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.

Promise-keeper

“Brothers and sisters:
Abraham did not doubt God’s promise in unbelief;
rather, he was empowered by faith and gave glory to God
and was fully convinced that what God had promised
he was also able to do.” -Romans 4:20-21

Sometimes life can seem so discouraging, right? Sometimes we feel ourselves looking around at everything around us and saying, “What is going on?” Other times we wait and wait for so long that we feel forgotten and ignored by God, as if He doesn’t care about the very desires He has placed on our hearts. Sometimes, it seems like there can’t possibly be a way out of what we’re struggling with, and we’re left wondering if things will ever get better.

God is too good to leave us there, dear friends. He is simply too, too good.

Through it all, He is on the throne. He has got this. He is on the move: working, loving, present, and focused on you, handcrafting a story of glory. We can never get too far off course for Him to not provide and to not come through on a promise. We aren’t powerful enough to lose ourselves beyond the repair of God’s providence. Praise God that He uses His almighty power to bring us back over and over again.

Today’s first reading challenges us to press in, to cling to God as our source of hope, and to know that He keeps His promises. Abraham was promised children when it seemed impossible, and yet he was “fully convinced” that God would keep His promise. It made zero sense given his circumstances surrounding him, but he knew that the impossible is possible for God.

God is our promise-keeper.

God is always, always, always good. In fact, He is too good for us to give into despair. In the light of His wild love, we can trust that at each moment we are held secure, and that He will deliver on His promises to us.

Through it all, God is our constant. When the storms of life swirl around us and toss us about, He is our anchor. God is our steady source of love and hope. And when we keep our hearts laser-focused on His, we can rest secure in His perfect peace. Surely the Lord will keep His promises. He is too good not to.

Is anything too impossible for the Lord? Absolutely not. Take heart.

Holy Spirit, help us to rise up with a new intensity of Your fire today to say a firm “no” to the temptation to despair and to doubt God’s promises. Help us to press into You and rely on You more, knowing that in each moment, You are with us, giving us our very breath. We renew our trust in Your promises today, Lord. We trust that You always come through, that You always make a way. We trust that any impossibility is always possible for You. Thank You for being infinitely good to us, no matter what. Amen.

This song that declares God’s constant goodness was on my heart as I was writing this.

Eat and Be Satisfied

In today’s readings, we see two different stories of God providing for His people. In the book of Numbers, the Israelites are given manna in the desert, sustenance for their journey to the promised land. But they grouse and complain about the blandness of this heavenly food. They remember the fish that they ate “without cost” in Egypt, forgetting that it came with a very dear cost indeed—the cost of their freedom. They are so quick to forget what God has done for them, the miracles He wrought to deliver them from slavery in Egypt.

In contrast, the Gospel reading presents the story of Jesus’s multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Here, Jesus provides for His followers with simple yet nourishing food, and they accept it gratefully. Where the Israelites in the desert turned their nose up at the food God offered them, these crowds “ate and were satisfied.”

The juxtaposition of these two stories reminds us how important it is to be receptive to God’s providence in our lives. He is always seeking to nourish our souls and provide for our every need, but we often miss out on it because it comes in a way we don’t expect. If we hold too tightly to our own ideas of what we ought to have, we might overlook the gifts that are right before us. Truly, God showers us with gifts each and every day of our lives, even if they might come amidst a difficult journey. What a shame it would be to allow our pride to hold us back from living in gratitude and wonder.

People can always find reason to complain. We serve others not to receive their praise and thanks but because it is the right thing to do. Just as God continued to feed His people with manna even despite their ingratitude, so are we called to imitate His kindness and generosity.

Today is the feast of the dedication of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the four major basilicas of Rome, which houses the relic of Christ’s manger. (Several years ago, I got the chance to attend midnight Mass there at Christmas, which was especially beautiful!) Mary, as the Theotokos, or “God-bearer,” was in a sense the original manger, the first home for Jesus. But a manger is not a typical cradle; it is a feeding trough for animals. When Mary laid her divine Child in the manger, it prefigured His role as food for the world. He offers His very Self to nourish us, and she lays down her own life to become the means through which we can receive Him. God’s providence for us truly knows no bounds. As He continues to feed His people, may we receive Him gratefully, eat, and be satisfied.

