Tag Archives: Christian

Looks Can Be Deceiving

There isn’t much you can say about a person who lived only three months, as our youngest two children did.  We will never know if our little ones were funny, or shy, or adventurous.  We have no idea if they would have inherited Brad’s sports genes or mine, my artistic eye or Brad’s not-s0-great eyes.  There is one thing that anyone who knew them can attest to, however.  They were stinkin’ cute.  Objectively.

This was one of the strange paradoxes we lived with in the case of both babies.  With Peter it was shocking, as he looked like a totally normal child up until the moment we saw him all wired up in the PICU.  Who could have known, with their naked eye, that this little cutie was fussy not due to a long car ride, or reflux, or colic, but because the cells in his liver did not make enough energy to keep it functioning.  As we sat in the waiting room of the ER at Children’s, there was nothing of our son’s outer appearance that would lead us to believe that he would be dead in five days. 

Since we knew that it was a possibility that Gianna might inherit the same Mitochondrial disorder that took her brother, we were much more intently focused on her from her conception.  We knew much earlier that we could not go by looks, so testing was done shortly after birth and then at two months.  This lead to a very different, but equally odd, experience of appearance.  She was absolutely beautiful (objectively, of course!), and again, did not look sick.  There were times when I enjoyed this immensely.  During our first two admissions to the hospital, I routinely took her up to the cafeteria with me, or to the family lounge and even once to Mass.  No one could tell she was the patient.  While we were home, I got complements about her from strangers who had no idea that a risky liver transplant was the only hope of her living to four months old.  I enjoyed the break, the opportunity to pretend for a moment that we were a normal family who worried about nothing more than getting a little more sleep.  I also think her cuteness scored her some extra points with the hospital staff.  Not that these dedicated professionals would ever mistreat an ugly baby, but several did comment that she was much cuter than the average critically ill child, especially on the floor we were on.  I took motherly pride in the way they doted over her cute outfits or lingered in our room to hold her.

Gianna’s cuteness also made for some painfully ironic (and often awkward) moments.  During her first hospitalization, when we were slowly trying to come to terms with her likely prognosis, a nurse’s aide came into our room to find me weeping.  Supposing that I was a hormonally unstable, overwhelmed new mother, she said, “new babies are really hard, aren’t they?”  A perfectly compassionate thing to say! “No, she’s dying”, was all I could get out. 

Two days before her death, on her way to the OR to get a pic line placed for easier blood draws, a doctor we didn’t know got on the elevator with us.  “Well, now there’s a healthy one!” he said.  The nurse and I looked at each other uncomfortably as she replied, “No, she’s pretty sick”.  Other times, it was not the awkward one-liners that got to me, but the flip side of what I mentioned before.  I could only pretend so long that Gianna was fine, because she wasn’t.  Once, before our bad news was actually confirmed, I was grocery shopping with both kids, and could barely make it to the car before beginning to cry.  The juxataposition between what appeared to be true and what actually was weighed on me in a deep, surreal way.

This line of thinking was brought up to me at a recent benefit banquet I attended for Prenatal Partners for Life*.  The priest who gave the closing comments remarked that we all were born with a terminal illness: Original sin.  The sick, he said, serve us all well as a reminder of this fact.  His reflection made me think.  In the spiritual order of things, many of us are my Peter and Gianna.  We look fine on the outside, but on the inside we are dying.  Sometimes, the comfort that comes with financial stability, good health, talent and long life can be dangerous to our salvation since they can lull us into a false sense of self confidence.  Why would we have thought to ask our doctor to run a liver function test on our two month old son? All signs pointed to him being perfectly healthy.  In the same way, many people never think to accuse themselves of sin because they seem to have everything under control.  It just doesn’t occur to them.  And as we learned in Peter’s case, undiagnosed illnesses can still kill you even if you don’t look sick.  So it can be in the spiritual life, but for eternity.

