From Accuser to Advocate, I am a Work in Progress

Photo by Johnson Wang on Unsplash

Being born into an American household of predominantly Irish lineage, it was kind of taken for granted that we could explain away our worst family altercations by placing blame on the old Irish temper. It was just accepted as fact that we were all a bit fiery on the inside. When our passions were stoked, usually when we perceived we or someone we cared for had been wronged, we quickly entered into fight mode. Mostly our exchanges were of an intense verbal nature and not just a few reached a decibel which could be heard by neighbors near and far. I clearly recall being on the way home from a bike ride at age 6 or 7 and turning onto my street at an intersection that was about half a block from my house. I could very clearly hear my father yelling at my brothers. I learned pretty quickly it was better to take a detour at times such as this rather than enter the fray and risk becoming a secondary target of the rage.

Observing these outbursts and the subsequent fallout became a “normal” part of my childhood. It’s what we did. One late afternoon on a Saturday towards the end of summer my parents were outside doing yard work. I was suffering miserably from boredom, yet my creative brain had just dreamed up a solution to put an end to the day’s monotony. I was relieved and excited, but there was one caveat; my solution required a trip to the store for some craft supplies. I asked very nicely if one of them would take a break and run me to the store to pick up said items. “No”, they both answered separately. I proceeded to beg passionately, “Pretty pleeeaaassseee?” I pleaded and made my best case and even tried to barter taking on extra chores around the house if.only.someone.would.take.me. “No!” This terse, resounding and irritable response from the two of them, in infuriating unison, activated the ferocity within. Without any warning, while screaming and yelling at the injustice of it all, I threw a punch through what I believed to be a plexiglass door. Turned out it was glass. They took me for a ride that afternoon, not to the store, but to the clinic to get stitches in my wrist. Sitting up on the doctor’s examining table, at the tender age of ten years old, I remember the doctor speaking in hushed tones to my parents of concerns about my “anger problem”. That may have been the first time I realized that what was “normal” in my house might not be considered normal to outsiders. I felt ashamed.

During my forty years of life’s journey since that doctor quietly named my “anger problem” there have been plenty experiences when the same sense of shame returned. These sudden and powerful bursts of my temper left me exhausted, embarrassed and in need of making amends to those who were witnesses or recipients of their fury. I wished I could just ditch this angry part of me alongside the road and keep traveling, like the inedible parts of a piece of fruit I tossed out the window of my car on road trips. But it hasn’t been that easy and so far my attempts at extricating this fiery temper from my being have been entirely unsuccessful.

Metamorphosis may be defined as the process of transformation from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages. As I sense an exodus from what I hope will prove the most difficult years of parenting my soon to be post-adolescent daughter, it seems my temper has undergone a sort of evolution. No longer is it as externally observable, but it has now gone underground and tends to wage a fierce battle in my mind and my heart when an ideal or belief I hold sacred is violated. Pandemic living, in all of its previously unimaginable facets has presented a whole slew of weekly, if not daily violations. I find them all over, the people who violate my sacred ideals and beliefs. They are found in the news every day—members of a political party who seem to me cruel and heartless, at times even vicious in their response to my brothers and sisters who have suffered for so long. They are found writing emails that populate my inbox at work—complaining about being “persecuted” because they are unable to experience church in the same way they were used to in pre-pandemic days. These people are found in my American Catholic community—excitedly sharing vile and disparaging articles on social media about other members of the Body of Christ, degrading us to a mere reflection of the country’s divided political system. They are members of my brother’s Arizona town—confronting him at a local home improvement store to tell him he is a “fu**ing idiot” for wearing a mask (he works in the medical field). They are my neighbors who share the beloved trail where I go to find relief from this crazy world—running four people across, not moving as I approach, forcing me off trail to avoid an accident that would have injured all of us.

These perceived transgressions of humanity, and countless others, they have consumed me for weeks. They have battled for my emotional energy and they have fueled my anger and frustration on the daily. Coupled with six weeks of working 70-hour weeks as part of the effort to reopen the parish where I serve, rendering me unable to find time for self-care and grounding prayer, my temper has been gaining strength within my being. There is something quite powerful when one feels justified and righteous in one’s rage. Every new infraction on another’s part only served to widen the divide of US vs. THEM within me. Each perceived violation thoroughly convinced me mine was the right team and my judgments all correct.

That day I was forced off the trail by the runners, it was as if my loving Creator intervened to push me off my path of self-destruction. It had been my first day off from work in weeks and I desperately needed to find some balance and reground in goodness. Reciting the Rosary while riding along on my bike, suddenly forced off the trail to avoid an accident, the words “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee….” were interrupted by the most heinous slur of expletives coming not from an outsider, but from within my brain. I stopped them from leaving my mouth, but regardless, they provided me with a wake-up call. They were direct evidence of the ugliness consuming me and claiming me as its own. I was becoming the very divisive, unloving, cruel, heartless embodiment of what I exactly despised in others.

