2019: Goodbye Melancholy; Hello Lovely!

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I have to admit I’ve never been a person who was captivated by systems of government or put much faith in politics. While I believe it is a legit calling for many a brave soul, it has never interested me. Long ago, during the early years of marriage, I found myself in exasperation over my husband’s obsession with politics. Though I had never seen this side of him previously, for whatever reason, his life became centered around the daily success of the party to which he was affiliated and the demise of the one with which he wasn’t.  It seemed as if his mood rose and fell with the news story of the day. I remembering challenging him frequently as to whether or not this obsession was helping him live his vocation as a husband, a father, a social worker. Was it helping him to be a vessel of God’s grace to the world? I reminded him that Judas Iscariot also thought that salvation would come through politics–if only Jesus could rise in political rankings, Israel would be saved. Look at how things worked out for him, I would say.

One of the gift of life’s journey is the time and experiences it gives us to grow and change. I am happy to report that after some time, my husband got off the obsessive political train and found a better balance. His focus shifted more to how he could make a difference in the lives of those God had entrusted to his care–us, his family and the combat veterans who suffer from PTSD whom he treats in his work as a psychotherapist. Each day when he goes to work, he lives his life performing what we Catholics refer to as “The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy”, kind acts by which we live out the teachings of Christ by helping our neighbors with their material, physical, emotional and spiritual needs.

But in some kind of weird role reversal, here we are about 20 years later and over the past two years I’ve found myself slowly but steadily becoming the obsessive one. On too regular of a basis, I’ve been drawn like a moth to a flame to the chaos and negativity and sadness and injustice and plain ol’ ugliness playing out in American politics. Ugh. It’s not fun, but some days I just can’t even stop myself.

Back in my college days, as a double major in Theology and Mental Health/Human Services, I was introduced to the ancient Theory of Temperament. Different fields of the sciences have since re-framed it in many ways, but simply it proposes there are four basic types of temperaments found in human beings. Most suggest we are primarily comprised of one type, but others present the idea we are more likely a mix of two or more. Our professor had us take some kind of assessment to determine what our temperament was–Melancholic, Phlegmatic, Sanguine or Choleric. (If interested, you can take a similar quiz here.) Truly, it was no surprise to me when after adding up the numbers, I was deemed as having a melancholic temperament.

I found myself as a Melancholic described perfectly at this site, “Their generally dour demeanor comes from their inner struggle between an imperfect world and a desire for perfection.” BINGO. This is the truth at the core of my everyday experience, for as long as I can remember! One of my earliest memories was watching Jesus Christ Superstar and bitterly weeping over the injustice of Jesus being killed. For days this sadness hung over me like a big, black cloud. Heck, I was only like five years old, people! These tendencies go WAY deep and I have a long and too comfortable relationship with approaching everything I experience as not measuring up to how it should be. God have mercy on the people in my life (y’all know who you are). Thank you for not giving up on me, at least not yet!!

When I take a deep introspective look inside, I still don’t think I am a political person, but I do believe I have a deep commitment to Gospel values. As a teen, one of the qualities about Jesus Christ that made me want to follow Him and know Him and live a life trying to emulate Him was that He was a rebel with a cause. He bucked a system in which the poor and the misunderstood and the disabled and the women and the down-on-their-luck folks were written off. He championed the cause of the marginalized and He dined with sinners. And even more captivating to me was that some of His loudest critics and fiercest opponents were those from His own religious background, even from His own family. WHOA. This was unprecedented rebellion in the name of LOVE.

So fast forward to now and from my melancholic viewpoint, I see the way Jesus lived in the world and the way He loved people as the way the world should be. But as a wise teacher once wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun”.  These past two years have been filled with encounters in which various groups of friends and acquaintances, with whom I formerly shared a vast amount of common ground on this vision of the world, are lining up in accusation against each other, fighting voraciously with words and insults. I find myself in this weird place where some of the loudest critics and fiercest opponents to my vision of a perfect world are those with whom I share a religious background and a shared history of life. Herein lies the dilemma, the drama, the trigger which I allow to dive me into a sea of melancholy for days on end. And I’ve finally decided it needs to stop.

In an unexpected and wonderfully surprising turn of events, last spring quite an extraordinary person entered my life through a common loved one. After a few blessed opportunities to encounter her over a period of nine months or so, I have decided that simply, she is the embodiment of the word lovely. If we still relied upon printed dictionaries to learn the meaning of words, it would be entirely appropriate for her picture to appear next to the word lovely. And this isn’t just because she is outwardly beautiful, which she is. But it goes so much deeper than that. There are a few different definitions of lovely found in the Free Dictionary, which aptly apply to my new friend. They are as follows:

  1. loving and attentive
  2. inspiring love
  3. having a beauty that appeals to the heart or mind as well as to the eye 
  4. highly pleasing; delightful
  5. of a great moral or spiritual beauty: lovely character.”

Lovely is who she is and what she is about. No one can fake this. In a world filled with reasons to be melancholic, her simple presence in a room lifts up and illuminates all that is beautiful. Even before she speaks a word, her heart is open and welcoming, her eyes communicate love and attentiveness and are always looking for beauty. She finds the good in people, in the world of nature, in the world of great thinkers, writers and poets and she searches and finds the good in ugly situations and difficult experiences. Spending time in her company is delightful, pleasing and it makes me want to be a better version of myself.

What I’ve come to learn from my friend’s example is that becoming lovely takes a lot of work. It takes years of mindfully choosing to find the lovely over and over and over again in people, in places, in things, and in situations and then to respond in kind with loveliness over and over again to people, to places, to things and to situations. For her, the journey to lovely started from the darkest and lowest place of her life and recovery was the road she took to get there.

