A Map of Faith

It was not through the law that the promise was made to Abraham and his descendants that he would inherit the world, but through the righteousness that comes from faith.  – Romans 4:13

How can we have faith?  This is a question that is asked and discussed in the small groups during the Alpha course we run at our parish. “Faith isn’t a blind leap. It’s a reasonable step based on good evidence.  In some ways faith is more like a journey,” they say as the Alpha video begins.

But what is the evidence for putting our faith in God?  The answer is simple, but not necessarily easy:  by having a personal relationship with God.  Jesus is our perfect example of how to live a life of faith.  Through his example we see the person of God himself become fully human to take on the burdens of all our sins and suffer to the point of death, not to save himself, but to save us.  He gives everything of himself for us.  And out of his great love for us, God gives us a share in this life of suffering, too.  Not because he doesn’t love us, but because none of us could ever repay our debts from the wrongs we have committed against himself and others.  And because of Jesus we don’t need to.  We need only carry the share of the suffering that is given us.   And from a human perspective this can sometimes seem grossly unfair.  We see that some very good and wholesome people experience a great deal of sufferings, while others skate through life seemingly unscathed.  The question is, how do we handle the unfairness we see?  Do we turn away from God?  Or do we follow Jesus’ example and lean more deeply into him?

The Scriptures tell us that “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)  So which is it? you may be wondering. Is faith, as Alpha says, “a reasonable step based on good evidence,” or is it as the Scriptures say “evidence of things not seen?”  When we look to the life of Jesus, we can see it’s clearly both.  Jesus did not go through life minding his own business until one day God put it on his heart to die for all our sins and Jesus did it and so now he’s a hero.  No!  Jesus was born into and shared a deep and personal relationship with God the Father from the very beginning.  And today’s second reading from Romans reminds us that years before Jesus became incarnate, Abraham, too, had a deep personal relationship with God the Father.  Without it, the whole story of the sacrifice of his son Isaac (also a young man of great faith and a prefiguring of Jesus) Abraham would appear insane!  But today we are told it was Abraham’s faith that God rewarded, not his adherence to any laws. (In fact, it wasn’t until centuries later that the Law was given to Israel, and that was only because of their many transgressions.)

Today’s readings are in celebration of the Solemnity of St. Joseph.  Joseph, another man of great faith, chose not to follow his legal right for a divorce from Mary when he discovered she was pregnant (though they had not been together), but rather to follow the commands of the angel of God who appeared to him in a dream and bring her into his home and marry her, though he stood to face much shame and rejection for doing so.

Abraham had great faith.  St. Joseph had great faith.  Jesus is our perfect example of faith.  All had a personal relationship with God.  By their examples, we can begin to connect the dots for how faith may look in our own lives:

  1. Open our hearts to God.  Alpha suggests we say a simple prayer like, “God, if you are real, show me in a way that I will understand and can come to believe in you.”  You could say this step is a “realization of what is hoped for” (Hebrews 11:1)
  2.  Watch/listen for God to respond to us.  This is the step I think that confuses many of us, as we tend to have at least two unrealistic expectations of God: 1) that God will answer us immediately, and 2) that it will be something very supernatural and obvious.  While these two things are certainly well within God’s capabilities to do, people who walk with God will generally attest to something quite different.  They see God working through the people around them, and through things that are already meaningful to them.  We, on the other hand, often mislabel these things as “coincidences.”  However, with open hearts, through the eyes of faith, we can begin to see these “coincidences” as our own personal “evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
  3.  Repeat step 1.  Once we’ve received this “evidence” in our hearts, though we can’t see it, we act on it if it calls us to act. Sometimes, the “evidence” is simply an affirmation of God’s love for us, or a reassurance of his presence with us that calls for no action on our part at all. And in many cases, we can rest assured that any calls to action will be reasonable, or at least consistent with the nature of God.  They are seldom “blind leaps”, but rather “reasonable steps based on good (but unseen) evidence.”

To us, Abraham’s sacrificial offering of his son, Joseph’s willingness to marry a woman pregnant with a child who was not his own, and Jesus’ willingness to take on death on the Cross can all seem like extreme “blind leaps” from where we sit.  But for them?  For them, these acts were their next most reasonable steps based on the lifetime of evidence they had from their personal relationship with the God of the Universe.

The same God who wants to have a personal relationship with you and with me.