Rebel Heart

Hearing about events and hangouts I wasn’t invited to…

Wondering what my life would look like if I had “normal” work hours and didn’t have to miss out on so much community time…

Being so joyful for all my friends getting married but my heart still aching and longing for my own vocation…

Seeing people’s posts on social media and feeling less-than…

Jealousy. Comparison. Envy. We’re all familiar with that throat-tensing burn of pangs of jealousy. It’s ugly. It’s messy. Even just typing out the four examples above made me cringe.

In today’s first reading, we hear the story of how Joseph’s brothers plotted to kill him, then decided against that and threw him in a dry cistern before selling him into slavery for twenty pieces of silver. At least Joseph’s brothers spared his life, but their actions basically still said he was dead to them.

The things we do when we are jealous and afraid. Now, most of us don’t go to the extremes of Joseph’s brothers, but envy is a deadly sin and is a temptation that sneaks up on all of us in some way. We live in a culture focused on being the best and having lots of attention all the time. Our society thrives on competition, competition, competition. Our bodies, minds, and souls are even created to ache for more, but that ache can only be fully satisfied by our Lord. So what happens? We end up self-loathing and licking our wounds. We can get caught in the vicious cycle of striving and proving ourselves, seeking earthly approval when the Heavenly Father’s voice is the only one that matters. We chase after other people’s dreams because we feel like that’s where we have to be, while God has greater adventures for us. His dreams are uniquely for us, surpass our wildest expectations of what we should or shouldn’t be doing, and point to our greater mission on this earth to get us to the ultimate goal of Heaven.

When we get caught up in striving to prove ourselves, it’s like we are running full-speed ahead on a hamster wheel: we don’t go anywhere, and we end up absolutely exhausted and frustrated. With trust and surrender, especially of those insecurities on our hearts that lead to jealousy, we can live from a place of being rooted and grounded in our identity as sons and daughters of God.

We have nothing to prove to God. He already knows the darkest, messiest corners of our hearts and loves us anyway. We don’t have to earn His love. We don’t have to earn His plans for our lives. As my grad school professor said, “God’s promises cannot be usurped, because they’re not ours to take. God’s promises can only be received as a free gift.”

Lord Jesus, forgive us for the times we’ve let envy take over. Help us to surrender with trust when we are weakened by jealousy and insecurity. Help us to trust in Your great plans for our lives. Give us the courage to say “yes” to who You are calling us to be.

“Lord, I offer up this rebel heart // So stubborn and so restless from the start // I don’t wanna fight You anymore // So take this rebel heart and make it Yours.” -Lauren Daigle, “Rebel Heart”

Being Led > Being Content

R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
Beside restful waters he leads me;
he refreshes my soul.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
He guides me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk in the dark valley
I fear no evil; for you are at my side
With your rod and your staff
that give me courage.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
You spread the table before me
in the sight of my foes;
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for years to come.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.

PS 23:1B-3A, 3BC-4, 5, 6

Today’s readings contain what is quite possibly the most well-known Psalm in all of Scripture. Psalm 23 has been used in all sorts of media: presidential speeches, blockbuster movies, hip hop and metal songs alike. Psalm 23 provides an easily recognizable religious reference, a comforting message, a clear, straightforward refrain. The desire for contentment, provision, and protection are ubiquitous, and align pretty well with our basic human needs¹.

In praying with the Psalm today, however, I felt that the Lord was calling us beyond the easy reading. We are not guaranteed access to the LORD’s protection and provision. Our calling does NOT boil down to the platitude, “We just need to see where God already is in our lives and be content with our current life circumstances.” I learned not be jealous and/or greedy in kindergarten; I believe the Holy Spirit has more for us here.

Today I took some of my GRE study–inspired reading comprehension skills and broke down the refrain: “The LORD is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.”

