Do Not Be Afraid

(Note: I and another parishioner at St. John the Bapist Catholic Church in Custer are leading a Lenten retreat this weekend. For those who might be interested, I will post my presentations after each session of the retreat.)

We’re going to start tonight in an unusual place for a Lenten retreat.

We’re going to start before Christ was born, before he was even conceived, at the Annunciation.

The reason we are starting with the Annunciation is to remind ourselves – all of us, including Dave and I – that we must be open to the movement of the Spirit in our lives. We must be willing to say, “Yes,” without knowing what it means, and we must be willing to let go of our expectations so that God can work his will in our lives. This is as important in the area of healing as it is in every other area of our spiritual journey.

A READING FROM THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LUKE (Luke 1:26-38)

Tonight, in asking you to let the Holy Spirit open your minds and your hearts, I would like to share with you a little of my personal journey. I do this because tomorrow we will be looking at four instances of healing in the New Testament and I will be sharing with you three Scripture-based prayer practices that can draw you into a more intimate relationship with God who desires you to be healed and whole. It’s been my experience that Scripture-based prayer opens our hearts and minds to God at work in our lives in a very profound way. It’s not so much that you come up with something new and different, because more often than not God has spoken the same message to others before you and will speak it to others after you. Rather, because you have received it personally, it comes to live in you in a way that is new and exciting to you.

One of the most delightful aspects of turning to Scripture in prayer and in study is that each passage will speak to you at different times in your life in different ways because the Word of God is the Living Word. You will probably discover tomorrow that since Dave and I prepared separately the passages we have chosen for this retreat spoke to us in different ways. That is one of the incredible mysteries and miracles of the Word – that a single passage can have so much to say, and that it’s message to each of us can be so incredibly personal.

I, personally, learned both of the attitudes I am asking you to bring to the retreat tomorrow through the Annunciation. I want to share two stories, simply to illustrate the way God can speak to you personally through the Scripture. I want to emphasize that I am no different than any of you. God can speak to you — and maybe already has — if you open your heart and your mind to him. I am simply here, sharing with you what I have learned, because I like to teach, and I hope that is one of the ways I can build up the community of God’s people – by sharing what I learn through prayer and study on my journey. I think Dave feels the same way, that we’re just pilgrims, like you, not experts or authorities.

I think in preparing for tomorrow’s sessions on healing, it’s important for us to know how very much God wants to draw near to us and wants us to draw near to him. The Catechism of the Catholic Church begins – the very first paragraph – with this: “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength.”

And then, just a little further on, in paragraph 52, the Catechism says, “God, who ‘dwells in unapproachable light,’ wants to communicate his own divine life to the men he freely created in order to adopt them as his sons in his only-begotten Son. By revealing himself, God wishes to make them capable of responding to him, and of knowing him, and of loving him far beyond their own natural capacity.” In other words, he’s right there, willing to give us far more in terms of understanding than we could every figure out on our own, because he wants us to know him. He wants us to love him.

When you first start experiencing this intimacy with God, when he first gives you an insight that can help you grow in him, you are wonder-struck. You truly feel blessed. You truly feel chosen. You can’t wait for it to happen again, but my personal experience is that it doesn’t happen often. Rather, you have an insight and you grow in it. It’s as though your life is a kaleidoscope and things start shifting and changing. Eventually, the time comes when this new insight lives in you and is reflected in the way you live, and then God gives you something new to work on. It’s always about Him. It’s always about drawing close to him. It’s always about reflecting Him into the world. It’s never about you. As soon as you make it about you, the excitement becomes an uneasy restlessness, and somehow you find you don’t have the strength for the hard work of growing in this new understanding.

With that introduction, I’ll talk about what the Annunciation has meant to me. As the brochure said, my spiritual journey included a detour through evangelical Christianity and Zen Buddhism before I returned to the Catholic Church in the 1990s. But, I’m not going to start there. I’m going to start later, about a decade ago.

At the time I was living in Pierre and working for the Capital Journal. The youth director at Ss. Peter and Paul had organized a Eucharistic Retreat for area youth, which included 24 hours of Eucharistic adoration. People in the parish were asked to sign up for the overnight hours, and I dutifully signed up for the midnight to one slot.