With Gianna, we knew not to trust appearances.  We looked inside, and found that something was indeed wrong.  For Gianna, knowing early that she was sick did not end up saving her life.  This is also true spiritually of those who recognize their own sin but choose to cling to it instead of bringing it to Jesus for forgiveness and healing.  Although it sounds like a bizarre category of people, they do exist.  They are those who despair at their own weakness, or who set out to fix it themselves. 

 Gianna’s doctors did their best to try and save her, and we did too.  We gave her all kinds of nasty meds, drew blood from veins that did not want to give it, and did not give up on her last option (transplant) until it was painfully evident that she could not survive the operation.  We availed her of all modern medicine had to offer, and modern medicine failed us.  Gratefully, this is where my analogy breaks down.  When we bring our sinfulness to Jesus, He never fails us.  So many people offered to get tested to be liver donors for Gia, because they were willing to sacrifice even part of their own bodies to save her.  That is precisely what Jesus did for us.  Our hearts were so badly hardened and diseased by sin that we were wasting away.  We needed a heart transplant, and that is what He gave us: His own heart.  Of course, that transplant cost Him His life. 

So next time we pass an elderly lady with oxygen, or a paralyzed man in a wheelchair, or a child with Down’s Syndrome, let’s thank God for the gift of those lives.  More than that, let’s honor those beautiful souls by taking stock of our own.  When we entrust our spiritual maladies to the Divine Physician, He never fails to cure us.

* For more info about Prenatal Partners for Life, an amazing organization helping parents of children with adverse prenatal diagnosis, infant death and disabled children, check out: www.prenatalpartnersforlife.org

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What Reality TV and The Eucharist Have in Common

So, Jon and Kate are getting divorced.  On the fateful night of that announcement, a friend’s Facebook status read, “I want to look away from Jon and Kate Plus 8, but I can’t… It’s like watching a train wreck!”  This is pretty much how I have felt about the few sittings of Reality TV I have stomached.  Whether it’s a pop star hopeful about to share their tone deafness with the world, or a family inviting us into their dysfunctional lifestyle, I feel that watching such scenes is a lot like witnessing some person or object about to tumble to the ground… you know a mess is coming, but you just can’t stop it from happening.

Have you ever asked yourself why people subject themselves to such public humiliation? I have. For Jon and Kate perhaps the original motive was to make some extra cash to support their growing family, and maybe there are others who go on these shows for the money as well.  But I think many who participate in Reality TV do so because it is exciting to be on a screen seen by millions, even if for only 22 minutes.  I think there is a huge number of people today wanting to be famous, wanting to be known.   Reality TV capitalizes on this longing.

I read of a study that polled teenaged girls’ dream career prospects.  Would you believe that with all the possibilities open to girls today that being a personal assistant to Brittany Spears trumped doctor, scientist, lawyer, teacher, etc?  Mind you, the girls preferred being a personal assistant to a pop star to actually being something lucrative and personally fulfilling.  There is a good chunk of our young women who would rather pick up a famous person’s dry cleaning than figure out a cure for cancer!  Why? They want to be known.  Even being close to fame is close enough.

Contrast that study with 150 middle-schoolers, kneeling or sitting on hard carpet for an hour and a half, waiting for their 15 second visit from a soft-spoken middle aged man holding a piece of bread.  They are singing, reading, crying, or even more strangely, just sitting quietly.  Is this the newest extreme challenge show? No, it’s Adoration, and it’s these kids’ favorite part of a 5 day camp that includes swimming, boating, sports, music, a dance and games that involve getting completely covered in mud.  The man is our camp priest and the bread, of course, is Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.

It has been my experience that on any good retreat, teens love Adoration best.  Average teens!  Why? For the same reason that someone will eat a roach sandwich on TV. They long to be known.  At the camp I am describing, the priest blessed each and every person with the monstrance, which is a beautiful gift.  But even in huge college auditoriums with thousands of people, that Eucharist reaches every heart from its distant spot on the altar.  In the presence of Jesus, there are no strangers.  With their hearts opened by the other activities of a retreat, the teens encounter Jesus personally.  They are not one of many, but a unique individual known and loved deeply and completely.  The most famous Person in all of history, the One who created time itself and set the world in motion meets each person who comes into His presence, and supplies for each soul’s need.