With the commencement of a new year, I have been inwardly searching for a single word to guide me forward in 2019.  The reason I really like the idea of choosing a word, rather than a specific resolution for a new year is because one word can inspire a multitude of positive actions as I unpack it and embrace it and live it over the months ahead. It has been brewing within me for weeks, but was crystallized yesterday when I caught sight of the photo above from the Instagram account of MagnoliaLovely.

Cooperating with God to focus on all that is lovely will most definitely require hard work and choices and mindfulness. I will need to find balance and stop giving power to politics and pundits and the online arguments between my friends. When I am tempted to turn back, I will need to ask myself if such an obsession helps me live my vocation as a wife, a mother, a vessel of God’s grace in the world. I will need to remind myself that the salvation of the world will most definitely not come through politics, but through Love incarnate.

Like my new friend, I can use the tools of recovery to strengthen me on the way to becoming lovely. Arguably the best prayer ever written in the 20th century is The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr. It is the antithesis to my melancholic way of seeing. May it become my new daily anthem…

God grant me the serenity 

To accept the things I cannot change;

Courage to change the things I can;

And wisdom to know the difference.

 

Living one day at a time;

Enjoying one moment at a time;

Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;

Taking, as He did, this sinful world

As it is, not as I would have it;

Trusting that He will make things right

If I surrender to His Will;

So that I may be reasonably happy in this life

And supremely happy with Him

Forever and ever in the next.

Amen.

Without further adieu, let the adventure begin…

“Goodbye Melancholy”; “Hello Lovely!” 

Hardness of Heart is No Match for Bold Love

 

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Yesterday morning, after a long hiatus, I stopped by sacredspace.ie to hang out with the Irish Jesuits. Since 1999, they have hosted a website which guides users through a wee bit of daily prayer. Not only does it offer to me a quick connection with my God, but it does double duty–it connects me to my roots (or at least the 48% of my heritage of which I’m most proud). Every time I connect to the site, which is hosted approximately 4,121 miles from where I am, in my imagination I picture a few of the Irish Jesuits gathered at a corner table in a dark and cozy pub in Dublin, crafting prayer while sipping on Guinness.

Though I freely admit I may over romanticize the actual logistics of how Sacred Space is created, one thing I know for sure is time and again, they successfully guide me through a simple, but effective prayer experience. I needed a mid-morning re-grounding. My mind has been spinning as of late and so many things are fueling my anger; mostly injustice and good people suffering needlessly and people pointing fingers and narcissistic political leaders whose selfish actions reap ripple after ripple of pain upon the least of these. As I went through the sequence of guided prayer, I sought to calm my spirit and refocus my mind so that the day might end as a productive one, rather than a failed attempt to complete a series of scattered and random tasks.

My life’s routines have put me in a place to have heard and read the four Gospels many, many times throughout my journey. It is a rarity to hear a story that I don’t remember listening to before. Yet on some occasions, there is one that presents itself in a way I’ve never heard it told. The reading within Sacred Space was the story from the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 3. It is the Sabbath, Jesus is in the synagogue and a man with a withered hand was there too. The Pharisees were watching to see if Jesus would cure the man on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him of breaking the law. So Jesus calls the man forward and asks all who are present, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. What comes next, I swear I had never heard before, but I really needed to hear it in the moment. It reads, “He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart.”

Jesus was angry. So am I. What a relief; at least I am in good company. Jesus was grieved. So am I. The grief and sadness are at the core of the anger. Jesus saw that the Pharisees were more concerned with catching him breaking a law than they were with helping out a broken man. I too grieve at the hardness of the hearts of men and women, especially those who claim to be His followers, who are more concerned about winning and fulfilling a political agenda than they are about doing good to the least of these. Their hearts are hardened against the broken, against the impoverished, against the traumatized, against the marginalized. They are hardened against those fleeing violence, against those seeking a better life for family. They forget they were given the gift of being born in this country by ancestors who sacrificed in unimaginable ways to get here and to gift a better life for generations of descendants whom they would never meet. It is all so overwhelming. In the face of such callousness, I feel so small and helpless and unable to even make a dent.

But then I look back at the Gospel passage and I see Jesus, surrounded by hatred, make a bold choice. In the company of those who are plotting for his demise, he boldly says to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” The man stretched it out, and his hand was restored. Jesus chooses love. One response of love in the face of callousness made a big dent. It most definitely ticked off the Pharisees. The end of the reading says, “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” Their agenda and their egos were so threatened by big and bold love that they joined together with unlikely allies to plot as to how they could take Jesus out of the picture. But then I think of the man with the withered hand and the effect this healing might have had in his life. Having a hand restored to wholeness could make all the difference in his ability to labor and provide for his family. It could free him from the self-consciousness that physical disability brings and the shackles of shame and the feeling of never being enough. Certainly this man’s healing set into motion ripples of goodness which not only changed him, but positively affected those closest to him and so on.

I am reminded of a recent podcast in which On Being with Krista Tippett interviewed Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, an author and professor in integrative medicine. Rachel shared about growing up in a Jewish household with a grandfather who was an orthodox rabbi and a mystic. He introduced Rachel to the ancient Jewish teaching of Tikkun Olam. Explained simply in her words,

Tikkun olam is the restoration of the world. And this is, of course, a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world. And that story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.”

It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you. With these words echoing in my mind and heart and spirit, I sense peace being restored within me for now. My Creator gently brings to my attention that I’m not called to make a huge difference, but I am called to choose love–one decision, one word, one action at a time. I don’t have to take on the burden of callousness of all those whose hearts are closed and fists are raised–I only must respond to the world He allows to touch me, the world He places around me.

