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What a Waste

I am pretty sure I will spend a good deal of time in Purgatory for the amount of food I have wasted.  I don’t mind throwing away the dregs of an Easter basket or cheese doodles and processed cupcakes left over from the grandparents’ visit.  These can hardly be considered food in the first place.  What strikes at my conscience is the times I am forced to throw away a quarter pound of expired lunch meat that I forgot about or a half of a bag of browning broccoli from the warehouse club that I neglected to prepare in time.  Then there are the hotdog or hamburger buns left from some event that mold before we have hotdogs again, or the worst- the dumping of the tupperware from the back of the fridge that is full of, now what was that?.  During the gag-inducing fridge purge I always pray for mercy.  I ask Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who would have gladly served my forgotten food in its better days, to intercede for those who go hungry around the world and in my own town.  And to win me the grace of better meal planning and discipline so that next time I clean the fridge I don’t fill the trash can to overflowing.

No one buys food at the grocery store with the intention of tossing it, or prepares a meal with the intention of putting it in the back of the fridge for three months and then flushing it.  But many of us do just that.  I read a women’s magazine article that stated Americans typically toss 10% of the food they buy.  The stat sickened me.  Not only for the fact that someone went through the trouble of growing or raising that food, or the fact that someone  is hungry right now for lack of food, but for the irony of the fact that I often stand in front of two products trying to compare cost per ounce to save a few bucks.  What good is it to double my 25 cent coupon when I am throwing away 10 dollars worth of food in one cleaning spree?  To waste food is just that: an all around waste.

If we are good at wasting valuable food, we are even better at wasting something more valuable yet: suffering.  At this point you may be thinking, “Suffering? I thought she was going to say ‘time’, or ‘talent’ or even ‘last month’s rollerover minutes’.  What good is suffering at all and how does one waste it?”  I’m glad you asked!

If you’ve read my blog before you may have heard this before, but it bears repeating.  Suffering is a deprivation of a good that one ought to have.  It doesn’t have existence unto itself, much the same as cold is the absence of heat or darkeness the absence of light.  We suffer when we do not have health or companionship or physical necessities.  Note also that we only suffer the lack of things that are proper to us.  I do not suffer for lack of wings, for example, since I ought not have them.  Lop off my leg, however, and suffering will follow. 

 Bear with me for a moment, and let’s follow this line of thinking to the end.  Think about the best good there is.  That would be God, the source of Goodness itself.  The worst suffering then, would be to be deprived of this, and for eternity.  That is called hell.  The means by which we go about bringing this worst suffering upon ourselves is called “dying in unrepentant grave sin”. 

So if it wasn’t before, it’s clear what suffering is.  And we all know that it touches every one of us in various ways at various times in our lives.  But, how could it possibly be valuable?  The answer is that on it’s own, it is not.  There is nothing inherently wonderful about loneliness, hunger or pain.  We detest and attempt to avoid it.  This is part of our defense mechanism.  But think about the minor, or even grave, sufferings you are willing to endure for a greater good.  This is evident in everything from cleaning out a child’s cut to undergoing chemotherapy.  If it’s necessary for the life or well being of those we love most, we will put up with just about anything.

This is what Jesus was thinking when He left heaven to live in suffering and poverty for 33 years only to have it all end by being subjected to the most humiliating and barbaric death on the books.  It was necessary for those He loved most.  You and me.  He understood that the worst of all sufferings for you and for me (hell, remember), could only be prevented by His life, death and resurrection.  By His death, Jesus offers the just penalty for sin, in its perfection.  He also loves the Father, in His flesh, with perfect love that we in our fallen state could not attain.  Jesus’ suffering had great worth, as it attained for us the best good– heaven!

This is where our suffering gets its merit.  Jesus’ sacrifice is perfect, but in His mercy, He leaves it open for us to participate in “what is lacking” in His own suffering.  There is room on that Cross for my deep losses and my daily irritations.  These, offered in union with the Passion of Christ, can help bring about the mission that He came to accomplish: our sanctification.  Wow.

Have you ever thought about why Mary was told at the Presentation that a sword would pierce her heart? Lucky for me my Mariology professor had.  For 33 years, she was holding that phrase of Simeon’s in her heart.  For 33 years pondering the untold suffering her son would endure.  Why would God do that to her? To prepare her, for one.  But for another, I think, because God knew she wouldn’t waste a moment of that suffering and He knew how much we would need the graces that she would merit for us. 

But how much more like me and my fridge are we usually than like our Blessed Mother? How many conversions are still waiting to be won because we responded to a difficulty with despair or anger instead of offering it as a gift back to Jesus?  Fr. Elbee in his book, I Believe in Love says, “In the apostolate, the price of souls is suffering, offered in love.” And sometimes it is the daily trials that we waste the most.  I know in my own life, my deepest sorrows have been easier to offer up than the trial of finding that my husband and son have just eaten popcorn over my freshly vacuumed carpet, again

 So, in this most busy time of year, let’s try to see our sufferings as a treasure chest of grace waiting to be released into the world.  And, for heaven’s sake, eat that meatloaf before it goes bad!