So, that answers the title question: Reality TV and the Eucharist both speak to the human need to be known.  But of course, we must also contrast these two things.  In the interest of brevity, I will speak to only one main difference.  The fame sought out by those involving themselves in Reality TV is fleeting and empty in the best case scenario, and destructive in the worst.  For all the controversy they stir up today, in 20 years Jon and Kate will be no more than a question in the Entertainment column of the “00’s” Trivial Pursuit game.  The culture will have moved on to something new by then.  In more cases than not, fame consumes the famous, making their downfall a sport for others’ amusement.  At the very least, those who sought to be known through fame will simply be forgotten.

With Jesus, of course, it is the opposite.  Each person who puts themself in the presence of God is connected to the source of their life.  Though God knows us completely even when we do not acknowledge Him, the more time spent with Him leads us to greater absorption of His love.  The more we let Him love us, the better we know ourselves and the closer we get to who we were created to be.

Do you want to be known? Do you want to be the object of affection of the most important Person in the universe? So precious to the King of Ages that He would send His Son to die in your place? You already are.  Go spend some time with Him and He will convince  you that it’s true.  He’s waiting!

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Lessons Learned From Yardwork, pt 2

Okay, so yesterday I talked about my helper in the landscaping rock removal project.  Today I am going to talk about my neighbor.  Those four years when our yard was not in optimal shape, I would look at my retired neighbor’s lawn and cringe.  I started to call it Disneyland, because it was always so nicely manicured.  And I would wade through my own weedbeds and feel like the folks next door were secretly glaring at me through their windows thinking, “I can’t believe we have to look out our windows at that yard.  Maybe we should put up a fence!”

I should clarify right away that the couple next door could be most genuinely kind people that God ever made.  It is clearly my pride that 1.) thought enough of myself to think that the whole neighborhood gave a hoot about my yard, and 2.) didn’t think enough of my neighbors, who probably just thought, “wow, they have a lot going on over there”.  I am getting better.  I am going easier on myself and actually trying to tap into their expertise for advice, which they are always happy to give, but never offer.

Anyway, back to the rock bed.  After my helper abandoned ship, I remembered that my wonderful neighbor had offered to loan us his wheelbarrow if we ever needed it.  Seeing as my Home Depot bucket could only hold about two shovels full of rocks before it got to heavy for me to carry, I jumped when I saw him in his driveway.  We went back to his shed where he not only had a wheelbarrow, but offered me a very solid metal rake and a shovel.  Holy cow, those tools made a HUGE difference!  Earlier, my first attempts at shoveling had proved fruitless because the rocks were so ground in.  But after raking them, they came up easy.  And having the wheelbarrow meant I could actually get a decent amount of rocks loaded before having to dump them on the side of the house.  The project that moments before had seemed eternal now was moving along at a workable pace.

The right tools.  Are you using them in your difficult situation? Of course, for us Christians, the primary one is prayer.  There is a funny correlation in my life between my deepest moments of self pity and my lack of prayer.  How do we expect to keep our eternal perspective, to experience God’s love or the peace that passes all understanding if we are cut off from its source?? And we Catholics have the amazing privilege of the grace of the sacraments.  Reconciliation to free us from the bondage of sin and Eucharist to fortify us in grace.  And don’t forget about Baptism and Confirmation which fill us with the Holy Spirit’s gifts, or the needed vocational grace of Holy Orders or Marriage.  Also, there is study, where we go deeper into our faith so we can come to love God better by knowing him better, and the support of Christian friendships.  Without these tools, at best we plug along patiently picking one handful of rocks at a time, making record-slow progress.  At worst, we simply give up, faced with the impossibility of completing something way beyond our capabilities.