I did not know until I got there that no one had signed up again until 4 a.m. I also did not know until I got there that the monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament was exposed in a gym in total darkness apart from a rainbow of candles surrounding it. In other words, the book I had taken to reflect upon was useless. I chatted with God a bit and then allowed myself to sink into the silence of his presence — until I felt myself nodding off.

Then I realized I needed to move if I was going to stay awake through the long watch of the night, so I pulled out my rosary and began to walk through the rows of chairs as though they formed a labyrinth. I prayed through the mysteries of the rosaries once and then again. I had just started a third time when, BAM! It hit me!

Mary said, “Yes!”

I know, that’s a bit of a no-brainer. But prior to this, the Annunciation had been a nice story to me, kind of like a fairy tale – or a scene in a play or even a historical account of an important event. It didn’t dawn on me prior to this that Mary was a woman JUST LIKE ME. She wasn’t just this pinnacle of perfection sitting on a heavenly throne. Her feet touched the ground just as mine do. She had responsibilities, just like I do. And, in all likelihood, she had dreams, just like I do.

I wouldn’t be afraid to bet, though, that not one of those dreams involved becoming the Mother of God. Really, that would be like me imagining I might become the first duly-elected female pope in the history of the Catholic Church. It’s so beyond possible that winning the Powerball jackpot is more likely.

And yet, one day, out of the blue, an angel appeared to her. We have no idea what she was doing when this happened. Maybe she was praying. Maybe she was just daydreaming while doing some repetitive task such as pounding grain for bread, or maybe she was walking to the well for water. We don’t know. Luke tells us that Zachariah was in the temple sanctuary when an angel appeared to him and announced Elizabeth’s pregnancy, but he doesn’t say a word about Mary’s activities.

First, the angel greets her in a way that troubles her and then he gives her a startling message: You’re going to have a baby. I’m sure she expected to become a mother at some point in her life; that’s what women did. They became mothers. But she wasn’t at that stage in life, yet. She was betrothed, but hadn’t entered into that living as man and wife phase of their relationship.

Whoa! How can this be?

I think we all imagine wonderful things CAN happen to us. (Yes, I might meet George Clooney and he might fall madly in love with me.) But our expectations are more grounded in reality as we know it. I think Mary was like that, too. She had to be. She was living in a harsh time. Then along comes an angel, and says, “No, God is doing a new thing in your life. Your life is not going to be what you thought it was going to be.”

How can this be?

He just keeps talking. “The Holy Spirit is going to make it happen, and you’re not the only one who’s going to surprise folks by having a baby. Your old cousin Elizabeth is pregnant, too.”

You can almost see Mary taking all this information in, and being dazed by it. Without even considering what this might mean, what effect this will have on her life, she says, “OK. OK. Be it done unto me according to your word.”

That night, somewhere around 3 or 3:30 a.m. – not long before someone else came to pray before the Blessed Sacrament – I realized that we have to be like Mary if God is going to work in our lives. We have to give our assent. We have to be willing to say “YES” without counting the cost. We have to be willing to say “YES” without worrying what people will think. We have to be willing to say “YES”

Truthfully, I’m still learning what that means. In recent months, I have learned that part of consenting to allow God to work through us is letting go of expectations.

If an angel said to me, “the Lord God will give your son the throne of David and his kingdom will last forever,” I would think I had it made. If my son is going to be a king, I’m going to have servants doing the work. If my son is king, I’m finally going to have a decent place to live. If my son is king, I’m going to have some decent clothes to wear. If my son is king, I’m not going to have to put up with neighbors that drive me nuts.

Mary’s life wasn’t like that at all. She was practically abandoned by her betrothed. She was sent off to stay with her cousin Elizabeth, probably until that situation with Joseph could be resolved. She gave birth in a barn. Not too long ago, another woman pointed out to me that with all the relatives she would have had in Bethlehem at that time for the census, the fact no one would take her in was a pretty good indication of what her family thought of her pregnancy – and not one of them visited after that baby was born. That had to have been tough. Then into Egypt where she would have lived among strangers and back to Nazareth where as a carpenter’s wife she would have had to deal with saw dust and wood chips on top of everything else that women had to contend with in her day.