From this perspective, we can begin to appreciate that perhaps the one who takes the biggest “leap of faith” in all of this is not us, but God.

Reflect:  What “evidence” do you have to point to in your life that God exists?  If you don’t have any “evidence” of God, have you considered asking for him to provide you with some? Does asking for God to provide this “evidence” seem like a reasonable step to you?  Imagine if after you die, you were to appear before God and accuse him of never revealing himself to you and his reply were simply, “Well, my child, why did you never ask?”  

Pray:  Heavenly Father, thank you for loving us even when we don’t love you in return.  Thank you for loving us even when we don’t know you, or forget to include you in our lives.  Help us to know you more fully, walk with you more closely, and experience your love and mercy more deeply as we begin, continue or renew our journey of faith with you.  Amen.

 

 

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An Oasis of Laughter

Save us from the hand of our enemies; turn our mourning into gladness and our sorrows into wholeness.  – Esther 14:14

We learn as small children that the smile is a facial expression for “happy” and that a frown is a facial expression for “sad.”  So, most of us, I think, see gladness and sorrow as polar opposites.  As a simple communication tool that’s helpful. But life and it’s emotions are very complex.  And the spiritual life, even more so.

Today’s Old Testament reading is taken from the book of Esther, which is a beautiful story of triumph about a Jewish orphan who becomes queen and ultimately saves her people from genocide.  A dramatic plot unfolds over the course of only a few chapters wherein as evil plans are being formed on one side, God is at work planning to overcome the evil through Esther and her uncle.  At one point, Esther turns to prayer calling out to God to save her people and “turn our mourning into gladness.” 

I’ve had many prayers like this myself, and I imagine you have, too.  My intention, of course, is for them to be answered immediately, so that I can “turn that frown upside down” as we sometimes say. And while it stands to reason that God could certainly work quickly– and sometimes does–very often his work is more slow, more methodical, more plodding than I’d like.

Yesterday I had an experience that gleaned some new insight into the hurried pace I often tread alongside a slow and methodical God. And I realized I might be missing something:  that joy and sadness don’t have to be polar opposites, exactly because sometimes joy and laughter appear right there in the middle of the sadness, not as an opposite but as an oasis of healing in the middle of a struggle.

You see, last week, a friend informed me  that she’d received a call  confirming a diagnosis she’d been dreading: cancer.  The same friend met up with me yesterday only to share that she’d just gotten another phone call with more news that they’d discovered a second disease she would now have to battle along with the cancer.

A devastating blow for sure.

But after my hugs and assurance of prayers, she broke into a smile and said, “You know, when I told my daughter about the second phone call today, I was wallowing over all this bad news. I told her it was bad enough to get the first phone call, but the second was even more devastating.  Then I asked her what she thought I should do.  And you know what she said?”  I shook my head no. “She said, ‘Well, Mom, for starters, I’d stop answering the phone!’.”

And we both broke out into laughter right there in the middle of all that sadness.

Of course, we’d all like to be spared from loss and suffering.  But I’ve heard it said, “The only way out is through,” and very often that is true for each of us.  While, unlike Esther’s story,  we may not always get the outcome we are hoping for, in the midst of our struggles God is happy provide us an oasis of healing.  It may come in the form of laughter with a friend to balm our wounds, or in the form of a warm hug to flood us with the grace to accept an alternate ending to the story we’d written for ourselves.

So I see Esther’s prayer a little differently today than I did before.  Since her story has a happy ending within only a few chapters, I’ve always seen that God answered her prayer immediately. But the ultimate answer wasn’t immediate, of course.  Things had to be set in motion.  People and places had to be just so.  And I realized God had to work slowly because we are limited by time and space, not him.

But he meets us where we are.

And he walks us through s-l-o-w-l-y, reassuring us of his presence with countless oases of healing along the way.

Reflect:  What or who provide an “oasis of healing” for me in my struggles?  Do I recognize these moments with these people, too, are a way for God to answer my prayers?  If not, what would happen if I just labeled these moments as “from God” even if I’m not certain they are? 

Pray:  God, thank you for your constant companionship!  Help me remember that just because I grow frustrated or weary in my struggles, does not mean that you have abandoned me!  Help me to soak up the joys of each “oasis of healing” I encounter to strengthen me in my journey ever closer to you.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

O, That I Were a Ninevite!