If these tools make our burdens so much lighter, why don’t we always avail ourselves to them? Back to my neighbor situation.  One huge one is pride.  I can do this myself, I don’t need your stinking help.  Another can be a form of pride which is that we assume things about God that aren’t true.  Like me with my yard, we assume God is wagging his head at what a failure we are, and we are afraid that our requests to him will be met with an “I told you so”.  We don’t realize he understands exactly why our yard is such a mess, and is waiting to lend a hand to get it cleaned up.  Or maybe we had just never considered that there was a better way than a pair of gloves and a four-year-old’s dump truck.  Whatever reason, when we recognize that we are off track, we need to equip ourselves.  As I mentioned yesterday, uniformity with God’s will is not just something we “muster up”.  It is a work of grace that comes as a result of using these tools on a regular basis.

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Lessons Learned From Yardwork, pt 1

Last summer my daughter died.  The summer before that, I was in my first trimester of pregnancy.  The summer before that I was in my third trimester of pregnancy.  The summer before that I had a child attached to my hip that would eat all the grass he could get his hands on.  All this to say that this is the first summer when none of those things apply, and as a result I find myself somewhat available to actually do some projects around the yard that I’ve wanted to get to for, oh, four years.  Mind you, when I say “projects” I am not one of these people who builds retaining walls or puts in their own patio or something.  My current endeavor is removing landscaping rocks (aka “weed holders”) and replacing them with transplanted hostas from other parts of the yard. I think I might get crazy and buy and plant a shrub or two as well.

Today was a perfect day to work on the task at hand.  Cool, dry and I was home alone with Isaac anyway, and heck, kids need fresh air, right?  I was pretty proud of myself, too, for devising a way for my eager preschooler to help.  I had him get his rather large dump truck, and showed him where to dump the rocks.  Then I would load it up, and he could drive the truck over and dump actual rocks onto a pile.  Genius!

For about fifteen minutes.  Considering this was about three times longer than he usually stays on a task I desire him to complete, it was pretty good.  But there are a ton of stinking rocks in that rock bed, and to be honest, he was actually helping at the time he quit!  After that, he piddled around, clipping things with the garden scissors (though not my highest priority weeds), throwing the rocks into a nearby bush, requesting my participation in a stick fight, and generally just being kind of whiny.  My helper was not super helpful to say the least.

I couldn’t help but think that this is often how we are with God.  Or, at least how I am.  I begin with a burst of excitement to “help him” somehow further the Kingdom, and when it starts getting mundane or even slightly uninteresting or frustrating, I start to whine.  Or I get a better idea, to go do something else.  Nevermind if it is actually something God wanted me to do.

If you haven’t read Uniformity With God’s Will by St. Alphonsus Liguori, skip your Starbucks tomorrow and buy it (it costs about as much as a grande coffee of the day. Or better yet, buy it and read it at Starbucks. It’s not long).  He talks about just this thing.  To be really effective in living out our Baptismal call, we need to be doing what God wants us to be doing, not just some nice stuff that strikes our fancy.  St. Alphonsus goes so far as to say that we shouldn’t just accept God’s will, but want what God wants.  I’ve read this little book many, many times and fall short every time.  It is a tall order, because uniformity is not something we “muster up”, it is the action of grace at work in our lives.

On the retreat I was on in February, at the height of my pity party and despair over the effectiveness of my ministry, a fellow retreatant received a word from the Lord for me.  She said, “God wants you to be his useless instrument”.  She explained that this did not mean that I was useless, of course, but that I only needed to do what was asked of me and not worry about the rest.  In theory, I can imagine how freeing it would be to really live that kind life.  That life of uniformity.  Like John XXIII I could say every night, “It’s your Church, Lord, I am going to bed!”  So, as we continue on this path of uncertainty about jobs and family and whether I can keep a transplanted shrub alive, I am praying for grace to align my wants more closely with God’s.

