Tag Archives: Jesus

God-generosity-gratitude

The invitation of memories

Every Good Friday, I participate in the Living Stations at my church, an adaption of the Stations of the Cross that incorporates eye-witness accounts from those Jesus met along the way to Calvary.

My role is Pilate’s wife, and I share the story of my dream about Jesus and how Pilate was conflicted about condemning Jesus.

The presentation can be very moving and emotional as different characters talk about their encounters with Jesus.

This year, the words spoken by Simon of Cyrene brought back a memory.

Simon talks of how he thought he had bad luck because he was just minding his own business when a guard pressed him into service. But then Jesus looks at him with gratitude and he realizes it was really a privilege to carry the cross.

I was taken back thirty-four years to the day a woman moved into the guest house where I was the hospitaler. I was opposed to her moving in because she had cerebral palsy and was  difficult to understand and very unsteady.  Truthfully, I was afraid to live in the same house with her.

She did not know I objected to her moving in.

Like Simon, I thought it was my bad luck, but in the end, living with Margie was my good luck. She taught me so much about God and myself and the world. She taught me about fidelity, hope, persistence, expectations and acceptance.God-generosity-gratitudeI believe that when memories resurface, they contain something beyond the original event, some message for today. So, what message was God sending me? What invitation was being extended to me by this memory?

At first glance, many things can seem like bad luck, like I am getting the short end of the stick. But with time and distance, what had once seemed unfortunate turns out to be quite fortunate.

Is God reminding me of that lesson because I have been on the verge of forgetting it? Or am I in the midst of something that I am thinking of as bad luck—and God is reminding me that one day I will look back on this as a time of good luck?

Back to the memory of Margie moving in with me. That first evening, she typed a one-page thank-you letter and slipped it under my bedroom door. Her note expressed her gratitude for my generosity. If only she knew!

As I read her words, I was filled with humiliation at my lack of generosity. I had aggressively and vocally opposed her moving in, and was quite angry that my wishes had not been respected.

But in that moment when I felt such humiliation, I was also given the gift of humility.

God showed me that my resistance was just a symptom of my fears and that my fears were unfounded.

Like Simon of Cyrene, I felt “pressed into service,” and it was a moment, an event, that changed my life direction and moved me one step closer to letting go and trusting God.

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Where there is injury, pardon

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My pastor gave me a copy of the Prayer of St. Francis when I went to the Sacrament of Reconciliation during Advent, and I have been praying it every day since. The words that jump out at me almost every day are: Where there is injury, pardon.

Why those words? I ask God, and what does injury mean?

I usually think of injuries as resulting from accidents—wounds that need stitches, casts or surgeries. But what kind of injuries need pardon? In St. Francis’ day the word probably had a different connotation.

As I pray these words every day, I ponder injuries. I tried replacing the word injury with other words to see if it makes more sense to me—sin, hurt, harm, betrayal, etc.—what would warrant pardon?

And is pardon synonymous with forgiveness?

Perhaps it was this prayer that predisposed me to ponder forgiveness this Lent.

I struggle with forgiveness for several reasons, and perhaps the biggest is my fear of looking foolish. I can hear my father’s voice in my head discouraging me from being taken advantage of and encouraging me to stand my ground. It was important to him not to look weak and he was slow to forgive those who had crossed him. To him, forgiving equaled vulnerability and weakness.

Vulnerability was not something he valued.

It took me a long time—and a fair amount of prodding by God—to consider vulnerability as something valuable, something desirable.

I once befriended a women who had committed a horrific crime. She was vilified and hated in our community. The newspapers and television media portrayed her as a monster.

But God placed her on my heart, and I could not stop thinking about her—and feeling compassion for her. It was as if God was showing me how God saw her—not the monster she was portrayed in the news, but as a person who, no matter what she had done, was still a child of God.

Not many people knew about my visits to her in prison or of our friendship. Sometimes, the things God asks of me seem outrageous even to me.

This particular friendship has been resurfacing this Lent. She was a woman who needed pardon, forgiveness and acceptance.