Her life wasn’t easy at all, but in the end, God’s promise to her was fulfilled – in a totally unexpected manner. The same is true in our lives.

Last fall, I chose to leave a position that wasn’t a good fit for me. I’d moved across state to accept the position and fully expected it to be the last job I worked prior to my retirement. But, after a little more than three months, I knew it wasn’t going to work.

Part of me said, “Mary, you have bills to pay. Stick it out.”

But, there was another part of me that was filled with despair by the idea of continuing in that position. I remember thinking, “God, why don’t you just kill me and get it over with?” I felt so betrayed. I had experienced tremendous joy when I moved to Custer, inexplicable joy that just went on and on. And I thought I had entered into the Promised Land stage of my life which has been very difficult. To find myself dealing with this horrendous work situation was overwhelming.

I sent out a prayer request to everyone whose email address I had. And I prayed about it myself. That decision felt incredibly pivotal in my life. Over and over in prayer, I heard, “Trust me, you can quit.” That was such a radical idea that I resisted it. How did I know that wasn’t just wishful thinking? With those doubts, I didn’t want to rush into anything, but I went to work one day and my boss said some things to me which reinforced my perception that I was not the person that organization needed, and I handed in my letter of resignation. When I did, peace just washed over me and the spirit of joy that I had known after moving to Custer returned.

I thought, “This is cool.” I fully expected to have a job within a matter of weeks, if not days. It didn’t work out that way at all. I recently started working at a convenience store, but for the months prior to that – when I was unemployed — I was filled with God’s peace.

Let me tell you about a few things that have happened.

  • First, I was able to provide childcare for my granddaughters. When I left my position, they had just entered day care. Both my daughter and my son-in-law are in the Air Force, and my daughter had looked for nearly two months after her husband was reassigned to Beale AFB before finding a childcare opening for twins. But, within weeks, one of the girls was in the hospital with injuries that occurred at day care. Due to the nature of the injuries, it was investigated as child abuse. Obviously, my granddaughters could not continue to attend that day care center. I spent seven weeks out of the next three months in California caring for my grandgirls. If I had been working, that would not have been possible. Being able to step in and help in that way was an incredible blessing in my life.
  • Second, I had an incredible experience of surrender at the Diocesan Women’s Retreat in October. Had I been working, I probably would not have attended because I would not have been able to afford it. However, after I left my position, Dave gave me a road trip that included going to the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church out in the middle of nowhere in northwestern Nebraska. There, I was attracted to the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I have to admit, that I’m not usually moved by mass-produced statues and things like that, but on that occasion Christ’s arms seemed to be opened as though he was going to embrace me. It was a powerful experience. Then, when I got back to my apartment, I found the brochure about the women’s retreat and learned it was called “Living in the Sacred Heart of Jesus,” and I felt I had to go. I did something that I’ve never done before. I asked for financial assistance. I’ve always been too proud to ask for help. If I couldn’t afford something, I didn’t do it. But on that occasion, I asked, and I’m so grateful I did. That experience of surrender wasn’t a choice, it was just a spontaneous opening of my heart, a complete willingness to be molded by God. That desire to be malleable has continued to grow in me. I’m still learning how to live it.
  • Third, I was so impressed with the retreat leader Susan Safford, who also led our Advent retreat in December, that I asked my daughter Katie to make the Advent retreat with me, which she did. God spoke to Katie at that retreat in a very powerful way. In the first couple weeks after the retreat, she got rid of all her possessions except for the bare necessities and she’s now exploring religious orders. She’s felt for a long time that God might be leading her in that direction, but only after the retreat did she say, “Yes, I am going to respond to God’s call in my life.”
  • Fourth, in December, I experienced healing in a way I didn’t even know I needed. I’ve had a rough life. I was abused growing up, sexually molested when I was 12, gang raped when I was 18, and had been through two abusive marriages by the time I was 30. That left a lot of scars, but with the help of an incredible therapist I worked through a lot of issues related to those experiences. Had you asked me prior to the healing Mass in December about that, I would have said I’d dealt with the issues and put them behind me. However, after being anointed, I realized there was in me a deep and abiding shame that colored my worldview and made me feel unworthy of God’s love or any of the blessings he wished to pour out on me. Again, I had this experience of God working in my life from the inside out, just as he had at the retreat.
  • Fifth, God has taken care of me every step of the way. My former employer appealed approval of my unemployment claim and won, so I’ve not been able to collect unemployment – but I’ve had some freelance jobs, sold a couple paintings and received numerous cash gifts from friends and anonymously. One day I was completely out of the basics when it comes to foodstuffs. I didn’t have milk. I didn’t have bread. I was expecting a check from a freelance job, but until it came, I didn’t have any money. There was a card in the mail that day without a signature or return address. Inside was a $20. I could buy the groceries I needed. And that’s just the way it’s been. Over and over, I’ve experienced a sense of fall-to-my-knees gratitude. Psalm 8 says, “What is man that thou are mindful of him?” Over and over again, I find myself thinking, “Who am I that you would care for me in this deeply personal way?”

