The Land of Not Yet

One day when my friend Heidi’s son Nicholas was just two years old, he was playing in the next room with his baby sister. Suddenly little Theresa started to cry. Their grandfather called out to Nicholas, “Nicholas, are you hurting your sister?”

An honest little voice piped back, “Not yet…!”

Even at two, Nicholas understood that there was a measure of inevitability in the words “not yet.”

And yet so often as adults, when God seems to say, “not yet,” we translate that as “no” and throw toddler-like tantrums of despair. We take for granted the inevitability of bad things, but waver when it comes to good things. As the pandemic of fear spreads across the country and doomsday predictions increase, we are invited to remember the inevitability of God’s goodness, the fulfillment of all His promises.

In today’s First Reading, Abram is shown the Promised Land, but is invited to take up residence in a land of Not Yet.

He is told that he will be the father of many nations (this is repeated, multiple times), but at the moment he is the father of none, not even of one son. In fact, he will have to wait twenty-six years for Isaac! He is shown a land that will be the permanent possession of his descendants, but it is the land of Canaan. He is told that an everlasting blessing will come through him, but his life in the subsequent chapters of Genesis doesn’t show, externally, a lot of blessing. This blessing will come after hundreds of years, in Jesus.

The New Testament speaks of Abraham as “our father in faith.” Faith, Hebrews 11:1 tells us, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the substance of things unseen.”

Abraham is our father in faith because he moves through a land of promises; he lives with trust in the One who makes, and keeps, His Promises.

Abraham does not do this perfectly. In fact, after some years, he seems to doubt God’s timing, when the promised son has not materialized. He tries to speed up the promise by conceiving a child, not with his wife, but with her servant Hagar.

But even so God renews His covenant with Abraham, renews His promise for a son. Isaac is the son born of Sarah, although both she and Abraham are advanced in years.

And then God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

We cannot imagine what was going on in the heart of Abraham at that moment. What kind of a father would comply with such a command? Only one who knew the heart of his Father. He knew that God was good, that He would in some way bring good from whatever might look like disaster.

God blessed Abraham’s trust in His heart. He revealed for all time that it was not in fact His desire that we sacrifice the blood of other humans to show our love for Him. Indeed, in Jesus He would sacrifice His own blood to show His love for us.

Hebrews 11 continues:

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, without knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the promised land as a stranger in a foreign country. He lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Hebrews 11: 8-10)

Abraham lives in the Promised Land before it is realized externally. He is able to do this because he lives in the heart of God, lives in trust of the Promise.

This living in the land of promise, the land of Not Yet, will continue for the descendants of Abraham for centuries. Much of the Old Testament involves the seeking of this land, fighting for it, claiming it, only to be exiled from it, to return, only to be exiled again, to return, only to be living under foreign occupation.

When Jesus comes, the people are living in the Promised Land, but they are under enemy occupation. They expect the Messiah to free them.

Instead He shows them that He is the Promised Land. We know Jesus is the only Son, we know He is the descendant through which everlasting blessing will come. Do we also realize that He is the Promised Land?

This promised land is more than a real estate acquisition. It, He, is the place of providence and protection, the place for God’s family to live together in love.

Memory Matters

In the 1980’s Barbara Mandrell released a hit song: “I was country, when country wasn’t cool.” She sang about how her early life featured all the elements of a country music song—including the tough times, long before the music went mainstream and elements of her lifestyle made their way into popular culture.

In the early days of the pandemic, I’ve had a similar rueful sense of déjà vu. When in 2016 family illness came, first for my mother and then my father, my life played out like a personal pilot of the pandemic. One day everything was normal; the next, reality as I knew it was unraveled. In a short span of time I found myself unemployed, isolated eighty miles from my friends and colleagues, without income or financial security. Both parents went to the ICU. My mother, after months in the hospital followed by rehab, would finally return home; my father would not.

I heard in my head all the voices playing out in the media today, from to denial to despair to determination. “This can’t be happening!” “This isn’t real!” “Maybe I will wake up to find it is only a bad dream!” “Any moment now things will be back to normal…” “I’ve got to find a way to get out of this.”