Jonah began his journey through the city, and had gone but a single day’s walk announcing, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed,” when the people of Nineveh believed God…     -Jonah 3:4

Today marks the first full week of Lent, and already it’s feeling like a lifetime to me.  The weather is dreary, the dog’s foot fungus won’t clear up, and the flurry of activity on my calendar for this month makes me anxious just looking at it… not to mention the fact that I’ve already failed a few times at some of the things from which I’d said I would abstain  (hello, all things sugar).

And I sit here like Jonah.  Resisting the words God is putting on my heart to share, insisting first that God respond to my own demands, OK, God, but first tell me…When will I see the sun again? When can I finally stop rubbing this stuff on my dog’s foot? Why can’t I just have one day without 47 errands to run and places I need to be? And why am I already failing at Lent and it’s only Day 7!?

And as I pray more over this Scripture the answer to everything–yes, all of my questions!– comes into focus.  But it’s not easy.  The answer is this: Return to Me.  Rely on Me. Repent and let go of so much…you.  And while I am more than happy to preach that word to everyone else (you know, all you sinners out there), God is reminding me today that having a share in the spiritual gift of prophecy does not give the prophet a free pass.  One cannot simply share God’s words and ignore it for oneself.  For Jonah, not following God’s words meant suffering in the belly of a great fish for three days and three nights.  It was only after that miserable experience that Jonah took God’s word  of repentance to the ominous and intimidating citizens of Nineveh.

But how did the Ninevites respond to God’s word through Jonah?  By immediately believing God’s warning, fasting, and putting on sackcloth  (a sign of mourning and a prayer of deliverance).

By widening the lens, we see the bigger points:  sometimes we are quick to change our hearts (like the Ninevites), other times we change more slowly (like Jonah).  Keeping our hearts open enough to leave room for God to enter into them and change us involves sacrifice. The psalmist sets the example for us today with his words, “My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.” Psalm 51:17

The self-emptying of our pride, our own agendas, and even some our earthly desires are reasonable and necessary requests for God to make of us in order to make us more like him: Perfect Love.  How we do that looks a little different for each of us, but the good news is that God is more than happy to work with and reward us no matter how much, how little, how long, or how soon we open our hearts and make room for him to do so.

Reflect: What is one thing you know you should do, but you have been avoiding doing for a long time?  What if God were to appear before you today and ask you to do it?  Would that spur you into action?  If not, ask God to forgive your stalling and help you see how tackling that one thing will free you, and how continuing to avoid it is making you a slave to something contrary to God’s love.  Then ask him to help you take one (teeny-tiny) step towards accomplishing this one thing…and be ready to take it!

Pray:  Lord Jesus, we see in Jonah a foreshadowing of you. In three days time, you entered into death and overcame death for the world! Thank you for opening the gates of heaven for us so that we may know eternal joy.  Help us follow your example by purging ourselves of our own earthly desires and sacrificing them for God’s greater heavenly desires for us. Jesus, we trust in you! Amen.

 

Pray Boldly!

“This is how you are to pray.”   – Matthew 6:9

When I was in college, I did a research project on using directives in the English language.  A directive is like a command, or “an official, authoritative instruction,” as dictionary.com states.  As an example, some simple directives that parents may use frequently are things like shut the door, brush your teeth or go to bed.  These are things we are not merely suggesting our kids to do if they feel so inclined, but are expecting to be done…and quickly!

As I read again the prayer we commonly call the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father, in Matthew’s gospel today, I’m reminded once again that Jesus not only lived with authority, he prayed to God our Father that way, too!  Viewing his prayer through a directive lens, it’s astounding to see the boldness with which Jesus prays. Give us. Forgive us. Lead us. Deliver us.  

As disciples, we surely are meant to pray this way, too!  However, it’s important to see that our directives, like Jesus’ must be rightly ordered.  Before Jesus begins praying these bold requests of God, he first praises God for their relationship as Father/Son (our Father) and praises God’s holiness (hallowed be Thy name).  Then Jesus aligns his own desires properly behind God’s desires (your kingdom come, your will be done).  Then, and only then does he begin with the directives, but these are also directives that had first come from God:  daily bread, forgiveness, and deliverance from evil are all things God has given us first!

In the Catholic Mass, before we recite the Our Father, the priest always prefaces this prayer by calling us to recite together “the words we dare to say.”  When you look at it this way, it does seem daring!  We call the God of the universe our father.  We ask that he cast his will upon us.  Then, we list the things we want from him as though they will happen.   How dare we say and demand these things!?  Yet, this is our faith.