My point – and it’s very important that you hear this – is that I did not expect any of this. I could not have expected any of this. What I expected was a job. What I expected was financial security. What I got was a powerful pilgrimage of the heart.

And that is what I ask you to remember as we move into tomorrow. I want you to remember that you can’t come to God with a plan for him to endorse. He doesn’t work that way. But you can bring before him your needs, your desires, those things in your heart and life that you can’t quite name but make you feel restless and dissatisfied – and you can expect him to work in your life in wholly unimaginable ways.

But, you have to be willing to say “Yes.” You have to be willing to open yourself to the way God wants to work in you.

Do Not Be Afraid

(Note: I and another parishioner at St. John the Bapist Catholic Church in Custer are leading a Lenten retreat this weekend. For those who might be interested, I will post my presentations after each session of the retreat.)

We’re going to start tonight in an unusual place for a Lenten retreat.

We’re going to start before Christ was born, before he was even conceived, at the Annunciation.

The reason we are starting with the Annunciation is to remind ourselves – all of us, including Dave and I – that we must be open to the movement of the Spirit in our lives. We must be willing to say, “Yes,” without knowing what it means, and we must be willing to let go of our expectations so that God can work his will in our lives. This is as important in the area of healing as it is in every other area of our spiritual journey.

A READING  FROM THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LUKE (Luke 1:26-38)

Tonight, in asking you to let the Holy Spirit open your minds and your hearts, I would like to share with you a little of my personal journey. I do this because tomorrow we will be looking at four instances of healing in the New Testament and I will be sharing with you three Scripture-based prayer practices that can draw you into a more intimate relationship with God who desires you  to be healed and whole. It’s been my experience that Scripture-based prayer opens our hearts and minds to God at work in our lives in a very profound way. It’s not so much that you come up with something new and different, because more often than not God has spoken the same message to others before you and will speak it to others after you. Rather, because you have received it personally, it comes to live in you in a way that is new and exciting to you.

One of the most delightful aspects of turning to Scripture in prayer and in study is that each passage will speak to you at different times in your life in different ways because the Word of God is the Living Word. You will probably discover tomorrow that since Dave and I prepared separately the passages we have chosen for this retreat spoke to us in different ways. That is one of the incredible mysteries and miracles of the Word – that a single passage can have so much to say, and that it’s message to each of us can be so incredibly personal.

 I, personally, learned both of the attitudes I am asking you to bring to the retreat tomorrow through the Annunciation. I want to share two stories, simply to illustrate the way God can speak to you personally through the Scripture. I want to emphasize that I am no different than any of you. God can speak to you — and maybe already has — if you open your heart and your mind to him. I am simply here, sharing with you what I have learned, because I like to teach, and I hope that is one of the ways I can build up the community of God’s people – by sharing what I learn through prayer and study on my journey. I think Dave feels the same way, that we’re just pilgrims, like you, not experts or authorities.

I think in preparing for tomorrow’s sessions on healing, it’s important for us to know how very much God wants to draw near to us and wants us to draw near to him. The Catechism of the Catholic Church begins – the very first paragraph – with this: “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength.”