Hurt people hurt people”, my friend Carlos reminded me in an email. His words coupled with recent experiences served to bring forth the acute awareness of a need for a different way. It had been way too easy to get carried away in the fight of US vs. THEM and I needed to reverse my course. The past few weeks I’ve been about getting back to the basics of prayer, self-care, filling my mind and soul with lovely things and the voices of wisdom speakers. Surprisingly it is almost as easy to seek out and notice the lovely, as it is to seek out and notice the ugly, but it isn’t always so self-satisfying. Rather, loveliness and wisdom serve to bring me to my knees. They humble me and remind me of my very low and insignificant place in this world, how much I am a work in progress with a far way to go, but paradoxically they also serve to affirm my belovedness and great significance in the eyes of Love.

One recent morning while attending daily Mass, these words hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been asking of God, what is it you want me to do? How am I supposed to be in this world? How do I contend with all that breaks my heart and my spirit? Sometimes God has to shout to get my attention. It was the last sentence in the First Reading of the day:

And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

MICAH 6:8

Wow! What a clear and simple formula, right? It might be if my fiery temper and humongous ego didn’t try to trip me up every.single.step.of.the.way.

In the aftermath of the death of the great Civil Rights Activist, John Lewis, the podcast On Being with Krista Tippett rebroadcast an extraordinary conversation with John recorded in 2013. Listening to John describe his life’s journey is to hear a man who did the work to become an embodiment of Micah 6:8. As he stated, it isn’t something natural to become this way. He says we have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of non-violence. Only by cooperating with Divine Grace can a human being proclaim,

“In the religious sense, in a moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being there is a spark of the Divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the Divine in your fellow human being…you try to appeal to the goodness of every human being and you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone…You beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that I’m gonna still love you.”

John Lewis

I find his witness absolutely stunning. It is breathtaking. It is the opposite of everything I mostly see happening in the world around us right now. It is contrary to everything my arrogance and my thirst for revenge demand, even of those who have only slightly offended me. I stand in wonder and awe at Love so present within this human soul. It is the same Love incarnate found in Christ, even in the face of His unjust crucifixion. It is radical, counter-cultural, blessing those who persecute, standing with the poor and the outcast, never hating the oppressor, only the sin. It is forgiveness freely offered in the face of the unforgivable.

In the book, “Becoming Mister Rogers”, author Shea Tuttle describes a professor of theology who taught Fred Rogers during his studies to become an ordained minister. Dr. Orr had a unique way of describing evil that resonated with Fred. He referred to it as “The Accuser”. As Fred recalled, “Evil will do anything to make you feel as bad as you possibly can about yourself because if you feel the worst about who you are, you will undoubtedly look with evil eyes on your neighbor and you will get to believe the worst about him or her…Accuse yourself. Accuse your neighbor. Get your neighbor to accuse somebody else, and the evil spreads and thrives.”

Dr. Orr taught that Jesus stands in complete contrast as “The Advocate”. In an interview Fred Rogers said of this, “Jesus would want us to see the best of who we are, so we would have that behind our eyes as we looked at our neighbor, and we would see the best in him or her. You can be an accuser or an advocate. Evil would have you be an accuser in this life. Jesus would have you be an advocate for your neighbor.”

With all of the issues that have arisen during these early months of the pandemic, growing in prominence in the exchanges from both sides of every issue is the reality of “cancel culture”. Cancel culture not only eggs us on to dismiss the ideas we find appalling, but it pushes us further to completely nullify the human dignity of the persons whose ideas we love to hate. This is exactly what I now see the Accuser has been tempting me to do, boldly, but falsely asserting to me that to do so is a righteous endeavor. In stark contradiction, the Advocate calls me forth to the work of loving, accepting and honoring the spark of the Divine in every human being. He dares me to demonstrate the most rebellious act possible when confronted with evil words and actions—forgiveness.

Jesus was serious when He said, “Pray for your enemies, bless those who persecute you.” And in opposition to what I imagine as being fair, He offered no provisions to disregard this commandment. He didn’t say, if your enemy suffocates and kills an innocent man of color, you can hate him. He didn’t say, if your enemy complains about how what you did to help them return to church isn’t good enough, even after you’ve poured your heart and soul and countless hours to make it happen, you can hate him. He didn’t say, if your enemy says and propagates falsities about their own brothers and sisters in faith, you can hate him. He didn’t say if your enemy verbally attacks your brother for taking steps to keep others safe, you can hate him. He didn’t say if your enemy puts your physical safety in danger by not making space for you on the trail, you can hate him. This commandment is hard to embrace and even more difficult to live. Yet it isn’t impossible to follow when we cooperate with Divine Grace and let it transform us, just as John Lewis did, just as Fred Rogers did, just as countless humans who have gone before us did and in doing so have forged the path for us to follow.