 

Results: I shall want nothing. I will rest beside still waters and verdant pastures, His rod and staff give us courage.

Prerequisites (aka what WE need to do): The LORD must be our shepherd. We must be guided. We must be anointed.

 

Take a look at that second part! So often we focus on the results, without asking what we need to do! Part of the reason I believe this passage has gained so much traction in popular culture is the hope for deliverance. It’s not wrong to ask to be spared or delivered, but will it have any effect if we don’t meet the conditions or put ourselves in the position to receive it? Miracles are wonderful gifts from God but are only truly useful if our hearts are primed for relationship with Jesus (see: Nazareth, Mark 6).

So how do we prime our hearts for the LORD? How do we make ourselves ready? How do we get the God of the Universe to be our shepherd, give us all that we need, and protect us?

By being sheep, of course. Shepherds can only be shepherds to sheep. In reading through Psalm 23 today, Jesus spoke clearly and powerfully to my heart: “These words are not about being content or finding good in your life as it is, these words are about being led.”

Are we willing to follow the LORD? Do we ask where we should go? Do we trust that his paths lead to verdant pastures, or do we stick to our own, temporarily comforting paths and habits? Where in your life can you ask Jesus to lead you? Where are you currently trying so hard to find your way, and have yet to really pose the question to Him?

Jesus’ promise is real, it is beautiful, and it is comforting. He DOES lead me to verdant pastures. He DOES give me rest. He DOES protect me from my enemies and from fear. We WILL dwell with the LORD.

All he asks? “Come, follow me.”

 

  1. Yes, yes, Maslow’s hierarchy is outdated and problematic in many of its forms. Just making a point here.

Zero-sum Game

Not only does the Lord work in mysterious ways, but He often speaks in mysterious ways.

My studies in college revolved around global economics, politics, and their effects on culture, and recently one of God’s mysterious messages has arisen as a theme in prayer and discussions that hearkens back to my freshman year lectures: the Zero-Sum Game.

A layman’s introduction: In the late middle ages and into the Renaissance, Europeans went goo-goo for colonies. Once new continents and worlds were discovered, a European Messiah complex, coupled with a healthy dose of greed, fueled a ravenous land grab. The international policies of the time were surprisingly simple: More colonies equals more trade and more resources to exploit, and that trade/exploration combo can make people disgustingly wealthy. The politics of the day revolved around this zero-sum, fear-based belief that “what isn’t mine is lost.”

During these Colonially-oriented classes, we touched on a commonly-held theory of the time: The Zero-Sum Game. Zero-sum politics can be summed up pretty easily: If I don’t claim something, somebody else will and I end up losing out.

Okay, Aidan, what in the world does this have to do with today’s readings?

Well zero-sum thinking goes far beyond politics; a host of psychological studies and papers have been written on the subject. With that in mind, I’ve recently spent a great deal of time thinking of how a zero-sum bias affects my faith life. Spoiler: it’s not how God thinks, and therefore it doesn’t end well.

Both today’s first reading and the Gospel treat on people’s perceptions of goodness. St. Paul discusses how Good Things, even so good as the gifts of the Holy Spirit, are emptied of their meaning without love. Wisdom, prophecy, tongues, all fizzle out if they do not have Love. Alternatively stated, they mean nothing if they are not attuned to the mind of God, who is Love. We may believe that we are doing others a service, we may believe that our preaching has value, I might believe that my reflections are pretty stinkin’ good (as the Gospel says, “Wisdom will be vindicated by her children,” so I suppose time will tell…), but if they are not wholly rooted in a love of Jesus Christ and His Church, then all of those talents are worse than useless: they are distracting, irritating noise.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus likens the the crowds to kids in a shopping mall: they’re quick to criticize, even contradicting themselves in the process. They’re not happy, and can’t be made happy.