And then, just a little further on, in paragraph 52, the Catechism says, “God, who ‘dwells in unapproachable light,’ wants to communicate his own divine life to the men he freely created in order to adopt them as his sons in his only-begotten Son. By revealing himself, God wishes to make them capable of responding to him, and of knowing him, and of loving him far beyond their own natural capacity.” In other words, he’s right there, willing to give us far more in terms of understanding than we could every figure out on our own, because he wants us to know him. He wants us to love him.

When you first start experiencing this intimacy with God, when he first gives you an insight that can help you grow in him, you are wonder-struck. You truly feel blessed. You truly feel chosen. You can’t wait for it to happen again, but my personal experience is that it doesn’t happen often. Rather, you have an insight and you grow in it. It’s as though your life is a kaleidoscope and things start shifting and changing. Eventually, the time comes when this new insight lives in you and is reflected in the way you live, and then God gives you something new to work on. It’s always about Him. It’s always about drawing close to him. It’s always about reflecting Him into the world. It’s never about you. As soon as you make it about you, the excitement becomes an uneasy restlessness, and somehow you find you don’t have the strength for the hard work of growing in this new understanding.

With that introduction, I’ll talk about what the Annunciation has meant to me. As the brochure said, my spiritual journey included a detour through evangelical Christianity and Zen Buddhism before I returned to the Catholic Church in the 1990s. But, I’m not going to start there. I’m going to start later, about a decade ago.

At the time I was living in Pierre and working for the Capital Journal. The youth director at Ss. Peter and Paul had organized a Eucharistic Retreat for area youth, which included 24 hours of Eucharistic adoration. People in the parish were asked to sign up for the overnight hours, and I dutifully signed up for the midnight to one slot.

I did not know until I got there that no one had signed up again until 4 a.m. I also did not know until I got there that the monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament was exposed in a gym in total darkness apart from a rainbow of candles surrounding it. In other words, the book I had taken to reflect upon was useless. I chatted with God a bit and then allowed myself to sink into the silence of his presence —  until I felt myself nodding off.

Then I realized I needed to move if I was going to stay awake through the long watch of the night, so I pulled out my rosary and began to walk through the rows of chairs as though they formed a labyrinth. I prayed through the mysteries of the rosaries once and then again. I had just started a third time when, BAM! It hit me!

Mary said, “Yes!”

I know, that’s a bit of a no-brainer. But prior to this, the Annunciation had been a nice story to me, kind of like a fairy tale – or a scene in a play or even a historical account of an important event. It didn’t dawn on me prior to this that Mary was a woman JUST LIKE ME. She wasn’t just this pinnacle of perfection sitting on a heavenly throne. Her feet touched the ground just as mine do. She had responsibilities, just like I do. And, in all likelihood, she had dreams, just like I do.

I wouldn’t be afraid to bet, though, that not one of those dreams involved becoming the Mother of God. Really, that would be like me imagining I might become the first duly-elected female pope in the history of the Catholic Church. It’s so beyond possible that winning the Powerball jackpot is more likely.

And yet, one day, out of the blue, an angel appeared to her. We have no idea what she was doing when this happened. Maybe she was praying. Maybe she was just daydreaming while doing some repetitive task such as pounding grain for bread, or maybe she was walking to the well for water. We don’t know. Luke tells us that Zachariah was in the temple sanctuary when an angel appeared to him and announced Elizabeth’s pregnancy, but he doesn’t say a word about Mary’s activities.

First, the angel greets her in a way that troubles her and then he gives her a startling message: You’re going to have a baby. I’m sure she expected to become a mother at some point in her life; that’s what women did. They became mothers. But she wasn’t at that stage in life, yet. She was betrothed, but hadn’t entered into that living as man and wife phase of their relationship.

Whoa! How can this be?

I think we all imagine wonderful things CAN happen to us. (Yes, I might meet George Clooney and he might fall madly in love with me.) But our expectations are more grounded in reality as we know it. I think Mary was like that, too. She had to be. She was living in a harsh time. Then along comes an angel, and says, “No, God is doing a new thing in your life. Your life is not going to be what you thought it was going to be.”

How can this be?

He just keeps talking. “The Holy Spirit is going to make it happen, and you’re not the only one who’s going to surprise folks by having a baby. Your old cousin Elizabeth is pregnant, too.”

