Tag Archives: conversion

God is bigger

“Look, mom! A cowboy is a that place.”

“Why is that lady wearing a scarf?”

My son has begun a great human passtime: people watching.  And at the best of all peoplewatching places: the airport.  As we sat in the terminal on an unexpected Standby adventure, I marvelled with him at the huge array of people trying to get from our airport to their final destination.  There was a nervous mom with her emergency passport in hand trying to get to France to visit her study abroad son in the hospital.  This was her second time flying.  There was a young, smart-looking business man who had recently relocated and had his first child.  There was a group of giddy college girls on their way to Rome.  A British couple who had been trying to get home for three days after visiting family and having gone fishing for the first time in their lives.  (Their grandson also likes Spiderman.)

And then there are the people who leave it to your imagination their backstory.  People who don’t engage in small talk or speak loudly enough on their cell phones for you to learn their struggles.  Is that well dressed woman depressed because she’s been delayed from getting home to her family, or is something in her family causing the deep frown on her face?  Where has that tatooed man been? What is behind each of those fading pictures on his limbs?

Each of us has a lifetime of experiences and habits and decisions we bring with us.  What struck me as I looked at the masses of in-transit folks yesterday was the fact that there is a God who knew each of these people (and every one at every other airport in the world, AND even those who have never seen an airport!) before they were even born.  This God understands each better than they understand themselves, in all their compexities.  He knows each moment they were actually doing great good when they thought they blew it, and each time they thought they had it all together and were actually injuring others.  He sees beyond each action to its eternal consequences.  And He has enough love to fill each individual heart to overflowing.

I don’t know how we got on the subject, but one day Isaac and I got on the subject of God, most likely following the Veggie Tales in which Bob and Larry sing about God being bigger than the Boogeyman.  He would ask, “Is God bigger than that building?”  Yes, he is bigger.  “Than an elephant?” Yep, he’s much bigger.  And so on.  But God is also small enough to fit into a piece of bread and into our hearts.  “How can God be bigger AND smaller?”  A beautiful mystery indeed.

How often we make God so small when we consider him only in relation to our own problems, which keeps us from remembering the importance of our neighbor in God’s eyes.  At the same time we make him too big to ever care about us or to believe he has enough time to fit into lives, and therefore we shut him out of the work he wants to do our in our lives.  Next time we are people watching, let’s take a minute to remember God’s bigness, his smallness and what that means for our spiritual lives.

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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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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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My Mormon Conversion: Part 1, Reason

Recently, we had some conversations with our neighborhood LDS missionaries. These talks really began a conversion in me– to a deeper appreciation for my Catholic Faith. I’d like to share some of those reflections here. By way of disclaimer, I would first like to say that I have the utmost respect for Elder M., Elder H., and the more established member they brought the last time. I admire their zeal (they remind me of my days working with the NET team members), and genuinely liked them as people. I wish we could invite them over for a BBQ sometime. Also, it goes without saying that I am no LDS expert. If anyone out there is a Mormon and wants to correct my understanding of their doctrines, please do!

Perhaps our discussions left me most grateful for the way that the Catholic Faith respects our God-given gift of reason. Right away, after all of us shared our faith stories, the thought occured to me: How could all four of us pray to the Holy Spirit, and have Him tell half of us to be Mormon and half to be Catholic? These faiths are incompatible. Much of the Mormon faith seems to be based on a feeling of confidence given by the Holy Spirit. But how do you know the feeling you had is of God, and not just excitement, peer pressure or what you had for lunch?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is based on a revelation given directly by God the Father (who has a body) and Jesus Christ to Joseph Smith in the mid 19th Century. God told Joseph that the Church had been corrupted since the original apostles’ death, and that he was to be given the restored Gospel of Jesus. The missionaries mentioned all the miracles that Jesus did during his time on earth, but failed to give any outside evidence that would back up this revelation to Joseph Smith. No miracles (except that he translated the Book of Mormon with only a 2nd Grade education), no archeological evidence that backs up the claims that there were prophets that came over to North America during the time of Jeremiah, not even another person that witnessed the revelation. Now, of course, we need faith to grasp the truths of God. But we also need reason. God gives us ample evidence that points toward Jesus’ divinity and his messianic mission. Prophesies, miracles and the Church herself. The Gospel writers take great care to describe the credibility of their sources for their accounts. We have two millenia of scholars, some of the world’s most brilliant, who have poured over the Truths of the faith and clarified it for us. (Interested? Pick up St. Thomas’ Summa!!) Catholics who engage their reason will ultimately fall more in love with Jesus Christ.