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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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All’s Well That Ends Well

We celebrate two things this week. The first, as you saw from the last post, is Brad’s new job.  He will be working at Sacred Heart Parish in Robbinsdale, as a youth and young adult minister. It’s perfect for him in many respects, and he follows a good friend of ours in that position, which makes the transition even smoother.  We are excited to see what’s in store.

Looking at the other places we both applied, it is easy now to see that God was holding out for this.  Whether we thought so at the time or not, each rejection letter or email we got was a door that needed to close in order for this one to open.  From this side of the trial it is also easy to see how God took a great fear of mine (financial instability) and used it to prove Himself my provider.  Further, through this new job of Brad’s, God has given us a blessing we would not have sought out if we had not been laid off.  And, in these times when many are still searching for work, He has given us authentic compassion and a heart of prayer for the un- and under-employed.

These things were not always visible to us while in the trial, but part of the joy of this gift is being able to see that what we suffered in the past 6 months was for our good.  All’s well that ends well.  That brings us to the other thing we celebrate this week: Gianna’s first anniversary in Heaven.  There are many parallels.

We celebrate not the fact that she suffered and died, of course.  For, in many respects all is not ended yet for us.  We are still in the midst of the trial of life without her.  In celebrating her anniversary, we are recognizing that she has reached her reward.  Just as we look back on 6 months of uncertainty with relief and joy because our employment trial is now over, so does she look now at her own short life and see the meaning behind every needle poke and every tear.  And I think that she sees us all still in this Valley of Tears and with her prayers is seeking to remind us that if we persevere until the end, our outcome too will be glorious.  She and Peter remind us that in comparison with eternity, our lives here on earth are as short as theirs were.  And the result of living it well is worth the cost, even a thousand times over.

One final thought. Many, in hearing our good news this week, have commented on the goodness of God.  Amen!! He is! But the saying reminded me that I should react the same way when I receive bad news, too.  Is God any better today than He was when we got the news that our job had been cut? Was He any better the day Gianna was born than the day she died? No.  God is the same yesterday, today and forever.  He does all things well, and we will come to see even the hardest things this light if we give Him a chance to show us.  Even if we have to wait until Heaven.

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When We Reach the End…

I pronounced it this weekend: This will either be a fantastic week in our household, or else a supremely crappy one.  Brad and I both had irons in the fire, so to speak.  Both of us were to find out about jobs we’d applied for, and we were watching with particular interest for the “early this week” deadline on the job he’s been hoping for.  If he were to get the job, the holding pattern our life has been in lately would come to an end and we could finally move on with the umpteen projects that were waiting on that.  If the answer came back unfavorable, we would face the bleak reality of probable prolonged unemployment, or at the very least uncertainty, since there is not much else out there for us youth minister types. 

Add to this tension my discovery on Sunday that my wallet was gone and that it was most likely found by some unsavory citizen in the grocery store parking lot.  And then there is the upcoming anniversary of our daughter’s death.  Talk about edge of your seat.

Yesterday at 7am, the store called. Someone had turned in my wallet.  Dare I hope that more good news would follow?  No call came from Prospective Parish.  But every time the phone rang, we both jumped a little bit.  It was Father’s day off, right?

Today, Tuesday, Brad “volunteered” at his former place of employment, as a favor to his lovely wife, at our summer program.  He is a manic message checker normally, so when he answered in the affirmative to my question, “so, have you been checking messages every ten minutes?” I knew he was not exaggerating.  Hanging around at the church while our teens did service projects.  Lunch. Walking around the zoo.  Waiting for pickups.  A few calls, but not the anticipated one. By this time, it was 4:40 and we were resigned to another day of waiting.

Then, in our minivan, two minutes before arriving at our home, the cell phone rang again.  It was Father. And as we pulled in the driveway, I turned off the car and listened.  “Yes, this is he. Oh, hi, Father. Great. Yes, I could come in tomorrow. 2:30? Okay, see you then.”  In that minute-long seemingly casual conversation, we were released from this particular, 6+ month long trial.  Just like that. He got the job.

We literally jumped up and down in our driveway.  Finally, something to celebrate! This time God said “yes” to what we wanted, too! Instead of a party for something we know in our hearts is good, but is sad and awkard and kind of sucks, we can actually invite people to our home to celebrate something that makes us happy.  Hooray!

An instant can change our lives for good or for evil.  As the evil moments have for us, this one also made me think about heaven.  Being suddenly set free from this burden made me think of how crabby I was last night under the stress of all this.  How many times I cried out in frustration and anger that God would allow such a trial after I felt I had already reached at least a decade’s quota worth.  In my joy, I felt a certain regret for not weathering the suffering as well as I could have.  I am left wondering if I gained all the merit God held out for me in this trial, now over. 