You can almost see Mary taking all this information in, and being dazed by it. Without even considering what this might mean, what effect this will have on her life, she says, “OK. OK. Be it done unto me according to your word.”

That night, somewhere around 3 or 3:30 a.m. – not long before someone else came to pray before the Blessed Sacrament – I realized that we have to be like Mary if God is going to work in our lives. We have to give our assent. We have to be willing  to say “YES” without counting the cost. We have to be willing to say “YES” without worrying what people will think. We have to be willing to say “YES”

Truthfully, I’m still learning what that means. In recent months, I have learned that part of consenting to allow God to work through us is letting go of expectations.

If an angel said to me, “the Lord God will give your son the throne of David and his kingdom will last forever,” I would think I had it made. If my son is going to be a king, I’m going to have servants doing the work. If my son is king, I’m finally going to have a decent place to live. If my son is king, I’m going to have some decent clothes to wear. If my son is king, I’m not going to have to put up with neighbors that drive me nuts.

Mary’s life wasn’t like that at all. She was practically abandoned by her betrothed. She was sent off to stay with her cousin Elizabeth, probably until that situation with Joseph could be resolved. She gave birth in a barn. Not too long ago, another woman pointed out to me that with all the relatives she would have had in Bethlehem at that time for the census, the fact no one would take her in was a pretty good indication of what her family thought of her pregnancy – and not one of them visited after that baby was born. That had to have been tough. Then into Egypt where she would have lived among strangers and back to Nazareth where as a carpenter’s wife she would have  had to deal with saw dust and wood chips on top of everything else that women had to contend with in her day.

Her life wasn’t easy at all, but in the end, God’s promise to her was fulfilled – in a totally unexpected manner. The same is true in our lives.

Last fall, I chose to leave a position that wasn’t a good fit for me. I’d moved across state to accept the position and fully expected it to be the last job I worked prior to my retirement. But, after a little more than three months, I knew it wasn’t going to work.

Part of me said, “Mary, you have bills to pay. Stick it out.”

But, there was another part of me that was filled with despair by the idea of continuing in that position. I remember thinking, “God, why don’t you just kill me and get it over with?” I felt so betrayed. I had experienced tremendous joy when I moved to Custer, inexplicable joy that just went on and on. And I thought I had entered into the Promised Land stage of my life which has been very difficult. To find myself dealing with this horrendous work situation was overwhelming.

I sent out a prayer request to everyone whose email address I had. And I prayed about it myself. That decision felt incredibly pivotal in my life. Over and over in prayer, I heard, “Trust me, you can quit.” That was such a radical idea that I resisted it. How did I know that wasn’t just wishful thinking? With those doubts, I didn’t want to rush into anything, but I went to work one day and my boss said some things to me which reinforced my perception that I was not the person that organization needed, and I handed in my letter of resignation. When I did, peace just washed over me and the spirit of joy that I had known after moving to Custer returned.

I thought, “This is cool.” I fully expected to have a job within a matter of weeks, if not days. It didn’t work out that way at all. I recently started working at a convenience store, but for the months prior to that – when I was unemployed — I was filled with God’s peace.

Let me tell you about a few things that have happened.