Today I will yield myself to grace and simply ask to be a vessel of love in the simple ways that present themselves to me. May I be used to bring forth justice, even if it just be in the life of my kiddo who is feeling frustrated with an unfair situation. May I be used to end suffering, even if it just be in the life of my husband who is carrying the heavy burden of the pain his clients live with each day. May I be used to heal the traumatized, even if it just be in the life of my friend whose child has recently revealed a past sexual assault. May I be used to give shelter to those in need of refuge, even if it just be in the life of my co-worker who needs a place to sit and vent. May God grant me the serenity to trust that even my small acts of love, in His hands, may yield big and bold ripples of goodness which will, in the end, overcome hatred and hardness of heart.

 

 

She Who Once was Distant Has Now Drawn Near

Ten years, six months, and one day after Pope John XXIII announced the creation of the Second Vatican Council, I was born into this world. For those unfamiliar with the concept, simply speaking, a council is called in the Roman Catholic Church to gather religious leaders so they might settle doctrinal issues. In 1959, there had not been such an assembly in nearly 100 years. However, Pope John XXIII believed it was right to convene a council because he thought it was time to open the windows and let in some fresh air to the Church.

As a result of the Vatican II, which concluded in 1965, there was a big shift in the day-to-day spiritual experience of your average Catholic. Maybe one of the most significant results of the council was henceforth, Mass was to be celebrated in the primary language spoken in one’s country. And instead of having his back to the congregation, the priest now faced them during the celebration of Eucharist. The regular people in the pew were now being included in the celebration in more ways, communicating their participation as a vital component of the Mass, and of the Church as a whole.

Being born to two cradle Catholics just 4 years after the implementation of Vatican II, my Catholicism was certainly formed by the changes it brought and my parents’ complete and welcome acceptance of them. There are many theologians and faithful Catholics who argue the years after the implementation of the Council were disastrous and led to problems experienced later in the Church. Yet in my memories, it was quite exciting to witness my parents embrace their faith in a whole new way, so different from their upbringing in the Church of the 1930’s and 1940’s. They became involved in ministries of the Church and their participation filled them with a joy I found quite captivating. From an early age, I wanted what they had in terms of the love and fulfillment they found in their Roman Catholic faith, post-Vatican II. As understood by the pendulum effect, surely some of the richness of the pre-Vatican II Church was lost to me being born in the time I was. Yet on the other side of the coin, as I grew older, there was a realization I was given the gift of an entirely different kind of richness exactly because I was born in the time I was.

My beloved grandmother, nicknamed “Mamoo”, had a deep love for Mary, the Mother of Jesus. There was a story told in our family about a time when post-surgery her heart stopped and she had a near death experience. She saw her own body lying beneath her with the doctors working to revive her and from a distance she witnessed the Blessed Mother, emanating bright light, warmth, and love, nearing closer to her. Before they could meet, she was back in her own body and alive. I was only eight years old when she died, but I never forgot the story. I didn’t really feel close to the Blessed Mother but wished one day I might know her like Mamoo did. In the swing of the pendulum, there wasn’t a significant emphasis placed on Mary and the prayer of the Rosary in my childhood faith development. I don’t think this was a conscious decision by my parents, but a result of the excitement of embracing other aspects of their faith dormant until unleashed by Vatican II.

One of the most exciting and inspirational aspects of faith my parents embraced during those years was developing their personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Upon their return from a marriage retreat, I witnessed firsthand what is described in the Bible in 2 Corinthians, Chapter 5, verse 12: “So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” Clearly my father was a new man. As he described it, he encountered Jesus in a deeply vulnerable way and felt unconditionally loved by God, instead of just intellectually knowing he was. The old dad had passed away and he began living in a way that filled our home with love, acceptance, and encouragement. I sensed the Holy Spirit was hanging around our house now and I liked it. I liked it a lot. They joined with others in our local parish who had encountered God in this personal way and they gathered weekly to pray and support one another. These people became extended family and in their presence, I always sensed the closeness of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. To be around them felt as if I was basking in the warm sunshine of the early days of summer, but the rays consisted of unconditional acceptance and love which I allowed to penetrate my being. This was the richness given to me by the Church of Vatican II. It was the gift which led me to a small Catholic university in Ohio where I could study Theology in the hopes of using my life in service to God and continuing the renewal in the Roman Catholic Church.

Upon arriving on campus in 1989, I was surrounded by peers who like me, had encountered the Holy Spirit in their lives and were on fire for their faith. Yet there were others who seemed very alien to me. The center of their faith in Jesus Christ was very much intertwined with their love for his Mother, Mary. In recent years there had been apparitions of the Blessed Mother happening in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia. As a result, a great renewal in praying the Rosary and increased devotion to Mary was occurring, probably the biggest surge since the onset of Vatican II, and I found it difficult to embrace. This really bothered me. I wanted a relationship with the mother of Jesus. It seemed to me that it should be natural to love the woman who loved Jesus into being and throughout his life, until the end. Who else knew him better? If I got to know her, I could know him better. And so I tried. After getting reacquainted with the prayer of the Rosary, I joined in its recitation weekly with a group of woman. It is a prayer which invites one to contemplate several important moments in the life of Jesus while reciting the Hail Mary. Faithfully, I did this; week after week, Hail Mary after Hail Mary, but still she felt strangely distant to me. One semester I was required to complete a course in Mariology, taught by one of the world’s most highly regarded Mariologists. I should have finished that course inspired ever more by Mary’s role in the life of Jesus, and fully cured of my lukewarm feeling, but I didn’t. To me, she seemed too perfect to be relatable.