In an effort to find God in the darkness, I would turn on Christian radio on my drive to and from the hospital. Lines from a Danny Gokey song said it best:

Shattered, like you’ve never been before.
The life you’ve known, in a million pieces on the floor…

It was surprising how quickly life as I knew it went from present to past; how quickly the house of cards in which I was living collapsed. “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”

But Danny Gokey’s song continues:

Let every moment, and every scar,
Be a picture that reminds you Who has carried you thus far.
For Love sees farther, than you ever could
At this moment heaven’s working everything for your good.

What saved me was memory.

Remembering the good that God had done at other times in my life. How from dismay and disasters He had raised new and greater things. This was not just my personal experience, but the theme of all of salvation history: human plans and projects brought to nothing; God rescuing, restoring, resurrecting.

In today’s First Reading, God laments the “stiff-necked” people who have turned from the One who brought them out of Egypt, worshipping instead an idol made of melted-down gold. They can’t see Him in the present because they can’t remember Him in the past.

Throughout history we have seen a God who was with His people, even when they chose not to see or to seek Him. We see God from dust making man; from the ashes of sin making Him new, again and again.

In the life of the Church we see this too; God using both saints and sinners to effect a plan that neither had the capacity to imagine. God bringing good from evil, bringing good to even greater good. So many of the saints suffered not only dark nights but periods of abject failure, when it seemed that all was lost, that their work and plans had borne no fruit. But God was growing something greater. We see God’s protection, not from all evil, but in spite of all evil. The fact that the Church has survived two millennia of sinners, is a testimony to the protection and providence of God.

The more we recognize God’s presence in our past, the more we find His peace in the present.

Remembering with gratitude past gifts and graces makes present peace possible. As I recall the goodness of God in the past, I am better able to trust Him with the future.

Patron for the Pandemic

About six years ago I was sitting on the beach with my friend Monica when I had a startling idea. “Why is there no 24-hour adoration chapel in Manhattan?” Surely a city which hosts eight million people on any given day could, should, muster enough adorers for an adoration chapel! And sitting there with my hair full of salt water and sand in my toes, I began to make plans to make that happen.

By coincidence other young adults had the same idea, and I joined their efforts and we began to plan. I worked feverishly to research options and funding ideas and to extend inquiries to various churches. As my ideas took form I grew more and more excited. This was really going to happen! Until one day I noticed that something felt off.

I felt energized, but not completely at peace. Little things that shouldn’t have bothered me instead brought out the worst in me—I found myself easily angered, impatient, driven. I felt passionate but at the same time unsettled.

“Did God give you this task, or did you give it to yourself?” my spiritual director asked.

I was stunned. What kind of a question was that? Surely, God would want me to build an adoration chapel! How could such a thing NOT be God-willed?

As I was mulling over this odd question, a friend (in whom I had not confided this story) let me know she had a word for me from God. It was from the 2nd Book of Samuel, which begins with God asking David (through Nathan): “Would you build Me a house to dwell in?” and continues ultimately with rather “The Lord will make you a house…”

Ouch.

This divine smack-down put an end to my planning, but was just the beginning of a new spirituality. I am still learning what it all means—to receive, to let God do all the heavy lifting, to let Him lead and instruct and ultimately be God.

To effect these plans, God sent me Saint Joseph, whose feast we celebrate today.

Of course, it is Joseph who would literally help complete the promise actually written in Scripture about the house of David. It is he who legally gave to Jesus his title as Son of David, fulfilling for all time the prophecies of a royal dynasty that would last forever.

Saint Joseph knew about planning. And he learned about letting go of his plans, for God’s sake.

He was not given a superhero cape. Rather, he was given, repeatedly, situations that were beyond his power to control.

Tasked with providing for the Blessed Virgin and her Unborn Child, he was forced by government edict to travel to Bethlehem during her third trimester of pregnancy, where, when her time came, he was unable to procure for her even a room and a bed. Instead, he kept vigil as the Queen of Heaven gave birth to the Maker of the Universe and laid Him, not in a carpenter’s cradle, but in a feeding trough for animals.