  • First, I was able to provide childcare for my granddaughters. When I left my position, they had just entered day care. Both my daughter and my son-in-law are in the Air Force, and my daughter had looked for nearly two months after her husband was reassigned to Beale AFB before finding a childcare opening for twins. But, within weeks, one of the girls was in the hospital with injuries that occurred at day care. Due to the nature of the injuries, it was investigated as child abuse. Obviously, my granddaughters could not continue to attend that day care center. I spent seven weeks out of  the next three months in California caring for my grandgirls. If I had been working, that would not have been possible. Being able to step in and help in that way was an incredible blessing in my life.
  • Second, I had an incredible experience of surrender at the Diocesan Women’s Retreat in October. Had I been working, I probably would not have attended because I would not have been able to afford it. However, after I left my position, Dave gave me a road trip that included going to the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church out in the middle of nowhere in northwestern Nebraska. There, I was attracted to the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I have to admit, that I’m not usually moved by mass-produced statues and things like that, but on that occasion Christ’s arms seemed to be opened as though he was going to embrace me. It was a powerful experience. Then, when I got back to my apartment, I found the brochure about the women’s retreat and learned it was called “Living in the Sacred Heart of Jesus,” and I felt I had to go. I did something that I’ve never done before. I asked for financial assistance. I’ve always been too proud to ask for help. If I couldn’t afford something, I didn’t do it. But on that occasion, I asked, and I’m so grateful I did. That experience of surrender wasn’t a choice, it was just a spontaneous opening of my heart, a complete willingness to be molded by God. That desire to be malleable has continued to grow in me. I’m still learning how to live it.
  • Third, I was so impressed with the retreat leader Susan Safford, who also led our Advent retreat in December, that I asked my daughter Katie to make the Advent retreat with me, which she did. God spoke to Katie at that retreat in a very powerful way. In the first couple weeks after the retreat, she got rid of all her possessions except for the bare necessities and she’s now exploring religious orders. She’s felt for a long time that God might be leading her in that direction, but only after the retreat did she say, “Yes, I am going to respond to God’s call in my life.”
  • Fourth, in December, I experienced healing in a way I didn’t even know I needed. I’ve had a rough life. I was abused growing up, sexually molested when I was 12, gang raped when I was 18, and had been through two abusive marriages by the time I was 30. That left a lot of scars, but with the help of an incredible therapist I worked through a lot of issues related to  those experiences. Had you asked me prior to the healing Mass in December about that, I would have said I’d dealt with the issues and put them behind me. However, after being anointed, I realized there was in me a deep and abiding shame that colored my worldview and made me feel  unworthy of God’s love or any of the blessings he wished to pour out on me. Again, I had this experience of God working in my life from the inside out, just as he had at the retreat.
  • Fifth, God has taken care of me every step of the way. My former employer appealed approval of my unemployment claim and won, so I’ve not been able to collect unemployment – but I’ve had some freelance jobs, sold a couple paintings and received numerous cash gifts from friends and anonymously. One day I was completely out of the basics when it comes to foodstuffs. I didn’t have milk. I didn’t have bread. I was expecting a check from a freelance job, but until it came, I didn’t have any money. There was a card in the mail that day without a signature or return address. Inside was a $20. I could buy the groceries I needed. And that’s just the way it’s been. Over and over, I’ve experienced a sense of fall-to-my-knees gratitude. Psalm 8 says, “What is man that thou are mindful of him?” Over and over again, I find myself thinking, “Who am I that you would care for me in this deeply personal way?”

My point – and it’s very important that you hear this – is that I did not expect any of this. I could not have expected any of this. What I expected was a job. What I expected was financial security. What I got was a powerful pilgrimage of the heart.

And that is what I ask you to remember as we move into tomorrow. I want you to remember that you can’t come to God with a plan for him to endorse. He doesn’t work that way. But you can bring before him your needs, your desires, those things in your heart and life that you can’t quite name but make you feel restless and dissatisfied – and you can expect him to work in your life in wholly unimaginable ways.

But, you have to be willing to say “Yes.” You have to be willing to open yourself to the way God wants to work in you.

You Call This An Open Door?

To blog or not to blog?

That is the question. It’s 2:33 a.m., and I just got home from work. My back hurts. My feet hurt. I feel like whining and complaining — profusely, but that would put me soundly in the camp of the Israelites who were not satisfied with being freed from slavery and complained their way through Exodus and Numbers.

It got so bad, Moses said to God, “Why do you treat your servant so badly? Why are you so displeased with me that you burden me with all this people? Was it I who conceived all this people? Or was it I who gave them birth that you tell me to carry them at my bosom, like a foster father carrying an infant, to the land you have promised under oath to their fathers? If this is the way you will deal with me, then please do me the favor of killing me at once so that I need no longer face this distress” (Numbers 11:11-12,15).

I would prefer not to be in the camp of those who tormented God’s servant this way, but it’s been one of those days — weeks, actually.

After six months of being unemployed, I was offered a job a couple weeks ago — working at a convenience store. I applied because (a) I want to stay in Custer and there aren’t a lot of jobs around here, (b) it’s diagonally across the street from my apartment, and (c) I’ve enjoyed working at convenience stores in the past. Too, as assistant manager, I would earn enough to cover my bills, and have some free time to engage in activities I enjoy.