For many years I hid this secret as I was ashamed to admit that I really didn’t have a devotion to Mary, and preferred almost any other type of prayer over the Rosary. Convinced that to share this struggle would certainly draw judgment from fellow students, I remained silent. Of course, I continued to revere her externally, such as placing flowers at her statue on my wedding day, and saying the right prayers and singing the right songs on the feast days which celebrate her. Internally, however, she seemed so far away from my heart. To mentally obsess about what was wrong with me, the Catholic from birth, the Theology major, and later the Church worker who didn’t have a relationship or even a warm affinity for the Mother of Jesus served only to worsen the divide. Eventually, I decided to shift my focus off what I was not, and instead tried to appreciate who God had made me be, imperfections and all. I simply let go of my fixation upon my non-relationship with the Blessed Mother.

Becoming a mother at the age of 31 instantly proved to be the biggest source of both joy and suffering in my life. And the same reality continues to this day, 16 years later. No amount of advance preparation could ever have readied me sufficiently for its plethora of challenges; good and bad. Its daily scenarios bring me to my knees and humble me more than I ever imagined I would be or could be. And it has been on those exact days, the ones when I find myself so very close to the dirt of the earth, bowed low, crying out for guidance and wisdom and strength, I sense the distance between her and I narrowing.

One of the great paradoxes I didn’t understand as a younger person is the experience of suffering and brokenness is the great leveler of humanity. And all mothers suffer. This suffering looks and feels different at all the stages of our child’s growth and development, but it never ends; not ever. Therefore, there is a capacity for women to deeply bond with one another, especially when we are vulnerable enough to admit we don’t have it figured out and it is as hard as rocks and some days we don’t even know how we are going to make it through with our sanity intact. It was through this lens I began reading the stories of Mary in the Scriptures anew. No longer seeing her as perfect and unrelatable, instead, I began to see in account after account how time after time she suffered in her role as mother.

In the scriptural account of the Annunciation, when Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel, it describes her as being greatly troubled. In response to the news of conception, she was terrified. She was young and unmarried and no amount of advance preparation could have ever readied her for the plethora of challenges ahead. She was a source of scandal in her community and it took the intervention of another angel to convince her betrothed to marry her. In the impending moments before the birth of her child, she again found herself in challenging circumstances. Travel via donkey while 9 months pregnant is arguably less than ideal. Giving birth in a stable seems downright cruel. Days later, upon presenting Jesus in the temple, an old man took her baby into his arms and said that this child was destined for the fall and rise of many and she, a sword would pierce. Shortly thereafter, she had to flee the country of her birth and become an immigrant in a strange land to escape the plot to kill her newborn.

When he was just a child, she lost him for days in the city. When found, with seeming unconcern for his mother’s suffering, he explained he was about doing his Father’s business. Tradition tells us that while he was still young, she became a widow. The responsibility of raising a son was now hers alone. At the wedding of Cana, when out of concern for her friends who were hosting the celebration, she asks him for help his first response is almost a rebuke: “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.”

As she sees him fulfilling his life’s mission during the years of his public ministry and positive news about him is spreading, her nearest relatives and neighbors still doubt the validity of the good news and question how it could be so. The carpenter is doing these things? How could this be the same Jesus they knew? Later stories are communicated to Mary of many who are rejecting her son, including the leaders of their very own Jewish faith. Frightening accounts are shared with her of some who want to throw him off a cliff. Then she hears the tragedy of her cousin Elizabeth’s son John, who was jailed and beheaded for supporting Jesus. As his ministry culminates, she witnesses Jesus be unjustly judged and sentenced to death. At the very end, still, by his side, she walks with him the way of the cross to his crucifixion. At his feet she stays, watching the flesh of her flesh, bloody and bruised and suffocating until he breathed his last breath. I am struck by how much sadness, heartbreak, and suffering she had to endure; more than any one woman should ever have to bear. Yet in the history of salvation, it is she who is identified as one full of grace; first by the angel Gabriel and later by generations upon generations of people. Even those who are not of a Catholic or Christian tradition honor her as such.

The advent of adolescence in our household came swiftly and without much warning. It seems as if overnight the winds shifted, turned bitterly cold and took much of the sweetness and warmth away from our parent-child relationship. Its intermittent moments of unexpected intensity are only exasperated by the fact that we haven’t done this before and our daughter is our only child. There are days when the foundation we worked so long to build feels as if it is going to crumble right beneath our feet and others when the walls might fall down and crush us. One such moment happened in recent days. I had read the signs and knew a perfect storm was brewing. I gave my daughter warnings so as to avert the potential tempest. She was given ample time to correct and make amends for some poor choices, but none were made. Time was up. Out of love and concern, I allowed her to experience the consequences of choices she made. In that moment, everything blew up.

The sheer force of her response rendered me feeling breathless, utterly rejected, unloved and mocked, by the flesh of my flesh, the one for whom I would die without hesitation because it is in my nature because I am her mother. False accusations and angry words were hurled at me, both to my face and behind my back on her social media accounts. And for whatever reason, this time it hurt more deeply than ever before. It was raw and very difficult to hold. I wanted to lash back; I wanted to make the pain stop, but to do so would only perpetuate the cycle and make everything worse. In desperation, I cried out to God. And in that moment, she who is full of grace drew nearer than ever before.

Mary reminded me of her heart; though pierced by a sword, it was able to burn bright with the fire of love. It could hold the pain and the love together without rejecting the other. Her heart, she reminded me, was broken over and over throughout her journey as a mother. Yet it was precisely in the breaking that its capacity to overflow with divine love and grace grew with each new fissure. Recalling the traditional religious image of the Immaculate Heart, which before had no positive effect on me, it seemed as if she was extending it to me. For the first time, I saw its softness, its warmth, its healing grace overflowing to hold, comfort and heal me. I begged her to ask her Son to give me the strength in this moment to bear the pain and love together in the small space of my broken heart. Slowly, a peace came over me, the temptation to retaliate lost its power and I could breathe through the agony, just as I did when I was in labor with this same child.