Perhaps she has been coming to mind because of all the mass shootings in our country. My friend had a history of mental illness and a record of multiple hospitalizations related to her mental illness. Yet she was able to walk into a store and buy a gun. No questions asked. No thought to why she wanted a gun or what she might do with it. No concerns that she would walk into the mall and open fire.

Or perhaps she has been coming to mind because she taught me so much about vulnerability and forgiveness.

I suppose God has been nudging me toward acknowledging my vulnerability for a long time, teaching me that embracing my own vulnerability puts me on the path to pardon.

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Return to God

Return to me with your whole heart—Joel 2:12

One theme that emerged during my recent retreat was home, as in coming home or being at home.

I had brought last year’s journals with me, and one entry reflected a conversation with a friend who had been going through a rough time but was starting to feel like himself again. He said he had started to feel like he was inhabiting his body again and that he was looking out through his own eyes.

It was as if he was coming home to himself.

I resonated.

For so long, I have felt out of sorts. Great loss and grief can do that. So the idea of coming home to myself is appealing. I want to live in my body and to look at the world through my own eyes.

Another coming home is the actual coming home to the place where I was born and grew up, which is what I did five years ago. Living near my family is a blessing for which I thank God every day.God-forgiveness-vulnerabilityA third coming home is returning to God, and in the midst of Lent, I find myself thinking of what it means to come home to God.

Lent invites me to turn away from what separates me from God and turn toward God.

Recently, several people have come to me with questions about prayer or about nonprofit management. After each of these conversations, I am left with a clearer understanding that (1) I have a depth of experience in these two areas, and (2) my experience can be helpful to others.

Sometimes, though, my experience leads me to insights that might be uncomfortable or challenging to those asking for my help.

A young woman came to talk with me about the anger she carries toward the man who raped her. “How can you suggest I forgive him?” she asked with an edge to her voice.

“Your anger does not affect him; it affects you,” I offered. “He doesn’t even know that you are angry; he has moved on.” Not forgiving him does not hurt him in the least; but holding onto her anger keeps her in bondage.God-forgiveness-vulnerabilityI think she both wanted to hear that message and did not want to hear it. Forgiveness can be so difficult, and radical forgiveness—forgiveness for some horrible act—can seem impossible.

I know because I, too, hold onto some anger for past hurts. I want to forgive, even the people who hurt me the worst, who left the deepest scars; it is difficult. I pray for the grace to let go, and I look to Jesus’ example for inspiration. At the moment of his death, he forgave those who put him to death.God-forgiveness-vulnerabilityComing home to God, for me, means being true to my history and experiences. It means speaking of radical forgiveness and believing in it.

I want to return to God with my whole heart—and with my heart made whole.

 

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Abide in love

My Advent reflection book contained portions of a story by Bishop Ken Untener called the Dream Fixer. The reflections were about our being God’s dream, and the ways we are broken dreams. One piece read:

Let me put it in terms that have a familiar ring to them because they’re taken from the story of…Jesus.

~I am the sheep that wandered off into the wilderness, alone, hungry, afraid.

~I am the younger son who took the inheritance and squandered it…

~I am the one the robbers beat and left half dead on the road to Jericho…

 As I pondered each of these people from Scripture, it came to me that while I can easily imagine myself in these sympathetic roles, I can also see that:

~I am the failed shepherd.

~I am the older son, resentful and angry.

~I am one of the robbers, using someone to my advantage.

It seems natural for me to align myself with the innocent victim—and more challenging for me to see myself as the less sympathetic person. But, I can be both.spirituality-forgiveness-LentPreparing for my retreat last month, the phrase, abide in love (1 John 4:16) came to mind. I have been pondering the many manifestations of love and also thinking of February as the month of love, so it did not surprise me that this phrase popped into my mind.

Loving family and friends seems a like a good first step in the practice of abiding in love. Being loving toward those closest to us can be enough of a challenge, but I believe God’s calling is to go deeper and wider.

God calls me to love myself, to see myself as God sees me and to accept God’s version of me. God calls me to love those seemingly unlovable parts of myself—the failures and anger and aggression. How do I take responsibility for my failures, my resentment and my aggression? How do I love myself in those unlovable places?