In my life, unhappiness nearly always has some kind of root in comparison. How many of these statements, pulled from my own brain, ring true for you? (I hope I’m not the only one who thinks these things)

  • Why do they have it easier?
  • Why don’t they have to work as hard as I do?
  • Why am I restless? Why don’t I have a more meaningful project that I’m working on?
  • Why don’t I have as much free time as they seem to have?
  • Why am I bored? Their life seems more exciting.
  • Why am I suffering? Especially when they are not?
  • Why don’t they trust me with more important responsibilities?
  • How could they possibly believe that? I’m so glad my beliefs are different.
  • Why can’t they just believe what I do?

Get the idea? “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Do you live your faith with a zero-sum mindset? In comparing yourself to others, do you feel threatened by them? Jealous of them? Do others succeeding make you bitter or eager to point out their shortcomings?

The love of God is overabundant, overflowing, it multiplies: it is grace upon grace. God does not operate in absolutes or finite amounts. God is absolute. God is infinite.

The more I hear of Jesus’ love, the more I see how my jealousy leads me astray from Him. Why does it irk me when others have good things?! Should I not rejoice? Am I no different than those kids in the shopping mall?

Goodness builds. Others’ success edifies, scaffolds, increases. Our job is to love, and to celebrate the blessings of God in our life AND in our sisters’ and brothers’ lives. Don’t be afraid to compliment, don’t be afraid to celebrate others. Most of all, do not give into the lie that what you do not possess is lost. Our call to Love is far different:

Love is patient, love is kind.
It is not jealous, love is not pompous,
it is not inflated, it is not rude,
it does not seek its own interests,
it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing
but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails.

—1 Cor 13:4-8

Wise foolishness and the abundance of God

Dear fellow pilgrims,

Our readings today have a clear message: be humble, follow the Lord’s will and not your own. We can feel this message of “let him become a fool, so as to become wise” when we talk about our lives to some unbelievers whilst trying to explain decisions made by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, peace in prayer, and other ways of discernment. How do we explain if we left a job with no other job lined up because we “just knew” it was time through prayer? How do we explain not being truly worried about the amount of children we will eventually have? It’s impossible without a childlike trust and humility in our Lord’s provision for us and faithfulness to us. In a world where very intelligent people can chide religious people by telling us we trust in, essentially, a “flying spaghetti monster,” it is no wonder sometimes that we feel “foolish” in the eyes of the world.  But this trust we have in our Lord is not truly foolish. We have tasted and seen that the Lord is, indeed, good. I pray all of us have some moment in our hearts we can go back to to ground us in times of unbelief or difficulty in faith where the only conclusions are that God is real and God loves us.

In our Gospel today, we see a moment like that happening frame-by-frame for St. Peter. He follows the direction of Jesus, who is clearly not an expert fisherman, after following his own experienced direction for quite some time and finding no luck in a catch. But this seemingly foolish move results in something so miraculous that he is struck with the fear of God: he is faced with a catch of fish so large that even his own equipment cannot hold it. His nets tear! What a beautiful image. This detail is speaking to me today:

Sometimes we think that it is because of our own equipment and knowledge that our lives are not going the way we planned. We have worked hard, using all of the knowledge that we have, and we are not seeing results or certain events happen in our life. But in this Gospel, we are reminded of Who holds every aspect of our lives in order. You can be as prepared for a giant catch, or desired result or happy moment, in your life as possible, have all the right equipment, but still, in that moment of fulfillment, you may also an inadequacy in receiving it. Your nets may rip, your mind and heart may fall short of receiving what Jesus is giving you. It may all seem too much and actually a threat to your life instead of a blessing. But these moments, especially, so potently remind us that the Lord does not give purely according to when we fulfill some formula or when we meet a holiness or readiness quote.  God is not like humans, He gives freely and purposefully, even though the purpose is most likely lost on the receiver. God does not give only according to our little abilities to receive Him, He gives fully, which should make us want to grow to receive more.

So maybe that wasn’t even the biggest net St. Peter had, but Jesus gave him an overabundance of harvest anyways. May we also heed our Lord’s calls to seemingly foolish things in the hope that in this “foolishness” is true wisdom as His children.

Pax Christi,
Alyssa