She who once was distant has now drawn near. In the depth of our new bond and in the warmth of her presence I sense it is precisely in the breaking of my heart that its capacity to overflow with divine love and grace is growing with each new fissure.

United with you, we will be one with God.

United with you, we will be open to the will of God.

United with you, we too will feel the mystery of Christ, alive within us.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.

-excerpt from Prayer to the Mother of God, Mary by Reverend Edward Hays

 

The Lifeless Backdrop for a Glorious Unfolding

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A couple of years ago, during the same time of the year in which we find ourselves now, I wrote a blog post about the contrasts found in nature, which also seem to mirror the contrasts found in the experiences of our lives. I am grateful for the opportunity given me by Carlos Briceño, editor of Christ is Our Hope Magazine to revisit the post and update it to be relevant for today.

During the process of revision, it struck me how the same words written then still hold true today. Many of my loved ones are still suffering; watching them endure heart-wrenching experiences is still painful and there are days when I still feel utterly helpless to relieve their suffering. Yet these same written words also hold true—life’s moments filled with the darkness of hatred, despair, failure, betrayal and loneliness still can serve as the lifeless backdrop for a glorious unfolding to come. May we keep our eyes wide open so we might see it and recognize it and be empowered by it anew.

The Lifeless Backdrop for a Glorious Unfolding as featured in the March 2017 edition of Christ is Our Hope Magazine.

 

Cherishing the Wait for the Fulfillment of Hope: What the Chicago Cubs Taught Me About Advent this Year

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There have only been four times in the last twenty-two years when Christmas landed on a Sunday. The reason I take notice of this is because in my twenty-two year career working for the Catholic Church, that is the number of occasions when I had four complete weeks of Advent in which to complete the gargantuan number of tasks required of me during this season. Normally, December, in addition to being the usual kind of chaotic at home, is a whole other kind of crazy at work. There tends to be lots of extra duties, all with shortened deadlines and while it is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, I normally find myself facing it with a dreadful sense of angst. This is a terrible thing to be thinking in my head. Admitting it publicly? Worse yet! The most discouraging aspect is while I truly believe in the meaning of Christmas, allowing it to have power in my life in the midst of the chaos is a mighty battle.

This year was no exception. Cyber Monday quickly brought me to an unusally high level of panic that steadily rose as my email inbox kept filling up with coupon codes and chances to save. As I sorted through them and deleted the ones that weren’t appealing, the inbox continued to replenish itself with more and more promises of savings unlike ever before! The need for order and control in my life reared its ugly head and this deluge of information threw me into a tailspin.

Yet if I am honest, the nosedive began weeks prior to Cyber Monday. If I had to pinpoint its start, it was at the very beginning of November when I set off to shop for an event I was to host later in the month. In my search for some autumn inspired home goods, upon entering most stores, I was immediately assaulted with an onslaught of bright lights and sparkly Christmas goods. Finding the muted tones of browns and oranges, teals and burgundies almost merited the creation of a search party. When finally they were found, these remnants of fall merchandise were picked over and already marked on clearance!

Shortly afterwards, there was the day when my first grouping of preset radio stations in the car were playing commercials, so I switched over to the second set. Lo and behold, one of the preset stations was playing Christmas songs—yes, in the first days of November. And then there was the next day, just after we switched to daylight savings time. I was driving to pick up my husband from the train station. Normally it would be light outside, but now it was dark and immediately I noticed the many houses adorned with Christmas lights. While it does get cold here in December and I quite admire the wise planning of those who use one of the unexpectedly warm days of November to check this job off the list, I felt angry when confronted with all the lights. Must they be lit three weeks before Thanksgiving? It was as if all of the forces of the external world were conspiring to make me feel the dread and pressure and chaos of celebrating Christmas NOW!! I truly resented it because I felt as if I had not even had any time to anticipate its arrival.

When counting my blessings this year at Thanksgiving, I found myself deeply grateful to have been raised a Chicago Cubs fan from the cradle. Memories of my early childhood are sprinkled with a plethora of hot and humid summer days, when we gathered in the “Rec Room” (the coolest spot in the house) to listen to the voice of radio announcer Jack Brickhouse give us the play by-play of the game. Occasionally, Mom would drag us three kids into the city  where we would then catch the “L” train to the north side. Wrigley Field was larger than life. It was magnificent; a place where dreams loomed large.

Recent weeks and days leading up to their big win after 108 years were thick with possibility and power. One cannot explain it adequately with words. Some of the special commercials and video compilations came close, but being immersed in it was nothing short of other-worldly. Even 45 miles west of Wrigley Field, out here in the suburbs, there was a magical feeling among the people, everywhere you went. It delighted the senses. It was as if you could touch and taste, see and hear it. Hope incarnate. Hope, pulsing through the hearts and veins of a people waiting for the fulfillment of a long-held desire. I remember thinking in those days how blessed I was to experience the fruitfulness of what waiting can accomplish in the mind, heart and soul. It strengthened the character of Cubs fans as they persevered in supporting a not-good-enough team for 39,420 days; it bonded generations and families together with a common purpose and longing. The anticipation, the wait; it brought such meaning to every moment we spent drawing closer to the arrival of the day of redemption to the north side.