Perhaps the words God speaks to us in today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah can help us understand,

“For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth…so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” – Isaiah 55:10-11

If we’ve rightly ordered ourselves to God, the relationship of God’s desires for us and our requests for those desires becomes analogous to the water cycle:

  1. God rains his love upon us.
  2. We absorb that love into our hearts.
  3. We grow in his love and begin to trust him, desiring even more of his love.  (But  we are helpless to give him anything, so we offer the only thing we have: our prayers.)
  4. Our prayers rise to him like water vapor, requesting ever more and more of that life-giving water pouring down upon us.
  5. God’s rain falls upon us even more, etc.

Isn’t it beautiful?

Perhaps with this renewed sense of understanding we can begin to pray even more reverently– and more boldly– to God our Father, just as Jesus did.

Reflect:  Have you ever asked God for something and didn’t get it?  How did that make you feel?  Did you give up on God after that, or did you try to learn more about what a healthy relationship with God really looks like?  Consider one thing you could do today that imitates the example Jesus gave us:  If you are baptized, do you call God your father?  Do you ask for his desires to come before your own? Do the things you request from God reflect things that God would want for you?

Pray:  Heavenly Father, we know you love everything you have created, including each of us.  Thank you for the gift of life and the gift of free will to choose you.  Thank you for the grace of baptism which makes us your children and draws us closer to you.  Thank you for the gift of your Son and your Holy Spirit who dwell among us and teach us how to draw intimately and confidently closer to you.  Amen.

 

Health and Holiness Don’t Come Easy

 

” … inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’.”                 – Matthew 25:34

It’s no secret to those who know me that I don’t like to cook.  I never have.  Granted, this a bit of a challenge since for the past almost 20 years my sole job has been a housewife.  If you were to write a job description for the role of housewife, I think most people would include cooking and preparing meals as a significant part of that job description. I should clarify here that’s it’s also not that I can’t cook.  When I prepare food it comes out pretty good most of the time, and sometimes even really good.  It’s that my heart just really isn’t into cooking, so I try to avoid it except on those days when I have nothing better to do.  And sometimes a trip to the dentist is a more appealing thing for me to do than cook, so I think you can appreciate how little I enjoy it.

While it’s rarely my first choice to cook, it is however, a priority of mine to eat!  I love to eat!  Especially junk food.  All the packaged, processed foods that get all the bad publicity these days?  I {heart} them.  Deeply. 

The thing is, as scientists and nutritionists tell us, those foods really aren’t good for us and have no redeeming value.  The vitamins, nutrients, and minerals that are necessary to human health and long life are severely lacking in these foods.  So we are advised to include them in our diets only rarely, if ever.

In Matthew’s Gospel today,  Jesus provides a similar caution about our eternal health.  Just as many of the perfectly legal and totally enjoyable (but often harmful) foods in the American diet are not advised for health and long life, many of the perfectly legal and totally enjoyable things about the American way of life (egocentricity, promiscuity, money-grubbing) are not advised for our eternal health. Today, Jesus warns us that the life we live here on earth –this brief, worldly life– is in many ways a preview of what our eternal life will center around based on the choices we make while here.

So, while I love  Suzy Q’s and Girl Scout cookies (I’m looking at you, Caramel Delights), I must admit that my health suffers from them when they aren’t taken in small doses. (I say this with confidence as I single-handedly stuffed my face with a box of Caramel Delights over the course of an afternoon and evening this past week.  I mean, I had to off-set all that Lenten fasting with something, right?)

The point is this: most of us enjoy things that are not good for us.  Most of us don’t willingly choose a life of healthy eating, nor do we choose a life of holiness and selflessness.  But most of us also desire to live a long, healthy life and I think most of us–regardless of what we believe comes after this earthly life–would like that time to be spent without pain and suffering.  But our choices matter, and we must train ourselves to desire what is right and good for us in order to get the outcomes we desire…in this life, and the next.

Reflect:  What is the one most unhealthy or unholy practice, habit or addiction in my life right now? In what ways do I rationalize spending time doing this thing I love even though I know it isn’t good for me?  What is one change I can make to put more distance between me and that unhealthy or unholy habit in my life?

