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.

Take Me Back to the Garden

“For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.” -James 3:16-18

Oof. One of the worst feelings is when jealousy comes, fear strikes, or selfish words and actions come out instead of compassionate, peaceful, life-giving words. These sins cut to the core and are so ugly and uncomfortable when we commit them. We choose to be the worst version of ourselves out of fear or frustration rather than choosing to put on Christ (Galatians 3:27), at the expense of others’ pain and damage to our own relationship with God.

As St. Paul says, “I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15).

How quick our hearts can be prone to wander sometimes…and why?

It all goes back to the Garden.

“Take me back to the Garden

Lead me back to the moment I heard Your voice

Take me back to communion

Lead me back to the moment I saw Your face…”

Jesus, when we sin, oh help us to remember the constancy of Your love.

In those moments, we fail to trust the Lord will provide for our every need, that He is just that good. We forget that He is right there with us in any difficult moment, and that He will see us through. We rely on ourselves rather than casting ourselves into the arms of His mercy.

When jealousy, selfishness, fear, and uncompassionate words rear their ugly heads, we forget who we are, who God is, and who we are in God. It can be so easy to lose sight of His love for us and our belovedness in Him.

Jesus, when we sin, oh help us to remember when we first fell in love with You with childlike joy.

“You are closer, closer than my skin

And You are in the air I’m breathing in

And here’s where the dead things come back to living

I feel my heart beating again

It feels so good to know You are my friend…”

The invitation the Lord gives us is to be so radically immersed in His Sacred Heart, covered in His Most Precious Blood, and rooted in who we are in Him. Jesus has this available to us each moment of the day, ours for the taking, freely poured out by Him. He beckons each of our weary hearts to rest on His. He desires that we turn away from ourselves and our sin and be totally filled and satisfied by Him.

“This is where I’m meant to be

Me in You and You in me…”

As Lent begins this week, Jesus whispers to our hearts, “Come close to Me. Come back. Come home.” He so aches for you and so desires to fill you with His love and His mercy. When our hearts are fixed on His in constant, heart-to-Heart prayer, we don’t have to be afraid. We don’t have to let anger take over. We don’t have to be envious of others. Because He truly does provide for everything we need.

“This is where I’m meant to be

Me in You and You in me…”

(“Communion” by Maverick City Music ft. Steffany Gretzinger)

Overcome

“Our Savior Jesus Christ has destroyed death
and brought life to light through the Gospel.” -2 Timothy 1:10

You will not be overcome.

Jesus is the Master of our hearts, and He has won the victory over sin and death. It was impossible for our Savior to be held by the bonds of evil (Acts 2:24).

This reality changes everything for us if we let it. If we dare to live fully in the truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us, we will be set free—not to live recklessly, but to live with radical trust and surrender to the will of God at each moment of our lives.

It’s one of the hardest things to surrender with joy to God when we’re faced with a situation that makes no sense or one that absolutely wrecks us. It can be tempting to fall into thinking that somehow we will be overcome. It can be tempting to grasp at control.

In those moments, God whispers to us, “Wait and trust.” He calls us to stick right there with Him, to keep our eyes locked on His and to let Him guide each step of the way. We can stay so close to our Lord, trusting that He will lead us in every moment, never failing us.

We are His children, and He grabs us by the hand to guide our steps, like a parent helping a child learn how to walk. He won’t let go of you.

You belong to God, and this means that His victory over all evil is your victory, too. He won’t let any amount of evil ever win in the end.

You are so loved. Sometimes, we just need to take a breath and receive that simple yet profound reminder: you are so loved by God. And you will certainly not be overcome. Let this settle into your heart.

Amen, hallelujah!

“In darkness, at times of tribulation and distress of the spirit, Jesus is with you. In such a state you see nothing but darkness, but I can assure you on God’s behalf that the light of the Lord is all around you and pervades your spirit…You see yourself forsaken and I assure you that Jesus is holding you tighter than ever to His divine Heart.” -St. Padre Pio

A worship song recommendation for this theme is “Overcome” by Sarah Kroger!

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]