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

Desert Places

“Streams will burst forth in the desert,
and rivers in the steppe.
The burning sands will become pools,
and the thirsty ground, springs of water.” -Isaiah 35:6-7

My brother lives in Arizona, where they are currently enjoying the chilly winter temperature of 72°. A couple years ago, I went to visit him in June, when it gets to be a lovely 115°. One morning, we decided to go hiking in the beautiful desert mountains. We got up really early to beat the heat—well, to try to beat the heat, anyway.

As we were hiking, I kept saying that it didn’t feel that hot, even though it was. This was probably because my body associates heat with the sweaty, sticky humidity of New York summers.

It wasn’t until we got back to the car after our hike that I realized how thirsty I was. My throat was really dry, and I was definitely dehydrated.

Has your heart ever felt this way? Sometimes we go about our lives, thinking everything is fine, that we’ve got it, that we’re in control, and then we realize how much we are desperately aching for our Savior.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Or has your heart ever felt like the vast Arizona desert? Dry, cracked, parched, barren. Sometimes in seasons of desolation, pain, or mourning, we can feel like we are stuck in an endless desert. I’ve definitely had those moments of wondering when the drought would end and God would bring a long-awaited reprieve.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Jesus meets us in our desert places. He knows those seasons well. If you are feeling like you’re in a desert season right now, take heart. He is with you. And no matter how painful, lonely, or never-ending it seems, Jesus is bigger. And He is on the way.

There is a beautiful Japanese art form called kintsugi. The artist takes broken ceramics and puts them back together by filling the cracks and places where they broke with gold, turning the art into something even more strikingly marvelous.

kintsugi
Kintsugi art

When Jesus comes to fill in the cracks in our desert hearts, He does the same thing. He redeems our scars, wounds, and dry places by giving us the gift of His whole self and making our scars dazzle with His love.

Let Him fill you today, brothers and sisters.