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

 

A Highway for Our God

There are some moments in our lives where we just feel lost and out of place. For me, the moment of complete and utter confusion happened my senior year of college. In preparation for my future, this should have been the year in which I checked off all the boxes on my master plan. But that was not the case; I checked off none. I didn’t even have a plan. I was lost. Although I knew my physical location—on the University campus—I couldn’t find myself anywhere on the map. Someone could have arranged fluorescent direction markers and flagged me down with bright orange batons and I still would not have known in which way to turn. I would have blindly walked past them, lost and uncertain with myself.

I have known about the parable of the lost sheep since I was a child—seeing this Biblical passage through the eyes of a child, I always saw a perfect, fluffy sheep in a picture book. I didn’t realize the impact in my heart this parable would make until my adulthood, when I found myself, no longer lost, in the Catholic Church.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells us that a shepherd has one hundred sheep and one of them goes astray and is lost. Just one. Jesus asks for our opinion, will you go in search of the lost sheep? I’m sure the disciples listening to Jesus were thinking: “Well, the man has ninety-nine other sheep left. He should be fine. He has more than what he lost. He should just let that one sheep go.” Jesus, however, continuing with the parable tells them the answer to his question: the man will leave the ninety-nine on the hill and go off in search of the one lost sheep. In the children’s picture book the shepherd and even the perfect, fluffy sheep look happy surrounded by beautiful green pastures and mountains, both underneath a beautiful blue sky. The reality, in first-century Palestine, is that a shepherd must have been crazy to leave ninety-nine sheep behind and travel the dangerous, unknown, and hard terrains of the mountains for one lonely sheep.

Who would realistically do this? God would. God would do this for you. Because out of one hundred, one thousand, one million, one billion sheep in his flock, God loves you and He will go after you.

Notice that in the parable it’s not the shepherd who loses the sheep. It’s the sheep that went astray. We are that one sheep. We expect God to love only those who listen to Him and follow His commandments. We forget that God does not love by the boundaries of this world. His love is immeasurable and powerful because God is love. Where we limit our love to those who are undeserving, where we neglect those who disobey or do not follow orders—God gives them His love. He follows these lost sheep, and when they are ready, He guides them home.

In the first reading the Israelites have been called back home after being in exile. They have been in the wilderness, and the Biblical passage describes the way they need to travel from Babylon to Jerusalem. Normally it’s a dangerous and rough journey, but God is with them in preparing the way for them to come home. Every mountain and hill is made low and the rugged lands will be made plain and easy to travel. Here is God gathering his lost sheep and leading them home.

“A voice proclaims: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! Every valley shall be lifted up, every mountain and hill made low; The rugged land shall be a plain, the rough country, a broad valley.”

Back in my senior year of college, my lost years, I found myself on my knees lovingly admiring the altar. The place of sacrificial love. I kept thinking about the lost sheep and painfully acknowledged that it was me. I kept thinking that I wasn’t the sheep from my childhood picture book. I wasn’t “fluffy and perfect.” I was a mess. Dirty. Broken. Defeated. I realized that I was looking at myself through the world’s eyes and wrongly thought I didn’t deserve love. But God’s love knows no boundaries. The sheep in the picture book is “perfect” because God always sees you as his perfect child. In the Catholic Church looking at Jesus on the cross, truly knowing that the good shepherd had walked through the wilderness to find me and bring me home—I believed him when he told me he loves me. God’s love is unconditional and no matter how long ago you’ve gone astray, what mountain or valley you’re lost in, no matter how deep of a mess you’ve made of things, if you haven’t gone to Mass in years, or you carry anger or guilt, nothing that you do will take away from God’s love for you. The good shepherd is in search for his lost sheep to come back home. And He will help you to “make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!

Image Credit: The Lost Sheep [Public Domain]

The Rock

Last Christmas a very generous friend gifted me a Know-It-All watch. It knows when I am sleeping, and how well. It knows when I am sitting—and buzzes “Move!” when I do so for too long. It knows my heart rate and will buzz frantically “Abnormal…!”—often during particularly still moments such as the Consecration—assuring that said heart rate will quickly climb even higher.

I keep this omniscient tyrant for two reasons: one is that it alerts me to calls, which is helpful because I frequently forget where I’ve left my phone. The other is that it tracks my steps, motivating me at least in theory to take more of them.

One morning this past spring I was traveling with some friends from college, and we were planning to enjoy a leisurely brunch before heading our separate ways. I decided to take advantage of the hotel treadmill and get my steps in early. I was pleased that by the time we sat down to brunch, I was just 50 steps short of 10,000.

It was worth it. The food was delicious and it was a delight to just relax and enjoy extended conversation. But suddenly, mid-sentence, I felt the familiar bossy buzz and looked down at my watch to see the fireworks going off, signaling that my steps goal had been reached. I was amused and bewildered. How could this be, since I had been sitting for the entire time?

“It’s because you’re Italian,” my friends laughed. “You talk with your hands….”

Today’s Gospel is about speaking with more than words. It is in fact our actions that speak to God most clearly. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord, ‘will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven,” Jesus tells His disciples.

Faith is something that we profess not with our mouths but with our lives. By our actions, we build our house on either rock or sand.

At the same time, faith is knowing that it is not by my own strength or power that I do good. Rather, God has made me good and empowers me to choose the good. We are free to say no to what would hinder His will, knowing that it would also hinder our happiness.

Recently I read an article with the rather bizarre assertion that Mary and Jesus could have been just as happy and holy had they told God, “No.”

The author was trying to make a case for the primacy of consent. That at the Annunciation, Our Lady had the freedom to say Yes or No to God’s proposal. This is true: Our Lady was not forced to bear the Son of God. She was invited to be the spouse of the Spirit, the Mother of the Son, but she could have said No. All heaven awaited her answer.