No matter where life took you in those days, you couldn’t help but overhear many a person’s story of their wait for the fulfillment of this hope.You heard it being discussed among a group of strangers standing in line to check out at the grocery store, at the Starbucks between barista and regular customer; heck, I even had lifelong Sox fans wish my team the best and admit their love affair with baseball was actually born at Wrigley Field. There were stories of the 108 year old woman who wanted to see the Cubs win before she died, of the man who brought a radio and a folding chair to his father’s graveside so that they could listen to the games of the World Series together. This collective wait; it was a vessel through which joy, unity and inspiration was born into an otherwise divisive world.

The climax of the wait was experienced in, what I will argue as, THE MOST incredible World Series known to baseball fans. The ups and downs of each game in the series were almost unbearable. And the rain delay in Game 7? It had us all hanging on the edge of our seats. I don’t even think that the greatest script writer of all time could have written a better ending to this story. The recording of the eruption of joy heard outside Wrigley Field (an entire 350 miles away from the actual scene of the victory) at the very moment when we clinched the title of World Champions will never cease to awaken me to the unimaginable miracle that occurred that day.

The day of the Chicago Cubs victory parade found my husband, my big brother and I gathering at the home of our almost-80 year old parents to watch the coverage on TV. The crowds were rumored to be large and predictions of traffic nightmares were ominous. We chose to bunker down in their house to rejoice in the gift of redemption given to our team. Amidst the delicious smells and tastes of famous Portillo’s sandwiches, hot dogs and fries, each of us with a cool, refreshing Budweiser in our grip, we witnessed as 5 million people showed up to celebrate, supposedly making it the 7th largest gathering in human history. The sound of the crowd in Grant Park collectively singing, “Go, Cubs, Go!” was something to behold. What once had been a prayer of yearning, became the melody of our team’s salvation.

In the days and weeks that followed, I found myself wanting to break open the power of what we had just experienced. There was a deep thirst within to unpack a lesson that might have bigger implications for my life. Since Advent was beginning, my thoughts drifted to the people who lived long before me, to those whose anticipation for something so much greater than a Cubs World Series Championship must have seemed endless, to those who spent a couple thousand years holding out hope for a Savior. I could scarcely imagine what the dawn of the Day of Redemption must have felt like for those who, for generations upon generations upon generations, had waited in joyful hope for Emmanuel, God with us. The fulfillment of such a wait must have been astonishingly epic.

As these thoughts continued to percolate, it became clear to me —there is something truly powerful about the wait which serves to expand us. It readies us to appreciate, in a potentially profound way, the fulfillment for which we long. In the midst of this clarity, I committed to cherish this year’s wait for Christmas. In one of those rare years when I was going to have four full weeks of Advent, I decided to slowly savor each of the 28 days and allow them to expand me. Thankfully, the rituals of my faith tradition encourage me to be entirely counter cultural at this time of year. They teach me to sit in the darkness and stillness and to wait. Despite the pressures I originally felt weighing upon me when I opened my inbox or turned on the radio or drove by houses adorned with lights inside and out, I consciously let them go and instead chose to refrain from the rush to get the lights setup outside my house or to listen to Christmas tunes or to cut down the Christmas tree just yet.While the fact remained there were still going to be extra tasks at home and at work, there were also going to be some extra days in which to finish them and the deadlines weren’t as overwhelming as usual. There stood 28 sunrises and sunsets between me and the moment when the fulfillment of hope would arrive.

Entering into church on the First Sunday of Advent, I experienced the plainness of the environment to be a striking contrast to everywhere else I found myself at this time of year. It was stripped bare of its usual beauty, leading my focus to the simple, unadorned green wreath at the front, illuminated only with the light of one single candle. This simplicity was absolutely captivating to my soul. The cacophony of loud, joyful Christmas jingles heard in the marketplace was replaced with quiet, reflective songs all expressing the common theme of longing for light, for redemption and meaning. The process and the power of anticipation replaced the immediacy of the need to be celebrate Christmas right now.

This became the chosen experience I allowed to set the tone for the rest of my time of anticipation. Each of these new days of Advent I have entered with full intention and permission to immerse myself in the quiet, in the stillness, in the darkness that preceded the Winter Solstice. Slowly and steadily the anticipation has grown. Slowly and steadily the luminosity of my Advent wreath has brightened each week with the lighting of another candle. Slowly and steadily the tasks of readying have been accomplished. Slowly and steadily, the sense of hope has increased within and my soul has been expanded. Here on the cusp of the Christmas Vigil, I can touch and taste, see and hear it. Hope incarnate. Hope, pulsing through my heart and my veins as I wait for the fulfillment of a long-held desire: to receive anew the gift of Love Incarnate. Found in the unlikely guise of a babe in the manger, this Love, if received into the open spaces of my soul, has the power to change me. It has the potential to make the unlikely guise of my life a place where He may be found; a vessel through which joy, unity and inspiration may be born into my otherwise divisive world.

Tonight as we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, what once was our prayer of yearning will become the melody of our salvation. And if we could listen to a recording of the eruption of joy heard in the heavens at the very moment of His birth, I am certain it would never cease to awaken us to the unimaginable miracle which continues this day. Merry Christmas!

O hush the noise and cease the strife
And hear the angels sing

Glory to God in the highest
Glory to God evermore
Good news, great joy for all
Melody breaks through the silence
Christ, the Savior is born!
Jesus, the love song of God!
Jesus, the love song of God!