PS: Going back to Isaac for a minute… it would take a lot of trust and discipline for him to keep loading rocks for a few hours.  He’s a kid who is uninterested in our house’s curb appeal.  If he were to keep at a task he found brain-numbingly boring, it would have to be because he trusted my vision for the project and loved me enough to know that I was keeping him on task to complete something great, even if at the end of his little part, he didn’t see any results.  (Okay, theoretically. Stay with me.)  How much more so with God.  It helps to see the big picture of what we are doing for him.  For instance, a volunteer who bakes cookies for a youth ministry event realizes she is “sweetening” the kids up so they might be more open to hearing about God.   But even in times when we can’t possibly imagine how what we are going through helps anything, we need to trust the One who can see the whole project, and understands exactly what our part is in that project.  And in order to trust this One, we must believe that he loves us and has our best interest at heart.  Let’s all pray to be convinced of that love in a deeper and deeper way.  It makes all the difference in the world.

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“When God closes one door, He opens another”

Here’s a look at another common phrase we often use.  As I said in the last post, I think it’s worthwhile looking at what we are really meaning when we say things.  Plus, I like to overanalyze everything. Sometimes you get a twofer.

This phrase has been used on us a lot lately as resumes and interviews have amounted to a growing stack of rejection letters.  It’s meant to be encouraging, a way of reminding us that God has a plan and that He will take care of us.  And for the most part, it is true.  But is God’s will and providence as simple as him opening and closing doors and us stepping through them? Yes and no.

I have stressed in previous posts that suffering does not come from God, and it doesn’t.  It’s a result of sin.  Then why did the saints all see every event, good and bad, as coming from the hand of God?  Because in allowing sin, suffering and evil, God does not just throw up his hands and watch the free-for-all run amok.  He allows bad things in a measured way.  Even the worst sicknesses, losses or injustices can be seen as God’s will because he allows them for our greater good.  He wills not the evil, but the good that can be accomplished in and through us as a result. 

So we can take comfort in the fact that, no matter whether cutting our job was a good or bad decision, it was allowed by God, and is therefore his will for us. It is God who has closed the doors of jobs we may have wanted.   Fr. Walter Ciszek, in his book, He Leadeth Me, has come to rescue me again from self pity on this point.  I’m at the end of the book, and he’s just been thrown out of a town for finally getting to minister in an effective way to God’s people (after 23 years in prison and work camps in Soviet Russia.) Fr. Ciszek says:

 “It was humility I needed: the grace to realize my position before God- not just in times when things were going well, … but more so in times of doubt and disappointment, like today when things were not going the way I would have planned them or wished them.  That’s what humility means- learning to accept disappointments and even defeat as God-sent, learning to carry on… secure in the knowledge that something worthwile is being accomplished precisely because God’s will is at work in our life and we are doing our best to accept and follow it.” (p. 178)

So closed doors are definitively God’s will for us and our peace comes from accepting them as such.  What about open doors?  These are trickier.  When we are given the luxury of many wonderful options, such as in choosing a vocation, many look for a “definite” from God.  A lightning bolt that will signal it is time to ask the cute girl from Calculus out on a date.  But in the face of open doors, I think God respects our free will more than we sometimes think.

When given more than one option, we are free to choose any that is morally licit, that fits our needs and obligations, and that appeal to our natural talents and preferences.  When we wait around for God’s explicit command to do something, it is often an indicator of our fear of choosing the wrong thing, or a conception of God as an evil judge who will smite us if we choose the option he didn’t want.  God doesn’t play games like that, though.  If he gives us more than one good option, we should pray (which is really important!), weigh the outcomes and then simply choose.  He will be happy with the outcome!

So, as we continue to wait for doors to open around here, we are most at peace when we realize that we are not “waiting for God’s will to unfold in our lives” (as I’ve said many a time!).  His will is right here, right now.  In the hallway of humility. 

Happy Pentecost! Holy Spirit, let me know only your will.

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“God will never give you more than you can handle”

People use a lot of cliches when they are dealing with those who are suffering.  There is much truth to some of them, but it has occured to me that it might be good to spend some time examining exactly what we’re saying when we use them.  Words mean things.  And the words we use can effect what we believe about things.  

 “God will never give you more than you can handle”.

This saying strikes me as inaccurate in two aspects.  The first is that it calls to mind an image of God standing back with an armful of suffering, shoveling it out to his unsuspecting children, filling them up with it until they are just about to topple over, then stops.  The next picture in my mind is of a person floundering around shouldering the enormous burden while God sits back and watches.  This image is not accurate, of course.