When it was time to present the Child in the temple, he could offer only the poor man’s sacrifice, a pair of turtledoves, and heard Simeon prophesy not only joy but sorrow for his wife and small son. Did his heart break a little, even then, wanting to protect them from the promised pain?

And then came another edict, this one from Higher Authority: “Take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt.” How it must have pained him, how his heart must have wrung with fear and anguish, to learn that Herod’s soldiers were seeking his tiny son. I wonder if, for a moment, he was tempted to stay and fight, to resist, to protect the child and his mother with his own strength. How strong he must have been to obey God, to put aside his pride and flee with his family to safety.

And then he found himself distanced from everyone he knew, alone in a foreign country, away from the temple and synagogues and the life he had known before. He found himself without work, without his carpenter shop or clients, starting all over again in Egypt. And then a few years later, he returned to Nazareth and began yet again.

We don’t know anything else about the hidden years with Jesus, apart from the time that he lost him, seeking him anxiously with Mary. After he was found, we know only that Jesus was obedient to him. Surely, that must have been a fearsome marvel in itself—to be the teacher of the Incarnate Wisdom.

In Scripture Joseph never said a word, but his life was a continued yes to all that God gave…and all that He did not.

It was not given to Joseph to share in Jesus’ public ministry, or in His passion. Instead, he was asked to sacrifice his desire to protect Mary and Jesus, to say yes to the goodness of God, entrusting them to the true Father above, of whom he was only an image.

If there were ever a patron for this pandemic, it is Saint Joseph.

As he was tasked with protecting and providing for the earthly Body of Christ, the boy Jesus, let us entrust to him the spiritual Body of Christ, the Church. Let him teach us, like Jesus, to always say yes. To always trust. To embrace humble and hidden tasks. To embrace wood, even the wood of the Cross.

And like Joseph, let us say yes to all that is given to us to do, and surrender to Jesus and Mary all that is not.

The Egg and the Rock

Today’s Gospel seems to tell a Tale of Two Peters. Jesus asks his disciples the pivotal question: “Who do you say that I am?” It is Peter who proclaims in reply: “You are the Christ!”

Peter is able to see supernaturally, beyond the humanity of Jesus to His divinity. God will continue to reveal to him what is more than human, and so give him the grace to lead the Church.

But like yesterday’s story of the blind man whose ability to see comes in two stages, Peter is still blind to the full mission of the Christ he has just professed.

Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke this openly. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. At this He turned around and, looking at His disciples, rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” (Mark 8:31-33)

It is easy with 21st century hindsight to scoff at Peter’s blindness. We who know the good of Good Friday, the joy of Easter Sunday, the promise filled at Pentecost—we can accept the mangled God on the cross, perhaps a little too easily. We can shrug off the scandal of suffering. We wear the cross around our necks, hang it above the doorway, see it every Sunday on the altar at Mass.

One of the most powerful, but deeply dark and disturbing stories that I have ever read, is told by Stephen Mosher in A Mother’s Ordeal. The book follows the story of Chi An, who comes of age during the Communist Revolution in China, and whose life later becomes entangled with China’s brutal One-Child Policy.

It is not an easy story to read, not just because of the shocking cruelty and violence, but because it lacks a comfortable division between victim and perpetrator. Chi An was both.

Following the birth of her son, Chi An became pregnant a second time, in violation of the population agreement she had been forced to sign on her wedding day. When her pregnancy was discovered, population control officers compelled her to go to the hospital to have an abortion. She and her husband were heartbroken, but reluctantly complied. “How can an egg break a rock?” her husband asked sadly.

In her pain, however, (or perhaps in part because of it?) she went on to implement the very policies which had cost her her child—and which had now become the infamous One-Child Policy. “By now my envy of women with more than one child had hardened into something akin to resentment,” she admits. Her primary role was to convince women to agree to abortion or sterilization voluntarily—but if they did not agree, more drastic measures were taken.

