Tag Archives: suffering

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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Another thought about waiting

In class this weekend, we took a brief detour from the realm of Ecclesiology back into Christian Anthropology, and the basic truth of who we are as people came up: we are body-and-soul.  That’s nothing new.  But our professor reminded us that it is a violence to the human person for the soul to be separate from the body.  This, of course, is why death freaks us out so much.  Even in Heaven, he said, will the Blessed not be totally as they are meant to be until they get their resurrected bodies.  (They are unbelievably fulfilled, of course, and joyful at seeing their Maker face to face.)

Anyway, someone asked about Purgatory, and how the suffering is experienced there since the Holy Souls there don’t have bodies.  He answered that the intellect knows that Heaven is coming (and how amazing it will be) and the will wants so badly to be united to the Beloved that the suffering of purgatory is waiting for that great day to come.  Purgatory is waiting.  

This reminded me of my last post.  If Purgatory is waiting, can’t it be fairly stated that waiting, done well, is Purgatory?  Think about it.  When we wait well, for what we know will be God’s amazing perfect will to unfold in our lives (how ever crappy that perfect will may seem at the time), God can burn away those same impurities in us here on earth that will have to go before we enter Heaven anyway.  Attachment to our own plans, things, ideas.  Inordinant desires for sin or just bad habits.  Dependence on self. Impatience, procrastination, distraction… name your vice, and waiting on things we can’t control has a way of demanding things of us that can burn away the bad and elevate the good. 

So, what are you waiting for? A job? A conversion of a loved one? For your wedding day? For that new baby? The weekend at the cabin? Let’s not waste it, and instead burn off some Purgatory here on earth.

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The Waiting Place

 waiting 1

You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race

down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace

and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space,

headed, I fear, toward a most useless place. The Waiting Place…

…for people just waiting. Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go

or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow

or waiting around for a Yes or a No or waiting for their hair to grow.

Everyone is just waiting.  (Dr. Seuss, Oh! The Places You’ll Go)

 This time last year we were up north previewing the camp we and other area youth ministers had rented for our Junior High students in June.  The day was unseasonable cool and I remember wondering how our kids, in just four short weeks could ever dream of swimming in the lake.  Isaac was with friends, and we brought Gianna along.  In typical fashion, I had forgotten to bring the Bjorn, so Brad and I took turns holding her as we walked through cabins and woods.  Brad spent a lot of the day on the cell phone, with spotty coverage, arguing back and forth with Children’s Hospital staff in St. Paul.  We had recently gotten Gianna tested for some elements in her blood that would indicate that she had the same mitochondrial disorder that took her brother.  We were anxious to hear the news that would confirm what we’d come to accept: she was a healthy little girl and we had nothing more to worry about than beating away her would-be suitors.  The mix-up between clinic staffs was finally cleared up and a call from our doctor came in right as we approached the Target parking lot where our carpool had met.  The numbers were not good.

We entered “The Waiting Place” that day, as further results and retests and appointments were scheduled.  Was it a fluke? This is a hard test to get right.  And once the worst was confirmed, over Memorial Day weekend, we continued to wait. For a liver, or a miracle, or for our little girl to join her brother in heaven. 

I feel like I’ve spent much of my life in The Waiting Place.  As the youngest, I waited through much of my childhood to be as big as my sister.  I waited for college, for summer vacation, for NET, to get married, to have kids, for those kids to finally be born… there always seemed to be something new and exciting to look forward to.  I admit I spent more time than necessary going over and over how things might turn out, sometimes to the point of restlessness.  Gianna taught me a lot about waiting while savoring the present moment.  From the first weeks after her conception, we treasured her.  But especially after her sickness was confirmed, we had no choice but to live only in each day.  I look back and marvel at the fact that the end of May to mid July is only about 6 weeks.  Holy cow, it seemed like an eternity.  Partially because of the grief-and-hospital-induced trancelike fog in which we were living, but partially because we filled up each hour not with the past or future, but with the present moment.  As hard as it was, I will look back on that month and a half as one of the most precious of my life.

Most of our life’s waiting will (gratefully) not be as dramatic as ours was in May 2008.  But it can all be as full of the present moment, and all be as fruitful.  Jesus was 30 when He started His ministry, which lasted only 3 years.  Do you realize what that means? He waited for 30 years! He and Mary worked, took care of their cave, worshipped… day in and day out for thirty long years.  You can bet (being as they were both sinless and Jesus was God and all) that not a moment of that time was wasted.  Jesus, through His humanity in those hidden years, sanctified waiting. 

And so, as we enter a non-life threatening, but still anxiety-inducing (job-searching) waiting this May, I need to continue to remind myself that this is not a “most useless place”.  This is right where God wants our family right now.  And if I let it, with the help of grace, it can be a holy time, sanctifying us as we wait in joyful hope. 

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