And, as important, how do I love others who fail or are angry or cause harm to others? Can I see them as God sees them? And love them as God loves them?spirituality-forgiveness-LentAbide in love instructs me to do just that. To live in love, to continually dip back into the love of God to remind myself what it means to see people as God sees them and to love them as God loves them—that is the invitation and the challenge.

When I can embrace the failed, angry, aggressive parts of myself, perhaps I can have more empathy for those traits in others. Maybe a greater awareness of my own darkness will make me more understanding of others, more willing to forgive, more willing to be compassionate and accepting.

My Advent reflection fits into my retreat invitation—and into a Lenten practice.spirituality-forgiveness-LentLent is a time of conversion, a change of heart. The fact that Lent began on Valentine’s Day this year magnifies the invitation to abide in love.

 

 

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Becoming

During my twenties, I worked as a stenographer for the FBI, the first five years in the Norfolk office and then I transferred to Philadelphia. I left in 1979 to get a college degree, and I planned to go back as an FBI agent.

But things did not work out quite the way I had planned. After college, I didn’t return to the Bureau, and I let go of most of those relationships.

I have no regrets—except for a brief moment when I turned fifty and it occurred to me that if I had gone back to the Bureau, I could retire with a great pension and excellent health insurance. But…God-vulnerability-hopeSeven years ago, a woman I knew in Norfolk “friended” me on Facebook, and two years ago, another women from Norfolk “found” me through a Google search. A few months ago, a third woman from the Norfolk FBI Office connected with me through Facebook.

The wonders of technology.

I hadn’t been avoiding them, but I also had not thought of reaching back to that period of my life. To what end?

This third woman sent me her phone number, and I called her the other day.

Let me give you a little background. My twenties were no picnic. I made one bad decision after another, stuck in a dark place I did not know how to escape.

With very little effort, I can still conjure up the shame and guilt from those years.God-vulnerability-hopeI steeled myself before calling Debbie Sue because I had a pretty good idea of how she would remember me.

Debbie Sue was the daughter of a Baptist Pastor; she introduced me to Christian revivals and altar calls. As a northern Catholic in southern Virginia, I was a distinct minority, and Debbie Sue was the person I went to when I experienced discrimination because of my religion or my northern accent. When it came to religion and Yankees, she was unambiguous, and her certainty helped clarify many things for me.

So, how did she remember me? Well, I was one of the first women she had ever heard use the “F” word. Yeah, that was me—crass and confrontational. I was called “Mad.”

But then our conversation moved on to what we each had become. We shared our life stories and marveled at how good God has been to us.

“When did you become a Christian?” she asked.

“You are not going to believe this,” I said, “but it was March 7, 1973,” which was in the midst of that dark time. I then shared my St. Paul-like conversion experience and how I started going to daily Mass to atone for my sins.

“Oh, I believe you,” Debbie Sue affirmed. God forgives; we keep moving forward. Debbie Sue suggested that, like St. Paul, we should take new names. I told her I am now called Madeline.

People in the Norfolk FBI Office saw me through a dark time, and I am grateful for my history with them. Talking with Debbie Sue reminded me that all things are possible with God (Matthew 19:26) and that I am not defined by my past.God-vulnerability-hope

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Open to the unexpected

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My father could be quite the bigot. He thought that anyone who was not Polish was somehow less than. My grandparents all came from Poland, and in my dad’s eyes, Poles were a superior race. He could go on and on about the inferiority of other races—Italians, Irish, etc.

But his two closest friends were Irish and Italian. How did he reconcile that?

When he was disparaging people from Ireland and Italy and I would ask about his friends, he would say, “That’s different.”

He felt similarly about people of African descent. But, when he was much friendlier with our new African-American neighbor than he had ever been with our old Polish neighbor, I asked how that made sense to him.

“That’s different,” he said.

My father could differentiate good people from bad—despite race or ethnic heritage. Our old neighbor, the Polish guy, was not a very nice man. He was the kind of person who yelled at kids playing in the field next to his house, the kind of man our mother told us to avoid.