You’re the love song
You’re the love song
You so loved the world
You’re the love song”

Midnight Clear (Love Song) by Chris Tomlin

 

The Lifeless Backdrop for a Glorious Unfolding

brown-leavesWe are in that time of year in the Midwest when referring to the month of March, it is said, “It comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.” This year has been no exception to that old saying. And let me tell you, there have been times during this month when we’ve glimpsed the lamb and then it is as if the lion comes in for the kill again, shredding the lamb to little chops for the eating. The extremes have been plenty. Yet one thing has remained the same, both on the days when the lion rules and the days when the lamb appears-most everything is brown. Last week as I went for a run alongside the river, I couldn’t help but notice how everything was a shade of brown. It was as if I opened up a new 96 count pack of crayons and found that the only ones inside were the brown ones. Name a shade and I saw it that day–mahogany, raw sienna, burnt sienna, sepia, tumbleweed, burnt umber, raw umber, chestnut, copper, almond and more. On a good day, I love the color brown, especially as found in chocolate and coffee, however, without any contrasting shades of lime green or robin’s egg blue to bring out its richness, it seemed pretty blah. Actually, I found it to be quite depressing. Even the water looked to be brown, as it reflected the dead leftovers of winter all around its edges. As I trudged along the path, step after step, contemplating the dark dullness that enclosed me, I wondered why it was that the Creator allowed such lifelessness to surround us at times, when the spectrum of color that exists is so magnificent and inspiring and life-giving. Why are we robbed of such beauty at this time of the year?

This week my faith tradition celebrates Holy Week. In the days ahead we will recall again the journey Jesus made from washing the feet of those He served to His betrayal by the ones He loved most, from His sentencing to death by His own people, to His crucifixion and bloody death upon a cross. We will retell the stories that reveal the backdrop of His last days; days full of darkness. The darkness of hatred and violence and fear, the darkness of feeling betrayed, alone, unloved and in despair, the darkness of the depths of human depravity that would whip and mock and torture and sentence an innocent man to death. The darkness of hanging on the cross, bleeding and dying and crying out to his own father, “Why have you abandoned me?” Why was he, at the moment of his greatest need, robbed of the intimacy and protection of this love so magnificent and inspiring and life-giving?

Yet the story doesn’t end there. As we complete its retelling, we hear of unbelievable events. We hear of how the friends of Jesus went to the tomb only to find that he was no longer there.

They found the stone rolled away from the tomb; but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were puzzling over this, behold, two men in dazzling garments appeared to them. They were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground. They said to them, “Why do you seek the living one among the dead? He is not here, but he has been raised. Remember what he said to you while he was still in Galilee,that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners and be crucified, and rise on the third day.”

It is in these moments that we are enabled to see that even in the darkest of life’s situations, even when the canvas of our lives is dismal, colorless and discouraging and it seems as if all is lost, the possibility for resurrection always remains. Rather than ending our lives, these moments have the ability to become the backdrop for a glorious unfolding of the most magnificent and beautiful and life-giving transformations that give us new life we could never know without that which precedes it.

A couple of weeks ago I was riveted by a letter that one of the victims of the Boston Bombing wrote to the perpetrator of this tragedy and posted online for the world to read. In her letter, Rebekah Gregory tells the story of her devastating loss of a limb, of horrifying memories of almost losing her son and of watching others die that she relives in her nightmares and of the paralyzing fear of evil which humans are capable of executing even on innocent people whom they don’t know. Yet Rebekah didn’t allow the power of evil to define her life or to hold her prisoner. She allowed the horrific event to be a new beginning, an awakening to a new life, one that has the potential to be even better than she could have experienced without this backdrop of devastation. She moved from being a victim to becoming a survivor to becoming someone who is now thriving. She describes the irony of the entire situation in her letter:

And I think that’s the ironic thing that happens when someone intends something for evil. Because somehow, some way, it always ends up good. But you are a coward. A little boy who wouldn’t even look me in the eyes to see that. Because you can’t handle the fact that what you tried to destroy, you only made stronger. And if your eyes would’ve met mine for just one second, you would’ve also seen that what you “blew up” really did BLOW UP. Because now you have given me (and the other survivors) a tremendous platform to help others, and essentially do our parts in changing the world for the better.

So yes…you did take a part of me. Congratulations you now have a leg up…literally. But in so many ways, you saved my life. Because now, I am so much more appreciative of every new day I am given. And now, I get to hug my son even tighter than before, blessed that he is THRIVING, despite everything that has happened.”

With an incredible candor, courage and eloquence Rebekah gives an unbelievable witness to how the moments of suffering and dying can become the very moments when our life is saved and we are given a new purpose, a resurrection of sorts. Upon the backdrop of devastation, of lifelessness caused by an evil act of terrorism, a new glorious unfolding is underway.

Recently, there has been a string of events happening all at once that have brought great suffering to members of my extended family and friends. They include heart wrenching experiences that leave all of us at a loss and lead me to cry out to God because I feel so utterly helpless to do anything to relieve their suffering. It has been an opportunity to reflect upon moments of hardship that I myself have encountered in life. When I recall them, over and over there is one conclusion that I am consistently led to realize. These moments filled with the darkness of hatred, despair, failure, betrayal and loneliness are the very moments that led to new life, rebirth, transformation. As horrible as they were to live through, eventually they led to the greatest defining moments of growth and resurrection. They led me to a better life, a life I couldn’t have imagined possible, especially while in the midst of them. They led me to an awareness of my mission, my place, the ways that I could be a part of making the world a better place. Experiencing severe anxiety and depression as a teen led me into a journey of self-discovery through counseling that changed me forever. Suffering after the birth of my daughter freed me from the bondage of perfectionism that chained me and the experience allowed me to invite divine mercy to encompass my life (https://eyeswideopentothesacred.wordpress.com/2014/04/26). The terrifying experience of watching my dad, my life’s strong anchor and the net to catch me should I fall, brought down by a traumatic brain injury gave birth to the desire to process my life through writing. Thus this blog was created. Throughout my journey these moments of suffering have consistently served as the lifeless backdrop that provide the contrast to enjoy even more the glorious unfolding to come.