Further, the Church takes a very skeptical approach to private revelation. The popular devotion at Mejugorie has not yet even been officially approved. The reason is that Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever. He is the Father’s last Word. We won’t get anything more from legitimate private revelation than encouragement for our times. This is to protect us from getting off track. All this is not to discount the roll of an experience of the Holy Spirit in igniting one’s faith. I wish all the youth I work with could really have a deep experience of God’s love for them personally! This is precisely why we take them on retreats. But any youth leader knows it can’t just be about a good feeling, because feelings don’t last. I am so grateful that after an experience with God they can gather up their questions and dive down deep into the beautiful truths of their faith. And the more they learn, the more they can love, and the more their Faith will increase.

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The Supers Are Among Us

Just when we thought he couldn’t get any cuter.  He discovered superheroes.

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You may have thought that he was a preschooler, but really he is a defender of justice and freedom.  This is him in his super suit.  Note his power belt, boots and mask (to hide his secret identity).  Bed time has become the most exciting time of day.  Mind you, we spend all day saving people, but at bedtime, properly attired, things really step up a notch.  To say he is obsessed may be an understatement.  And we are happy to encourage him.

This interest of Isaac’s has led him to the inevitable question: are there any real superheroes in this world?  Initially, we talked to him about firefighters and police officers, who are legitimate people-savers.  But recently, as we talked about the sacrament of Holy Orders with our 7th graders, it clicked: who are the real supers among us? Priests!  And not just in a “self-esteem-boosting” kind of way.  Check out these very real parallels:

Superheroes get their powers from some physical change… a spider bite that fuses arachno-DNA to their own, the effect of the Earth sun on alien orphan, etc. A priest is made priest by the act of ordination- an ontological change. An indelible mark on the soul.  Priests are priests forever, even if dismissed from the clerical state.

Superheroes wear “super suits” when performing herioc acts to define what they are doing and hide their identity.  Priests wear vestments when offering the sacraments, especially the Eucharist– also to hide themselves.  When administering sacraments, they are IN the person of Christ.

Superheroes’ jobs of saving the world are very taxing on their personal relationships, especially romantic ones (I love the way the Spiderman movies tackled this topic!).  Priests are celibate for this reason– sacrifice for their Bride, the Church.

Superheroes have, well, superpowers (duh).  Priests’ superpowers are way cooler than x-ray vision, super strength or even the ability to shoot webs from their hands.  Priests can forgive sins, bring people into God’s family, confer upon people the Holy Spirit and turn bread and wine into Jesus’ Body and Blood.

Superheroes save people from death.  Priests can save people from eternal death.

Why do we have a shortage of priests? I think because the vocation is often presented as: Priesthood=be a nice guy who can’t get married and does some nice things for people here and there.  Who wants to sacrifice their whole life for that? Where’s the adventure? Where’s the sense of what’s at stake? We need priests in order that the rest of us may live a sacramental life of grace.  What’s at stake is salvation!  When it comes to saving the world, more is done at the altar of each daily Mass at each little parish than a bazillion fundraising rock stars, or five trillion government programs could ever hope to do.

So, yes, we will encourage our little superhero to pursue the noble pursuits of peace and justice, motivations placed in his heart by his Creator.  And we will teach him to hold in high regard those true “supers” in our midst.

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