Our new neighbor, the African-American guy, was the opposite.

Skin color and ethnic heritage had nothing to do with it. The same was true for my dad’s close friends. Because he saw them as individuals, their ancestry did not get in the way of their friendships.

Jesus healing the ten lepers and the one foreigner who came back to give thanks reminds me of my dad’s biases.

I can imagine this scenario today with a Catholic Priest, Protestant Minister, Rabbi, Imam or any other religious leader, healing ten people—nine of whom are from their religious tradition and one is a foreigner—an outsider, someone who is seen as other than, perhaps from some demonized group. And only that foreigner, that one who is thought of as less than, comes back to say thanks.

We can get caught up in believing we know how people will act and react based on some preconceived notions. We can rationalize our prejudices and excuse ourselves when we condemn whole groups of people.

During Advent, we reflect on Mary, Joseph and John the Baptist—Biblical characters who could easily be looked down upon and judged as less than because of their life circumstances or ethnic background.

Mary was an unwed, pregnant teen. John the Baptist lived in the desert and proclaimed a radical message. Mary and Joseph were relegated to sleeping among the animals.

Yet, we celebrate John the Baptist for speaking truth to power. But today, people who do the same are likely to be castigated. Pregnant teens, homeless people and refugees are more often thought of as problems to be solved than people we can learn from. We can use the word foreigner as an slur.

Jesus challenges our preconceived notions and invites us to be open to and surprised by the unexpected.

And as my dad’s experiences taught me, moving past biases opens the door to unexpected relationships that make life richer. advent-God-vulnerability

Advent-God-gratitude

Getting ready

In my religious tradition, Christmas is a season that begins on Christmas Day. The weeks leading up to Christmas are a separate season—Advent.

Some years I am more attentive to Advent than others, and this year, I feel called to pay attention to Advent.

The differences between Advent and Christmas are easy to see. Advent is a time of waiting—just think of a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy. It is clear that something is about to happen, and family and friends eagerly anticipate the birth of a child. There may be some anxiety (it is possible that something could go wrong or not turn out as expected), but for most people, the expectant hope and joy outweigh the worry.

Christmas, on the other hand, is the time of celebration. To continue the analogy, the baby has arrived; it is time to rejoice.

In our culture, Advent seems to get overlooked, and we move right to Christmas (now as early as October, if we are to believe retailers). That would be like a woman who is only six or seven months pregnant acting as if her baby had already been born.

The weeks leading up to Christmas are often seen as a time of gearing up, but Advent really invites us to slow down and pay attention to the movement of the Spirit within.

I used to write bulletin reflections for a priest friend, and one Advent he asked me to encourage parishioners to resist the secular celebration of Christmas during Advent and to truly celebrate Advent.

I felt a bit guilty completing this assignment because I always unpack my Christmas mugs on the first Sunday of Advent, and every day of Advent, I enjoy coffee in a Christmas mug. Not very Advent-ish of me.

In my defense, I love my Christmas mugs and they get so little use (December and early January).

But, I wrote the reflection piece and gave some suggestions on celebrating Advent.

I have been pondering ways I might use Advent to get ready for Christmas. Some ideas:

  • Practice patience—check frustration, yield, wait;
  • Reach out to someone who is alone or lonely and offer companionship and comfort;
  • Seek forgiveness and reconciliation;
  • Take a break from some popular-culture activity that consumes leisure time (television, texting, movies, sports, etc.) and spend that time in prayer or service (maybe for just one or two hours each of the weeks of Advent);
  • Do at least one act of kindness every day, totaling twenty-two acts of kindness—hold the door for someone, offer a compliment, pay the toll of the person behind you, add something extra to tips, thank someone….it does not have to be extraordinary to be meaningful;
  • Save all Christmas cards and open them all on Christmas Day or during the days of the Christmas season (which ends with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, January 8, 2018);
  • Practice gratitude.

Advent offers quiet blessings and insights if we slow down and pay attention.Advent-God-gratitude