After weeks of angst and grappling with all that has been transpiring in my inner life, last Saturday I had the privilege of witnessing a young man from the parish where I work receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. It is our belief that through this sacrament there is a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit in which we are given the increased ability to practice our faith in every aspect of our lives and to witness Christ in every situation. Father was wearing vestments of bright red and gold and I was struck by the beauty of what they represented—the Holy Fire we would be calling upon to descend on us and energize us to love more fully. At the moment he was tracing the sign of the cross and anointing the forehead of the Confirmandi with the oil of Chrism, deep within me I felt a nudge to offer up to God the fiery temper that is mine. I imagined an all-encompassing Holy Fire descending from above co-mingling with my unholy fire ascending from below, its flames consuming the hatred with which my temper has burned as of late.

A peace was restored to me that day that has graciously remained. Its presence reveals to me the inner reformation required to become an Advocate cannot be accomplished through my efforts alone, but requires me to traverse the long path as a student in the way of peace, the way of love, the way of non-violence. Only by cooperating with Divine Grace will I become a force of good in the face of evil and be able to offer forgiveness in the face of the unforgivable. From Accuser to Advocate, I am a work in progress; thankfully God never gives up on anyone.

John, Fred, all you saints of God who have walked this way before us, pray for us.

An Oblivious Amen

10481946_10152235969004372_3691425472651833846_nThis past week I was delighted to find out that a local Catholic church was hosting one of my new favorite recording artists, Matt Maher (http://www.mattmahermusic.com/), in concert at a venue close to my home. Even though I really wanted to go, with the looming deadline of a rather large quarterly tax payment due in just days, I couldn’t justify spending the cash. I tried to put it out of my mind and forget about it. But just hours before the concert, a nagging urge to go came to the forefront in my consciousness. I wrestled with an intense desire to be fiscally responsible, but the nagging urge became all consuming, so I went.

As I approached the box office, I slid a credit card through the entrance in the glass window and asked to purchase one ticket. The girl behind the window promptly slid my card back to me, along with a ticket and said, “A generous donor just donated a handful of tickets to give away to the next few people in line.” As I accepted the gift, I found myself both speechless and stunned. A sense of gratitude flooded my heart because somehow, it seemed clear to me that I had just been led to a divine appointment. I was convinced that I was supposed to be in this place, at this time, for this concert and that before the end of the night, I might leave with some understanding as to why. Before Matt Maher walked onto stage, a representative from the host church welcomed us and began the night with prayer. As we Catholics are typically not known for possessing stellar skills when it comes to spontaneous prayer, we were invited to join together in the “Our Father”. Excited about the concert, I rushed through the words rotely and ended the prayer with a thoughtless, but resounding, “AMEN!”

Matt did not disappoint. We listened as he introduced his songs with stories of his life and how he had found God’s presence over and over in the midst of his experiences. At times the music was loud and rocked the theatre; at other times, it was reflective and prayerful. Through it all, I found myself drawn, like a moth to light, to the text painted on the side of his piano. As an enthusiastic aficionado of all things typographic, I was drawn to its simple, rugged beauty. In an irregular, vintage letterpress-like text, it simply read AMEN. After the concert, I even made my way to the stage to snap a photo of it. While it was a very worthwhile, enjoyable evening, I arrived home without a definite understanding as to why I was meant to be there. However, as darkness consumed the day’s light, I climbed into bed and once I stilled myself, I began to see it over and over in my head; that word, AMEN. I drifted to sleep for a time, only to awaken later with visions of it playing on repeat in my mind. So be it. That is the definition I could remember of amen as I laid there in bed. My dad, a true wordsmith, always made us look up words in the dictionary when we asked him what they meant. Most of them I forgot, but not this one. Just three simple words, but with such powerful possibilities. So be it. I had spoken it earlier that night. I had thoughtlessly spoken it at the end of the “Our Father”. I had just said “so be it” without even thinking about that to which I was agreeing. I had obliviously said “so be it” after telling God straight from my lips, “Thy will be done.” Yikes, I thought to myself, what if God takes me seriously?