Any man who proposes knows the intensity of such a moment, of held breath, awaiting a reply. No lover worthy of the name would make it a matter of force. She must always have the power to choose.

And yet, with the power to choose comes the power to choose tragically. Mary could have said No. But it would indeed have been a tragedy. Nothing else she could have chosen would ever approximate what God had in store for her. Her empty autonomy could not have been on par with being the mother of the Savior of the world.

Mary, full of the love of God, trusted the goodness of God. She knew He could not and would not propose something that was not good. She knew that whatever He does through us, He also does for us. She was free to respond fully and joyfully, and she did.

We also build our actions on the rock of Christ when we trust His promises, when we choose to say Yes to something (Someone) greater than ourselves. If instead we choose to trust in human ideas, in human strength, in human plans, then we find we have built on sand.

 

Seek Him in All Things

“Seek him in integrity of heart;
Because he is found by those who test him not,
and he manifests himself to those who do not disbelieve him.” Wisdom 1:1-2

Time and time again I find myself in a place of realizing just how much I need the Lord. It truly is a wonder to behold how intricately He is involved in every breath, every detail of our lives, all because He wants us to know His great love and love Him in return.

We have nothing to lose by allowing ourselves to seek God with every fiber of our beings. God’s the one who won’t let us down, who can take all our mess and brokenness, and who draws us into a deeper relationship with Himself. He is the one who can fully satisfy every searching and longing of the human heart.

When we seek after other things to fill the deepest aches of our hearts, we are left empty. But when we really seek after God, He not only fills us, but He sets us free.

God always shows up when we seek Him, and we have nothing to fear.

What is your heart seeking today?

Is it affirmation? God’s voice is the only voice that matters: you are defined as His beloved child.

Is it peace? The Lord is the giver of true peace, peace that lasts.

Is it attention? God’s tender gaze is always fixed on you. He can’t take His eyes off of you.

Is it answers? He is the way, the truth, and the life.

We can really seek after God, without fear of betrayal or the fear that seeking Him will lead us astray. The Lord promised that when we seek after Him with our whole hearts, we will find Him (Jeremiah 29:13).

Now this may all sound cheesy or way too hard to believe, but this is the reality of God’s love that we have the opportunity to live in: God bestows on us the gift of His Divine Revelation, that when we really seek after Him, we will find Him; when we lean into Him, we won’t fall.

We can’t seek after Him too much. We can’t press into Him too much. You are never a burden to our Lord. And the beautiful thing is that we are seeking after a very real God who knows all the ins and outs of our souls, who sees and knows every nook and crevice of our hearts, who cares about the things that make us laugh and the things that keep us up at night. He is there through it all. So let’s seek wildly after His Heart. He’s already there, and He has wonders to reveal to us.

Take courage in your seeking. Know that He is seeking after your heart all the more.

Come, Lord Jesus. We seek You. We long for You. We need You.

Do you find yourself seeking? Here’s some more Scripture to pray with this week on this theme: Psalm 63, Psalm 34:6, Psalm 27, Matthew 7:7-11, Song of Songs 3:1-4

Irrevocable Love

“Lord, in your great love, answer me.” -Psalm 69

Sometimes it can be easy to forget that God never leaves us. When we find ourselves in a place of searching for answers, He’s already there, already working on it. With Him, we are safe, and we don’t have to be afraid.

A lot of people talk about how God always hears our prayers, which is true, but let’s focus for a second on how God receives our prayers:

God receives your prayers with the utmost love, care, and concern. He receives your prayers with tenderness and compassion, with deep knowing and understanding for every cry of your heart. No corner of who you are is left unloved or unnoticed by Him. He really does care about every single detail of every prayer, repeated or only uttered once, spoken out loud, or buried in the depths of your heart.

Whatever is on your heart is on God’s heart, too. You always have His attention. His gifts and calls are irrevocable, as today’s first reading says. This applies to His loving, constant focus on you, too–that’s a gift He will never take away.

And so we can go to God, as we are. We can go to Him unmasked and hearts unveiled, because He always receives our prayers with love.

We praise You, Lord.

Home.

“Brothers and sisters:
You are no longer strangers and sojourners,
but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones
and members of the household of God,
built upon the foundation of the Apostles and prophets,
with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone.
Through him the whole structure is held together
and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord;
in him you also are being built together
into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” -Ephesians 2:19-22

It was Saturday night during the Steubenville NYC Conference this summer, and I was sitting with my 30 teens in the grass at St. John’s University, reflecting on what they had just experienced in a powerful night of Eucharistic Adoration. Each teen poured his or her heart out, telling of how God’s incredible love had touched them that night. As one of the boys was sharing, he stopped for a second, grinned, and then said: “Jesus is home.”

Jesus. Is. Home.

Those three little words from that wise 14-year-old boy pierced the depths of my soul that night.

Jesus is HOME.

We are no longer strangers and sojourners, as today’s first reading proclaims. A sojourner is someone who stays in a place temporarily. We can stay permanently with Him, because He is home. We can get cozy, settle in, and make His Sacred Heart our home, abiding and remaining in Him as He invited us to do at the Last Supper.

When we feel we don’t belong in our job, or in a city, in a crowded NYC apartment, or even in our own families, we always belong with Jesus. When we feel like we’re in constant change, He is our mainstay. In Him all things hold together, like a sturdy house (see Eph. 2:21 and Col. 1:17). We are known by God, loved to the deepest parts of who we are that we don’t even know ourselves.

We can dare to trust in God’s goodness enough to stay with Him, to hold on, to hang in. We can trust Him enough to set up permanent residence in His Heart. He is home, brothers and sisters; He is home. Rest in Him.

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.