She became a primary enforcer of both mandatory sterilization and abortion. The stories that she tells are deeply horrifying. Women were subjected to extreme pressures to give in to “remedial measures” but when they did not comply, abortions were done anyway by force—even in the ninth month, even during labor. When one baby boy survived even that, she watched as the doctor quickly took care of it.

At one low point, Chi An’s own best friend Ah Fang went into hiding to protect her unborn child. Chi An ruthlessly tracked her down, finding her in her last month of pregnancy. When labor began, Ah Fang begged Chi An not to call anyone, to look the other way until her child was safe. Chi An did not.

Later, her doings caught up with her, as Chi An herself became pregnant with an illegal child. She sought asylum in America (where she was living temporarily due to her husband’s work). Even from afar the Chinese government exerted pressure to abort, threatening not only her but those she loved back in China with all sorts of punishments. She became again a victim of the same policies she had worked to enforce. As she fought to save her daughter, the guilt and grief over all of the horror that she had participated in began to fill her life. “’What right do I have to have this child’, I thought bitterly, ‘while so many others have lost theirs?’”

Chi An found no way to escape the pain of her past: “‘What good is your regret?’ I sneered at my newly awakened conscience. ‘How does it help the troubled and despairing women, now forever barren, who you tortured, aborted and sterilized?’”

One day, to her surprise, her husband suggested they go to church. She had no experience with Christianity—her family was atheist, and her husband’s family had been either atheist or Buddhist. Yet one Sunday she found herself in Saint Michael’s Catholic Church and, for the first time, was confronted with the crucifixion.

I was fascinated by the painful figure on the cross above the altar. Why would anyone worship a dead god? I thought to myself. Chinese gods were always robust and happy…the idea of a dead God was simply absurd. Surely the fact that this man had been killed proved that he wasn’t a God at all. Who would want to kowtow before a defeated creature, I thought, unless he was not a mere a creature at all but the Creator? But then why had he allowed himself to die? It was almost beyond belief, certainly beyond the human imagination. The wildest dreams of human beings, I was sure, could not have begun to conjure up a dead God. Perhaps there was something to this after all.

I remembered the hundreds of women who I had forced to have abortions, how they had writhed and screamed and cried. I remembered my own abortion, how I had writhed and screamed and cried. If this tortured figure was God, then surely he felt and understood the pain I had felt and caused. Was there in his death some larger meaning?

…Months later, I made my first confession—and felt at peace with myself for a long time. The little hands that had been clawing at me could no longer reach me in the new place where I lived. My mind laid the little-boy-who-would-not-die to his rest. From now on the only cries that would wake me at night were that of my newborn daughter.

I was forgiven, but justice demanded that I do more…how could I help women still in China? I resolved to begin by telling Steve my story, however painful that might be, so that he might write it.

Applegate crucifix

*You can read Chi An’s story in its entirety in A Mother’s Ordeal: One Woman’s Fight Against China’s One-Child Policy by Stephen Mosher, published in 1993.  For those readers who have Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, this book is currently available as a free selection.

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Kind of God

Recently it seemed that a wish was about to come true. It was the wish that I made the last three years while blowing out birthday candles. The wish that I had been working tirelessly for and praying for on a daily basis. I worked feverishly to prepare, past the point of pain, and then on the promised day enlisted all my friends and family to pray as well.   I was confident that God had heard my prayer, sure that it was all finally going to work out as I had hoped.

It did not.

The disappointment was crushing. At first I could only laugh at the horror of it all. But fatigue and frustration fed my feelings which quickly turned black and melodramatic. Not only was there no light at the end of the tunnel, the tunnel itself had fallen in, and an entirely new tunnel would have to be built.

The Opposition Voice began to whisper words of doubt and discouragement. “Surely if God were good, He would have heard and answered your prayer…”

I have at times in my life felt a supernatural joy, disproportionate to the circumstances, from a source that had to be More than human. This was the opposite. For just a few moments, my heart felt burdened with an inhuman aching; the pain of promises broken and dreams dashed and all the failed expectations of all my friends and family and those I don’t even know seemed to take over. Miscarriages. Broken marriages. Failed operations. Caskets lowered into the ground. Unanswered prayers of every kind. “What kind of a God do you believe in?” the voice taunted.

