed we are that our God is slow to anger and quick to love and forgive. When we ask for His mercy, He is so eager to give it to us. He wants us to be okay.

God doesn’t want to lose us. He doesn’t want His family to stray away and suffer the consequences of sin. Let Him pursue after your heart. Run to Him in the Sacrament of Confession. Don’t delay. Allow Him to give you the immeasurable riches of His grace. We are created for greatness: what steps do you need to take to live that more fully?

“We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.” (St. John Paul II, whose feast is today!)