God is all good. He is Goodness, Love, Perfection.  Suffering is a lack of a good.  Therefore, it cannot be “given”, and even if it could, it could not be given by God!  Suffering is a result of sin, either directly or by the fact that Original Sin earned us a fallen world.  Sickness, the toil of work, the pain of childbearing and rearing and especially death were not the original plan.  God permits suffering because it honors our freedom and because, through his mysterious providence, it somehow works out for our good, if we let it.  Just as he allowed his Son to suffer and so to win our salvation, so can suffering well borne, be a participation in the salvation of the world. It is not given merely for us to “handle”.

Secondly, I don’t know that it is true that he only gives us what we can handle.  In real life and online I have met many people who have lost children.  To be frank, there are many who can’t handle it!  I don’t think any one of us can.  Those who seem to be coping fairly well, from what I can see, are those who have faith.  I would venture to guess that it is because we realize that we can’t handle the loss and we are reaching out for help from God. 

I think this is another reason why God allows us to suffer.  It is too easy when things are going really well to settle into the comfort of believing we gained all this for ourselves.  But when we are experiencing difficulty, when we come face to face with the fact that we cannot control that which is most precious to us, we come to realize that we can’t make it on our own. 

This is no ego trip for God.  Like everything he does, it is for our good.  Because even if we could control our temporal lives, our eternal ones are beyond our reach.  Our salvation is more than we can handle, and if temporal things help us remember that, then we are on good ground.

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Guilt Deficiency Syndrome

A few years ago I saw a news story about a little girl who was born with some disease that prevented her from feeling pain.  At first, it seems like a great disorder, if you were going to have one… anyone who has held a baby who just took a tumble would be happy to not have to dry so many tears.  Except that pain is a really important part of how God made us.  This poor girl had to be tested periodically to be sure she didn’t have any broken bones, and had to take many precautions when doing any physical activity.  At the time she was around 2, and she had to wear goggles to keep from scratching her retinas out (she had already scratched them so badly that her vision was substantially effected.)  Isaac was a baby at the time, and I remember poking him here and there and being so relieved when he would fuss or cry!

Pain is really important.  It’s an indicator that something is wrong.  I think guilt is the same way.  No one likes to feel guilty, but fact is that guilt is important, too.  Just like physical pain, it helps us realize we have a problem that needs to be addressed.  I think in our society there is a pandemic of the kind of disease that the girl above has, but in a spiritual sense.  We have convinced ourselves that guilt is old fashioned.  In our enlightened age, no one need feel it.

The problem is, that if we aren’t feeling guilty about real sin, it’s like we’re walking on a broken foot that we can’t feel.  It’s causing great damage, but we’re totally unaware, so we make it worse.  If someone continued like that, they would eventually lose their whole leg to infection or disease.  Even worse, if our consciences are so numb that they don’t register our sin, we slip deeper and deeper toward hell without even realizing it.  To one like this, the idea of a Savior doesn’t make any sense at all.  Why would you undergo chemotherapy if it couldn’t save your life? Similarly, if you don’t have any sin, why pick up your cross and follow Him?

This is why the Holy Spirit “convinces us concerning sin”.  He works within our hearts, if we let Him, to reclaim the sense of legitimate shame that we should feel over sin.  And it’s always for our health.  A proper diagnosis is necessary for proper treatment.  Contrary to what the popular culture would have us believe, the more appropriate guilt we feel for our sins, the freer we actually feel, since instead of stuffing down the shame we feel, we actually get our sins forgiven!  The Holy Spirit is called the Advocate, which in New Testament times actually meant “one who pleads your case”.  The Holy Spirit does not accuse us, but rather moves our hearts to repentance and stands up to defend us.

As Pentecost approaches, let’s ask the Holy Spirit to show us our sin.  This courageous prayer is one that God always answers affirmatively.  As the Advocate begins to answer this prayer in our lives, we will realize how much more room their is in our hearts for His love… room that was previously filled with sin we couldn’t feel.

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