Pray:  Lord, thank you for loving us so much you only want what is best for us.  You know our human weaknesses. Though you desire for us to be healthy and holy, you never force us to be.  Help strengthen us to stand firm against our weaknesses.  Make your desire for us, our desires, too! Give us the wisdom to begin building the foundations of healthy and holy habits both in this world and the next. Amen.

 

Get Your Hands Dirty

“This, rather, is the fasting that I wish…”  -Isaiah 58:6

The man was hard to miss as he came closer to my station in the food line. Not because of his disheveled shirt, tinged and dirty at the edges, nor because of his scuffed and worn sneakers with tattered laces. What was hard to overlook on that hot summer day as he shuffled through the line of our mobile food pantry was his urine-stained khakis. A grown man, no more able to hide his “accident” than a kindergartner in the front row of a school choir concert.

But the line for the food pantry begins to form early in the day, so it was quite possible he’d been waiting in line for over two hours. And line placement is critical because the further back in line you are, the greater your chances for many or all of the food to run out.

And he clearly needed the food.

So he had to choose: Degrade himself by soaking his pants? or go hungry?

That’s all I remember of the man.

Well, almost all I remember. I hadn’t been helping with the food pantry very long at that time, and I was still nervous about how to interact with “those people” on the receiving side of the table. I didn’t always know what to say and I sometimes ended up trying a little too hard. With this man, the only thing I kept thinking over and over was don’t stare at his pants, don’t stare at his pants, don’t stare at his pants. And as he got closer to my food station, I worked hard to hold steady and look at his face, though his eyes were  cast down. And then, the moment I’d been waiting for happened as he stopped at my station for the food (was I at the fruit table that day? I can’t recall), he looked up and met my eyes briefly and then cast them down again.

I hope he was relieved to find my eyes there waiting to meet his gaze instead of staring at his embarrassing stain. And I hope the warm smile I tried to flash quick enough for him to see, was in fact seen by him. I’ll never know because the moment was over so quickly, and he never said a word. I don’t know if I made any kind of an impression on him at all. But, I know he made one on me. Not for being a grown man who wet himself, but for having the courage to persevere despite how completely exposed he must have felt.

Like Jesus on the Cross.

Mother Teresa has said about the poor that “each of them is Jesus in disguise.” I sometimes wonder how that can possibly be, but when I think of that man, I somehow understand it better.

Today we are reminded through the prophet Isaiah that while fasting from material things like food and Facebook are good and honorable, the fast that God longs for us to do most is to give up our time to clothe in dignity “those people” who have less than us. “Those people” who suffer with impossible decisions every day like whether they should go hungry or relieve themselves in private.

It’s been a long time since I’ve worked the mobile food pantry line, and there is not one in our area now. But I heard God calling me through Isaiah today, reminding me it is time to “get my hands dirty” again and go out and serve “those people,” so I can better serve Him.

Reflect: What is one step you could take today to bring yourself a little closer to the poor in your community? If you don’t already give money, could you find a charity to support? If you already give of your money, could you give a little of your time to serve? If you already give of your time to serve, could you give your friendship? We can never out-give God. How is God inviting you to practice more generosity today?

Pray: Generous God, we know all good and perfect things come from you. Help us to imitate your generosity, your kindness, your love, and compassion to those who need it most in our community. Open our eyes to those who are most in need and inspire our hearts to make time to love and serve them. Amen.

 

On Choosing Life

“Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live…” Deuteronomy 30:19

When I was in ninth grade, I loved animals so much that I was sure I was going to be a veterinarian. I was lucky enough to have my parents steer me to a career exploration program where I got to “shadow” a veterinarian for three or four weeks so I could decide if this was indeed my future career. (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.) Mostly what my fellow explorers and I observed were surgeries to neuter or spay dogs and cats.

One day in particular stands out to me from that experience. That day we were going to “spay a pregnant dog.” My ninth grade mind didn’t quite conceptualize what this meant, so I stood and observed the vet as he made an incision into the dog’s belly then reached in and pulled out the dog’s uterus (which was more akin to how I’d always envisioned an intestine would look). His pulling it out of the dog’s belly reminded me a bit of a magician’s scarf trick…it just kept coming and coming out of the dog. As he held it up, we could clearly what I can only describe as a “sausage-tube” of five puppies. You could see their fur, you could see their little paws, you could see their closed eyes. And I thought to myself what exactly are we doing here? What’s he going to do with those puppies? And after holding the sausage-tube of puppies up for us all to see, he wordlessly dropped it into a garbage bag-lined plastic bin. And then he began sewing up the dog, who’s body, I was beginning to realize, had been slowly stretching and shaping in preparation to give birth, but who now was going to awaken from anesthesia with a belly slackened and empty.