It could be said of me at this point on the journey that I am a sort of recovering control-freak/perfectionist (still very much a work-in-progress). However, at my core, I don’t like to say “so be it” until I’ve previewed the terms and conditions to which I am agreeing and definitely not until I’ve been told the details of Plans “B” and “C” if “A” doesn’t worked out as was explained to me. My mother’s mantra, which I recall hearing even in my earliest of days, was something to the effect of, “Sometimes plans change and you’ve got to learn how to deal with it.” This was spoken most often following a total meltdown on my part, because something out of MY control changed and I hated when that happened. I did not possess the admirable skill of “going with the flow”. Even before I met my husband, I was quite certain about how God’s future plans for my life should play out. My days at a Catholic University, sheltered in a bubble full of virtuous people striving for sainthood, only served to cement this vision of my perfect life. I was to marry a devoted, Catholic man who adored me, we were to have five to seven children and we were to reside in a gloriously beautiful, clean, sizeable home decorated straight out of the pages of the Pottery Barn catalog. My life’s work would be inside my home, homeschooling our little darlings so they would not be stained by the imperfections of the world outside our piece of heaven on earth (insert gagging noise here, right?)Well, apparently, this Plan A was gonna change and neither Plan B or Plan C was explained to me in advance, because if they were I would have NEVER agreed to them either. Guess what? No one consulted me. But then, was it possible that I had already agreed to the change because I had said the same oblivious AMEN, as I did the other night, following hundreds of “Thy Will Be Done” my whole life and God actually took me at my word?

My Plan A pretty much started to fall apart the day my devoted Catholic husband and I welcomed our first child into the world. Our daughter’s birth was the event that God used to gently pull the loose string on the tightly wound ball of my ideas for the future. On that day, mental illness struck with a mighty blow, crushing my ideals and aspirations of perfect motherhood into tiny shards, and later I would discover, this was only just the beginning. (https://eyeswideopentothesacred.wordpress.com/?s=imperfect+imperfection). Nearly five years later, my life, even on the best of days resembled nothing of my hopes and dreams. A series of events that followed her arrival had derailed us off of the fast track to perfection; the realization that our first child would most likely be our only; her diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder, which rendered the simplest task of getting her dressed in the morning a monumental and herculean one, the harsh reality that financially we couldn’t thrive without me working outside of the home. By the time we enrolled her in kindergarten, after I finally surrendered to the notion that I wasn’t up to the task of homeschooling this girl, I felt my life was completely falling apart. Where was God to be found in all of this mess? I believed Him to be a God of order, of perfect function and of peace. My life was disorderly, dysfunctional and stressful. Certainly this chaos couldn’t be God’s plan for my life.

Lent of 2007 was about to begin and through a series of events, a book landed in my hands which I decided to use as spiritual reading for the next 40 days. It’s title:Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life. It’s author: Rabbi Irwin Kula. (http://yearnings.irwinkula.com/thebook.htm) I distinctly remember my husband remarking how very interesting it was that a Catholic girl was reading a book written by a Rabbi for her Lenten spiritual reading. He’s right, I thought to myself, but I was captivated by two words in the title, Sacred Messiness. Could the mess that was the reality of my life actually be sacred? I devoured the book and when finished, had a second and third helping. I went back over certain phrases in an attempt to soak them into my stream of consciousness. Some of the most powerful ones for me read,

Inevitably, for everyone there comes a time (or times) when the way we divvy up our life no longer makes sense…our relationships, our work, our world back us into a corner and cause us pain. And then it’s time to dive, to widen, to make room for new truths to emerge.

The ability to live with seeming contradictions-and the ambivalence and tensions these contradictions create-is what gives rise to wisdom. The messes are the point.”

WHAT? The messes are the point?? This book turned my inner life upside down and opened my eyes to the exciting possibility that God was exactly in all of this mess and was actually leading me into it, so that I would find Him in a whole new way. This unplanned, chaotic Plan G (a.k.a. God’s plan) for my life is probably the best thing that ever happened to me. It opened me up to receive anew the gifts of mercy and non-judgment; acceptance and trust. It has made me much more yielding to things beyond my control. And without doubt, it continues to bless and surprise me with new challenges. I laugh to think what an an unlikely headline this would have made in the Plan A of my life – “God Uses Jewish Rabbi to Save Catholic Girl from Her Lame Plans.” Hee.

At age 11, our daughter was diagnosed with inattentive type ADHD. Once again I was led to dive into deep waters whose currents I am woefully unable to control. In the days since then, as I’ve been learning to navigate the turbulence, there have been times when I thought I would surely drown. But here I am, two years in, with my head still above water. I’m a stronger swimmer and am capable of doing things I didn’t know I had in me to do. It was a surprise to figure out that this major people pleaser has the ability to do that which my daughter recently described as one of my greatest talents, when she said, “Mom you are really good at writing mean letters, but making them sound really nice.” (In reference to my attempts to advocate for her when things at school aren’t going so well.)

In retrospect, I am thankful for all of the AMENs I’ve ever spoken-the deliberate, intentional ones and the oblivious, unintentional ones. Most of all, I am grateful to God for taking me at my word. Even though to this day, I still find moments when I’m still clinging with all my might to Plan A, deep within I am convinced that Plan G is ultimately a far better way. It is difficult and challenging and not very comfortable a whole lot of the time. However, if God deems it possible to be present in this mess called my life and deems it possible to somehow use it for good, I resoundingly and intentionally say, SO BE IT!