Each day as I entrust to God’s care those whom I love who are suffering greatly, it is my prayer that they too will eventually find that these moments will become the contrast for a greater glory yet to reveal itself. I desire that their current backdrop filled with the shades of brown that bring a sense of darkness and gloom and despair will one day serve to showcase the incredible spectrum of life that will pop with new birth and growth. When death gives way to new life, and glory unfolds to reveal some of the other shades found in the box of crayons, such as wild strawberry, vivid tangerine, sun glow, spring green, sky blue, denim and vivid violet, surely they will shine brighter and bring added richness to the brown canvas upon which they are colored.

As I finished my run on that very dismal day, I turned my back to the water and ascended the hill that leads into my neighborhood. There I passed the house of the tulips. Every year, cars take a detour to go down this street. Some slow down, some park, some get out to photograph the beauty. Out of the dreary brown of late winter springs forth a spectacular sea of tulips in a rainbow of colors. On this particular day there were no tulips, but only the tattered dead leaves leftover from winter, pasted to the ground from the wetness of the newly melted snow. From this very same spot, in just a couple of weeks, a new picture will emerge. At that very moment it occurred to me that sometimes the beauty has to be robbed from us for a time in order that we might see it and recognize it and be empowered by it anew. If it was always there I would take it for granted and it would lose its power to transform me.

From this lifeless backdrop a glorious unfolding is about to reveal itself. As for me, I am going to keep my eyes wide open-I don’t want to miss it.

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Uncontrollable Outpouring

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Since yesterday morning, there has been a stirring within me, triggered by words I heard spoken in a homily. I’ve been going over them again and again and looking at them closely through the lenses of my life experiences.

Everything that is needed is given. All that is given is needed.”

The priest was referring to Pentecost-a day that Christians all over the world recalled yesterday. The early followers of Jesus, who were gathered together after he had ascended into heaven, received an outpouring of the Holy Spirit and something new was unleashed in their lives. Pentecost is actually considered the birthday of the Church. Before this day, there was much confusion and fear and lack of direction in the lives of the disciples. The One whom they journeyed with, even unto his death and resurrection, had now left them and gone to a place they couldn’t go. They probably wondered, where do we go from here? He promised us that he wouldn’t leave us orphans, but what did he exactly mean?

They had been gathered together in one place, trying to figure out what they were to do next, and then it came-an Uncontrollable Outpouring:

And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong, driving wind and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.” (Acts 2:2-4)

Boom! In that very moment, everything that they needed was given. God, in a lavish expression of his divine love, extravagantly indulged those gathered with a multitude of gifts to inspire, to convince, to save, to strengthen, to delight, to guide. And all that was given was needed. In the stories that follow Pentecost, one thing is very clear-these followers became significantly different than they were before. In their receiving of the Uncontrollable Outpouring, they became courageous and empowered. They became fearless and moved confidently to where they were led. They became bold and had a clarity of vision. They became passionate about sharing what they had been given. They became ablaze with a fire that could not be contained. And in the process of their sharing, the world around them was changed; people were given hope and joy and peace and love.

I believe that the action of Pentecost was not a one-time occurrence. I believe that this outpouring is happening all of the time. I believe it, because I have witnessed it all my life, in people unknown by most of the world and in people well known to the world. I have always been captivated by them, by those who live with an awareness of the Uncontrollable Outpouring and embrace it within themselves. They all share the characteristic of being convinced that they have been given gifts that are not their own to keep, but must be shared to accomplish the purpose for which the gift was given. They see themselves as vessels that are to be used for something greater than themselves. They do not despise their humanity, with all of its imperfection and flaws, but see it as a part of the plan. Many of them have made great mistakes in their lives, yet they allow these too to be used for a greater purpose.They are not of one religion, but their identities cut across all lines of race, gender, age and faith. Bono, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Richard Rohr, Mandela, Mother Theresa, Malala, Pope Francis-these come to mind when I think of persons whose inner fire has drawn me in, time after time. Most of all, I am fascinated by their passion to share the gifts and convictions that have been entrusted to them. In the face of odds stacked against them, harsh words of criticism, imprisonment and even the threat of death, nothing has gotten in the way of their need to express this passion, born within the depths of their being.

Once, when I was reflecting upon such persons, I was led to write down these words, which I entitled, Passion:

Passion, the poem

Today found me again in a pew at church. Instead of hearing words that were being proclaimed, I found myself drawn to the cloth banner that was newly hung on the wall. It was a fiery red color, with an unpredictable pattern of lines, portraying movement flowing from and going in every direction. As I drank in its beauty, my senses were delighted. I was amazed that just the design of a simple piece of fabric could communicate a truth greater than itself. Its abstractness spoke to me of the lavishness of God, who does not withhold anything that is needed, whose love moves from and to all directions; whose love cannot be controlled or limited or stopped. It occurred to me that this Uncontrollable Outpouring isn’t just for some, who will go on to change the world; it is for ALL. What is the difference between those persons who passionately embrace the Outpouring and the rest of us? If everything that is given is needed, then the truth is that the rest of us also have something that someone needs.

Maybe the difference is the fiat-the “yes” to all that is yearning to be poured out through us, the “yes” to be used as a vessel, trusting that even with our imperfections and cracks and gaps, great things can happen when we say “yes”. God does not force himself upon us, but once he is invited, will indulge us with an Uncontrollable Outpouring, freely given and capable of changing the world. One such fiat, uttered by a young girl in a moment of great fear, was the “yes” needed to gift the world with Jesus. What might happen if we too utter a fiat?

Today, may we dare to say “yes” and unleash Pentecost once again.