That’s when I realized that I had just witnessed a dog abortion.

And while my heart broke for those puppies quietly dying in the bin, it also broke for the dog on the table who I was certain would feel some sense of loss or confusion when she woke up. I wanted to both save the puppies and comfort the mother. I wanted to find a home for her and for those cute little pups. But I couldn’t do that myself, and that wasn’t why I was there, so I did neither. But I went home deeply bothered and realized in that moment that I was not cut out to be a veterinarian.

I didn’t know it then, but this concern I had over the dog and her pups is what Pro-Life ministries do for human families. While the terms “Pro-Life” and “Pro-Choice” have become trigger words in our culture that are pitted at opposite ends of a spectrum, I truly believe that most people on both sides of the abortion issue act out of deep concern for the woman expecting a child. I also believe that most people on both sides agree that men and women should be able to have a say in (or choose) medical procedures that affect their bodies. The problem with pregnancy is that there are actually two bodies involved: the woman’s body, yes of course, but also a separate hidden body that is her unborn child. And even if he isn’t present, somewhere there is a third body: that of the man who helped create that unborn child. This is what my exposure to Pro-Life work has helped me see, because I didn’t always see it: that we must act with love out of concern for ALL of them.

Yes, we help and love and pray for the destitute and overwhelmed mothers, yes we help and love and pray for the distraught or absent fathers, and yes… we also do all of these things for the unborn.

The words from Deuteronomy are clear today, “Choose life then, that you and your descendants might live….” It is an inarguable fact that through abortion, not all of our descendants get the chance to live. We are cherry-picking our descendants before we even know them. And while the gateway for that may have been a law that gave us the option, the law is not even the issue. Abortion could be legal forever, but that doesn’t mean that any of us must choose it.

If our hearts change, the law will hardly matter. Blessed Mother, pray for us!
Reflect: Do you believe your life and body are your own or that they are gifts from God? If you believe they are your own have you ever thought about why you exist? What do you believe is the purpose for your life? For your body? If you believe your life and body are from God, what are some changes you need to make to better align with what God desires for your life? For your body? (Hint: Try reading Theology of the Body for Beginners by Christopher West or These Beautiful Bones by Emily Stimpson if you are unsure of God’s desires for your life and body.)
Pray: Loving Father, you have created us out of love for relationship with one another. Help us break down the barriers that prevent us from having real communication with one another about difficult and complex issues. Open our ears to hear what those whom we view as our opposition are truly saying, and help us unite the many divisions of our government, our country, our economy, our world, and most especially your Body the Church. Amen.

NOTE:  Some people (men or women) experience traumatic loss, sadness or even suicidal thoughts after choosing to terminate a pregnancy.  If you experience any of these thoughts or emotions after an abortion, please know there is help for you!  Consider reaching out to  Hope After Abortion  or  Rachel’s Vineyard .

Rehearse Your Victories

“Perhaps he will again relent and leave behind him a blessing…” -Joel 2:14

It’s sometimes hard for me to remember, when I’m in the midst of suffering, that God loves me and wants what’s best for me. Instead it feels like whatever pain or heartache I’m enduring has been ordered by God as a punishment for me and that he gets great pleasure from watching me suffer.

The prophet Joel’s words echo this sentiment for me today. While many years ago, I may have believed that God seeks to punish us; today, I know better. Still, when suffering comes, this can sometimes be my first gut reaction: that God is getting pleasure from punishing me. It takes a bit of actively recalling on my part all the many things that are good and have gone right in my life for me to remember God’s endless love for me. Some people call this active recall “counting your blessings.” And while that is certainly true and helpful –because when we begin to do that we start to realize that the good in our life outweighs the bad — “counting blessings” for me usually gets watered down to listing out people and things in my life I’m grateful for. And this sometimes leaves me feeling a bit guilty, because in that moment I may be experiencing heartache over the actions of a person that I know I should be counting as a blessing in my life!

A few years ago, when I was out for a walk and fuming over a particularly difficult situation that left me both extremely angry and deeply saddened, a neighbor was out gardening and came over to chat with me. (Little did she know the mood I was in!) But as we chatted, I found myself pouring out all my woes to her. She paused when I finished and said, “When I feel defeated and begin to lose hope, I find great strength in rehearsing my victories.”