Here’s how that relates to heaven.  If this is a sense I get from some relatively mild trial, what will it be like at the end of my life, when in an instant I am released from the burdens of sin and death and sorrow, and every tear truly is wiped away.  Will that joy, too, be tinged with regret for the missed opportunities to have trusted more, loved deeper and given more sacrificially?

Someone recently quoted something (that’s good source citing, isn’t it?), that made me picture our trials as God coaxing his little one to climb one rung higher on the playground so that he could brag about how high the child jumped.  Or perhaps God putting his kid into Honors Math, even though the child struggles, so that his full potential could be realized.  He makes us go through hard things not to punish us or to be mean and vindictive, but because He is anticipating with delight how proud He will be of us (and us of ourselves) when we accomplish that which we did not know we could do.  He’s there through the whole trial.  He knows how hard it is for us, but that it will turn out okay.  He is waiting to brag about us… and in His waiting He is already proud of us. 

So, as we accepted the times when God “takes away”, we will accept the sweeter “give” that is ours for now.  And I will not be too hard on myself for not handling the waiting perfectly, since as St. Therese says, our weaknesses just make Him love us more.  But I do want to remember this feeling of relief, this perspective from safety, so that it may deepen my confidence and trust in Him for the next time He asks me to take a big leap.

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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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On Celebrating

I was at the grocery store today with Isaac doing the week’s shopping.  In anticipation of Gianna’s birthday this week, we bought cake mix, ice cream and a (kind of tacky) princess balloon for her grave that Isaac picked out.  (I wanted to get her some tulips, but figured they would still freeze at night. Flowers will have to wait for summer.)

Peter’s first birthday fell on our first night of grad school, and the day itself, which I expected to be some sort of deep, reflective moment, turned out to be a long string of hectic errands.  And by then, I was already pregnant with Gianna.  I kind of had the idea that it was okay that God took Peter, because now we were getting another chance.  We face Gianna’s birthday with no idea of what is ahead for us on any front.  Plus, I just miss her.  I was so looking forward to celebrating with her here.  So, without her I don’t much feel like celebrating.

So, why go through the pretense of celebrating? Why make a cake and invite people over to eat it? The grief books would seem to say, “do whatever makes you feel good” on anniversaries.  If you want to lock yourself in your room and cry all day, do it.  Well, I’m sure I’ll cry, but I also feel compelled to celebrate.  One reason is Isaac.  Cake is what you do for birthdays, and Gianna is his sister and it is her birthday.  But more than that, I have been reflecting on what a birthday is and means.  So, I really hoped Gianna would be born healthy and live a long happy life.  But she didn’t. She got sick and died.  Does this mean that we should not celebrate her?  Does she not deserve to be honored just like the rest of our family on account of the fact that I might cry in front of our closest friends? Are we to celebrate only those things which make us feel good?

We said from the very moment we thought we might be pregnant that we were grateful for Gianna’s existence.  She is not here with us to get covered in icing for the obligatory photo op.  But she exists, and will for eternity.  If we had let our fear rule us, she would not.  I have to believe that from where she sits now in heaven, Gianna is certainly glad for this fact.  I’m sure she would be chowing down on cake if she had her glorified body back to eat it! So to celebrate this occasion makes sense.  Even if it hurts like hell.

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Pernicious Jello

Brad is attending a conference this week out in PA, so he flew home on Friday. He told me that on the way out to PA, the security people confiscated the 4 oz pre-packaged jello cup he had brought along as a snack, since it was above the 3 oz limit.  Could he just eat it? Not without stepping outside of security and re-entering the line. He cut his losses. Ironically, his razor was left untouched in his carry-on.

This is not a rant about the TSA. These folks are just doing their job, and we have learned that there are bigger concerns in life than gelatin.  I bring it up because I know you have a similar story about the airport security people.   They are the people we love to hate… how they bark impatiently at us to have our boarding passes out, how they look dispassionately at the businessmen struggling to replace their shoes and belts while retaining some dignity.  I think what irritates us the most about the TSA is the gaping disconnect we perceive between quart sized ziplock bags and keeping people from blowing up our planes.  We are afraid that they are so busy making sure our toiletries are in order that they will totally miss the bad guys slipping in from behind.

Yet don’t we do this in our own lives? The TSA’s big picture is to keep terrorists off airplanes. What’s ours? Being as it concerns the way we will spend all of eternity, I would like to suggest our big picture should be getting to heaven.  Yet how often do we call that to mind? We get so upset about things that ultimately do not contribute to our salvation: weather, traffic, our diminishing 401K, what people think of us, getting stuff done.  And we neglect things that will prepare us to meet our maker: prayer, sacraments, learning about our faith, growth in charity.  This is not to say that our day to day concerns can’t sanctify us.  After all, Jesus spent 30 of His 33 years at an ordinary job.  For those of us not called to the cloister, our holiness will come through dishes and diapers and commuting and email.  But if we do not keep our eyes on eternity we will get consumed by the cares of the world.  And when we do that we are just as ridiculous as the folks waving us through the metal detector.

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