The devil always overplays his hand. In his very taunt he offered me the antidote: I believe in a God who is good.

I don’t know how God will bring good into or out of all of these situations. But I know He is good.

This trust in the goodness of God: the virtues of faith and hope—these are the weapons of life in the desert.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus seems to be rejecting not only the Syrophoenician woman’s request for the healing of her daughter, but the woman herself. “Let the children be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Yikes!

But despite the apparent harshness of Jesus’ rebuke, the woman persists, and cleverly turns around this unflattering epithet: “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.”

Scripture scholar Mary Healy notes that not only is this Gentile woman filled with chutzpa in her persistence, but she is the only person in all of Mark’s Gospel who addresses Jesus as Lord. This remarkable recognition of Jesus’ sovereignty comes not from an Israelite, but from a foreigner. She pays Him homage, falling at his feet, and in her reply expresses confidence that His goodness will include Gentiles as well.

Her faith and her persistence move Jesus to grant her request. Her daughter is healed.

The Syrophoenician woman turns out to be a model of Christian faith…She refused to take no for an answer—and her boldness is rewarded. The clear lesson in this story is that the Lord does hear our prayers, and even his apparent refusals are meant to awaken in us a yet deeper faith, which opens us to receive the gift he has for us. Few sayings of Jesus are recorded more often than his reassurance that what we ask in prayer with faith we will receive. –Dr. Mary Healy

Lord, grant us the grace to trust always in Your goodness, even when we cannot see your plan.

Michael_Angelo_Immenraet_-_Jesus_and_the_Woman_of_Canaan

Source: Healy, Mary.  The Gospel of Mark. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academics, 2008) pp. 143-145.

Image: Michael Angelo Immenraet [Public domain]

Not Dumb Forever

“God wounds only to heal.” His eyes were filled with compassion, as he spoke these mysterious words. Moments ago, this priest had told me that God was going to answer my prayer for joy (fulfilled first here); now he seemed to be promising pain.

What did this mean? I had been taught that even God’s punishments are mercy. However, in reality I regarded this a bit cynically, calling to mind the joke about the ambulance driver who runs over a pedestrian and then proclaims, “Isn’t it great that I am here to save you!”

I was thinking about this later, when I (foolishly) walked across the deck of the beach house barefoot, thereby acquiring one of the largest splinters I have ever seen in the ball of my foot. It was unspeakably large, and unspeakably painful. It was baffling how it managed to get in, because there was no hole by which to extract it. The only way to remove the splinter was to cut into my foot. As I painfully pierced my skin to get at the splinter, I thought about the mysterious ways of God.

In today’s Gospel Zechariah is told, “Your prayers have been heard!” This gift of a son is not a random bequest from the Almighty, but a specific answer to Zechariah’s prayer. And yet he doubts the possibility that his prayer is being answered.

And because he doubts, he is punished.

Or is he? Zechariah is struck dumb, literally, rendered speechless for the next nine months. One can only wonder at what was wrought in that silence. What did he think, as he watched his aged wife’s burgeoning belly? What wonder filled his mind as he placed his hand over her womb, felt the quickening and kicking of the prayed-for-son growing beneath her heart?

He must have gone back over that day a thousand times, not just the angel’s words but what had come immediately before. How it fell to him by lot the honor of approaching the holy of holies, to offer the incense on behalf of all of Israel. How with the incense rose the prayers and longings of countless generations for freedom and redemption. Could it be that God could, would, answer these prayer, too?

In the silence it is God who speaks, God who acts. In the silence, we come to know God’s Word.

What kind of God did Zechariah believe in?

Zechariah, abruptly silenced, was forced to let God get a Word in edgewise. And as he was stilled by silence, he was schooled in the lessons of faith, of hope, of trust in the goodness of God. These are the weapons of life in the desert. These hard-won lessons would be instilled in young John the Baptist. Even in the desert, God provides. Even in the desert, God is good. Even in the desert, God’s promises are being fulfilled.