Then she said simply, “Rehearse your victories!” and she walked back to her gardening.
As I continued my walk, I began to do just that. How many times in my life had I thought a situation hopeless, doomed, or defeated only to have become a better person for it, or to have been able to turn my heartache into a blessing for someone else? More times than I’d realized, it seemed.

As I viewed my life through this new lens, I was able to count the “blessings” of my life not just as people and things, but also as triumphs over tragedies, and healings that came from heartache. These were my victories! These were “blessings” from God, that had previously gone uncounted! Suddenly God was no longer a punishing God, but a loving Father who suffered greatly with me through each trial, in order that I might come out better and stronger in the end. I could also relate better to Jesus who asked God to “let this cup pass” if God willed it, because I would never actively seek to endure the “blessings” of suffering in my life. But each victory? I could now see that like a mother enduring long labor, each victory was definitely worth it!

As we enter this season of Lent–a season of active sacrifice and suffering in small ways,– I don’t really want to give up even the smallest of things, and a part of me even resents having to do so. But when I remember Jesus’ own triumphant Victory, and all of my many small ones…it helps.

Reflection: What are the victories in your life? What trials have you overcome and what blessings came from overcoming them? If you are suffering now, how might you envision the victory that awaits you?

Pray: Heavenly Father, thank you for the many blessings and all the victories in my life! Help me to see the trials in my life as mountains You climb with me, rather than tests You are waiting for me to fail. Open my eyes to see you working in both the joys and the sufferings of my life. Amen.

My Father’s Voice

“And your Father, who sees in secret will repay you.” – Matthew 6:4,6

It was the smallest of comments really.

If I weren’t in such desperate need of hearing it, I may not even have heard it.

But as I lay resting in the hospital recovering from my second c-section (and rather enjoying the fact that if I needed anything all I had to do was push the “call” button and it would be done for me–yay, nurses!), I had a roomful of visitors with me.  Between my in-laws, my parents, my husband, our toddler son, and our new infant son the room was near maximum capacity.  Babies really are such a blessing!  But motherhood doesn’t come without its trials, of course, and I was already beginning to worry about how I would handle an active toddler, a newborn baby and a husband who worked long hours once I returned home and our families returned to theirs.  My heart grew weary just thinking of it. Then, there it was, all I needed to hear floated above the chatter of the varying conversations in the room.  I heard my dad’s voice rise above the others saying, “The three of us have only had to watch [the two-year-old] since yesterday and he’s already completely worn us out.”  Then he turned and grinned at me.  “Yep.  He wore out all three of us, and all we had to do was half of what Lisa does every day.”

And there it was.  Everything and nothing in those few sentences.

Every part of validation, affirmation, encouragement, reassurance, admiration, appreciation, confidence, trust.  One big giant Atta girl! You got this!

No part of criticism, judgment, unsolicited advice, doubt or skepticism.  No You really need to step up your game, or else!

I sometimes forget that God wants to encourage me, not condemn me.   I get so busy focusing on my own self-critical voice pointing out all the ways in which I fall short that I forget to listen for Him telling me that He sees my efforts…and they are good!

Enter Jesus, the Living Word.

Jesus tells us not once, but three times today (I think that means it’s important!) in His sermon on the mount that our “Father, who sees in secret” and “sees what is hidden” will repay us.  He says this in the context of the unseen, unnoticed things we do for or give to others (almsgiving);  the unspoken desires and longings churning deep in our hearts (prayer), and the self-serving things we give up or let go of in the interest of a greater good (fasting)…all within the context of doing these things without gaining acclaim from anyone.

And to each of these things, Jesus assures us, “God sees you.  God will repay you.  God sees you.  God will repay you. God sees you. God will repay you.”

And just how will God repay us?  Why, with Himself of course!  The more we do for God, the more we become like Him:  loving, kind, patient, caring, joyful, generous and peaceful.

And the more we become like Him, the more we can share Him with others.  That is the good news!

So, as we venture out into this desert of Lent, let’s remember to keep our hearts open for  the Living Word of our Father.   Much as my dad’s words have carried me over the years as I’ve journeyed through motherhood, so, too, will our Father’s Word carry us as we journey through this season.

Pray:  Lord, thank you for your generous love and your encouraging Word.  I thank you for all the blessings in my life, and for helping me shoulder the burdens that come my way.  I am grateful I can always count on you to be there for me.  Help me to give generously, love deeply and walk humbly with You.  Amen.

What kind of virgin are you?

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.    Five of them were foolish and five were wise.

 -Matthew 25:1-2

I don’t know about you, but this parable has always been a little unnerving to me.  This morning, I was compelled to do some research to see what kind of deeper message I might be missing here, besides the obvious, which I read as: the kingdom of heaven is open to everyone…until it isn’t.  While I know this, I’m always driven to see how this might be a message of God’s love for His people.   Because, on it’s surface I’ll admit this doesn’t exactly mesh with the image I have of a loving God!

So, here’s a little backstory I found:  first of all, as Biblical scholar Scott Hahn states in his commentary, “this story line centers on a Jewish marital custom: following the period of betrothal, the groom would lead a procession to bring his new wife to their home, and they would celebrate a week-long banquet with family and friends.”  Ok, so that explains why the virgins (also called bridesmaids or maidens in some translations) need lamps while waiting for the bridegroom:  because while you are expecting his arrival any time, you don’t know exactly when he will come (it  may be dark).  There is a rather obvious parallel here then to our lives as Christians awaiting the second coming of Jesus.  Like all ten virgins in the story, we need to be ready for the arrival of our Eternal Bridegroom Jesus.  For we know not the day nor the hour of that arrival (Mark 13:32).

But what is the significance of the lamp and the oil in my life today?  And here too, my bible footnotes* were a help.  It states that both Origen and St. Hilary tell of a moral parallel for us here:  that the lamp is our Christian faith and the oil represents our good works. This makes much more sense (and sounds much less harsh in this context) when later the ten “foolish” virgins say to the wise ones, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out,” and the wise virgins reply, “Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.” (Matthew 25:8-9)

Ahhh.  Now I see.  Some things–like a personal lived experience with Jesus– just cannot be given to us through others.  Why?  Because Jesus invites each of us individually. Unless we respond to the invitation and open our hearts, the gift may simply go unopened. Not because we aren’t loved, but because we need to welcome that experience for ourselves. This is the risk of free will.

The work we Christians are called to do is done out of charity that is inspired by our personal relationship with Jesus.  If I don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus, you cannot make that happen for me.  If you do not have a personal relationship with Jesus, I cannot make that happen for you.  If your aunt was a nun or your daddy a preacher, this does not mean you will automatically have a personal relationship with Jesus.  Sure we can share our stories, and we can encourage one another in our faith, but when it comes time to “meet our Maker”, the only experience of God that counts is our own.

These thoughts reminded me of another saying I’ve heard recently, “God has no grandchildren.”  What this says to me is that every child of God–all us adopted sons and daughters through the light of our baptism in Jesus–are first-generation children of God! While that may seem somewhat obvious at first, when I ponder that my relationship with God is every bit as personal and real (or has the potential to be if I “do the work” that is required in relationships) as if I were one his chosen people of the Old Testament like Moses or Elijah , or the New Testament like Peter and Paul, my mind just kind of buckles in awe. Can you believe that’s what we are invited to… you and I!?

But what we do with that invitation is ours for the chosing.  We can either stoke the fire that lights our faith with prayer (talking to God) and meditation (listening to God through more prayer and Scripture), or we can hold our faith-lamp close (or throw it away)  and criticize and blame others for its brokenness and lack of light.

Faith is a trust and confidence in something (or Someone) you cannot see.  It is God’s gift to us, but we must open our hearts to receive it.

What we do with that faith–the charitable works of giving to others (and the daily work, too, like prayer and meditation)–are our gifts to God.

According to my bible dictionary**, a virgin, in biblical terms,  is a female “whom no man had known” in a sexual or deeply intimate way, but it can be used as a figure of speech or image referring to nations or peoples as well.  In the Old Testament virginity was not esteemed for its own sake, but in New Testament times it became a desired state in life as a path to spiritual fulfillment modeled by many  (think John the Baptist, Mary, Jesus, Paul).

This parable reminds me, among other things, that a healthy personal relationship with Jesus requires both faith and works.  And that a personal, intimate relationship with our Triune God–Father, Son and Spirit– is the relationship I, we, must desire above all else. Settling for anything less is foolish.

I pray we all choose wisely.

 

*Ignatious Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Second Catholic Edition, RSV
**Catholic Bible Dictionary, Scott Hahn, ed.