We know that life grew within Zechariah, too, because when speech returns, he prophecies with joy, about the mission of his son, about the “tender compassion of our God.” Discouragement and doubt have given way to trust in the Promise.

Ultimately, the answer to his prayer and mine, is the same: Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.

Fra Angelico Zechariah

Image: Fra Angelico The Naming of John the Baptist

 

Flowers in the Desert

“Flowers in the desert” my friends and I would call these little graces, gifts of hope or promise during times that seemed dominated by absence.

They varied in nature or significance: A chance encounter on a plane. An intriguing new addition to the social circle. An anonymous gift of a $100 bill. A word from a friend that was undoubtedly in fact a word from God.

These little things would be signs that would carry us through.

But they were only signs; therein lay the thorn on the rose. Pressed too hard, they did not deliver, but would in fact disappoint if mistaken for the Gift.

The airplane conversation opened windows to vision, but no doors. The new relationship was flattering and fun, but not “The One.” The money was quickly spent. The word brought peace for a time, but then back to waiting and wondering, “Where am I Lord? What am I doing? What are You doing? Are you even there?”

Anyone who has walked in the faith for some time has likely come to know the seasons of the soul. There are days of spring, when all things seem to proclaim the glory of God, when streams of grace flow amply and flowers bloom everywhere. In such seasons my heart knows easily the nearness of God, quickens with a song or a verse or just the simple suggestion of Presence.

But there are other seasons, seasons of winter, when it seems that life lies buried under the frozen dry ground. When the same words that once caused my heart to flutter, read again do not move me at all. When prayer feels like an empty exercise, a movement of the mind and will, while the heart is cold and still.

It is in the winter desert that faith becomes real.

Once upon a time, I thought that this meant that I was being tested, that I would prove myself a real Christian with heroic acts of faith, hope and charity that rose above my feelings. But I am no more able to produce these than a wanderer in the desert can produce water or an oasis. In the desert, it is God who provides.

Centuries ago on a hill called Tepeyac Our Lady appeared to Juan Diego. She asked him to go to the bishop with the request that a chapel be built in her honor. But the bishop was uncertain and asked for a sign. Our Lady provided.

She sent Juan Diego to gather roses from the desert hillside, of a kind that had no business growing in winter. Juan Diego is delighted with this gift, sure that it will be what the bishop is seeking. Our Lady carefully arranges the roses in his tilma, and Juan hurries to the bishop’s palace.

But as we know, the roses were only a means to reveal something greater. When Juan Diego opens his tilma, it is Our Lady’s own image that is revealed.

There are many moving details to this story, but of special significance are the eyes of Our Lady in this image of Guadalupe. The image itself confounds scientists—that there are not brush strokes, that it has been held by the rough cactus fibers, that is has survived for centuries—all indicate something miraculous. But a close look at the eyes in the image is even more startling—the iris and pupils show the images of people, as would appear in eyes that were photographed. And the proportions of these people are different in each eye, as a true photograph would show—but this image on the tilma predated the invention of photography. Even the microscopes used to reveal these images in the eyes did not exist at the time that Mary’s image appeared.

Many believe that the people shown in Our Lady’s eyes are Juan Diego, the bishop, and those present at the unveiling of the tilma. That even as they were looking to see signs, Mary saw each person present, held them in her gaze—and does so to this day.

Roses in winter reveal the vision of God. We are seen by heavenly eyes, held by hands that we cannot see. Even in such times, we are not alone. It is not the gifts that we seek, but the Giver.

“Am I not here, who am your Mother?” Our Lady tells Juan Diego. Her image shows her belly, swollen with Presence. She who became Mother to Emmanuel mothers us too, and calls us always to her Son.

In today’s Gospel we hear the first proclamation of the Incarnation, the Good News of the coming of Emmanuel. The name Emmanuel means God is With Us.

It is He Himself who comes to save, to be with us. More than a sign, He is the reality our hearts long for.

 

Flowers in the Desert Delfino

Photo by Delfino Barboza on Unsplash