Besides, I’d met with a Catholic counselor / spiritual director the week before I accepted the job and shared with her a deeply-seated fear — that I would make the wrong decision at this juncture in my life. When I left Pierre in 2006, a knot in the pit of my stomach told me I was making a big mistake. It took five years and two more moves to feel I was on track with my life again. I can’t help but feel I’m too old to waste another five years.

She suggested a simple prayer, “Lord, open the door you want me to go through and close all the rest.” I felt comfortable with this prayer because in September when I was attempting to discern what to do about a difficult work situation, I felt a quiet assurance that if I stepped out in faith, if I trusted God, he would lead me, going before me and opening doors.

So, I incorporated the prayer she suggested into my prayer life, repeating it throughout the day, and continued the tedious task of applying for jobs. Within days, the manager of the convenience store called to schedule an interview. During a brief interview, he more or less assured me the job was mine, but he also told me he wouldn’t be able to put me on the schedule until April 1. Since I will be leading a Lenten Retreat on March 30-31, I was comfortable with that.

The next morning, before I was even out of bed, he called to see if I would be willing to put in some training hours. I called back to tell him I would like that, and we scheduled a couple four-hour shifts, which proved to be fortuitous because we lost both of our graveyard employees within days. One simply stopped showing up for work and the other gave a two-week notice.

I’ve been filling in until at least one person is hired. In many ways, working the graveyard shift is an ideal learning situation. Because there is little traffic, the learning environment is low-key. By putting out stock, I’ve gotten a fairly good handle on what we carry. I’ve learned how to handle most of the transactions required on the register, including how to close it out at the end of a shift. I’ve also been able to do some cleaning to freshen up the place for this summer when tourist traffic will comprise a significant share of our customer base.

However, I’ve encountered a couple teeny, tiny problems. The first, obviously, is that after doing work which was primarily sedentary for years and years and years, I’m finding that being on my feet for eight consecutive hours is a challenge. For a day or so, I thought it was my age, but then I recalled waiting tables at a truck stop when I was 18. I had the same aches and pains then.

The other is actually a combination package — Michael, Jakie and Izzie, my cats. They do not adjust to change well and they are accustomed to a schedule which involves me getting out of bed around 7:30 or 8 a.m., scooping their litter, feeding them and then sitting down to prayer, an activity they are comfortable interrupting for a little TLC. Since I don’t get home until after 2 a.m, and then need to unwind a little before hitting the sack, I do not find getting up at 730 or 8 a.m. to be an attractive option at present.

Unfortunately, they seem to feel a moral responsibility to insist that I do rise and shine. At first, I thought food was the issue. They are accustomed to having Fancy Feast canned catfood at 8 a.m. daily. I assumed that despite the dry catfood that’s always available, they were hungry. However, I’ve tried feeding them before I go to bed with the same result — cat whiskers tickling my face, cat noses pushing their way under my hand in an effort to get a little TLC, and if all else fails, a hint of claw on bare skin.

As a result of their efforts to get me out of bed, I’ve not gotten more than four hours of sleep at any one time since I started working. Once I’m awake, I get up to work on the retreat, and afternoon naps are usually limited to an hour or two. By this morning, I was almost cross-eyed with exhaustiion, which probably explains why I entirely missed a step when I was leaving church after Mass. I ended up on my face with scraped and bruised knees, scraped palms and a back the feels like I was rearended in a car accident.

Is it a wonder I am tempted to question God about this door he opened? He obviously forgot I had cats. Or, perhaps there’s a lesson in this I haven’t learned yet. That’s more likely, I suppose, God being God.

But, I have to know, do you think God would consider it whining for me to ask for seven consecutive hours of sleep?

Crooked Lines

God draws straight with crooked lines — which is damned inconvenient as far as I’m concerned. It’s impossible to say to someone, “Thanks for being God’s tool in my life by being such a jackass.”

That’s probably overstating the situation, but hyperbole effectively communicates the way I’m feeling at present — wryly aware of the way in which God used someone who failed to meet my expectations. Adding another layer of irony — or perhaps subtly — to the situation is my awareness that i also failed to meet this individual’s expectations, which undoubtedly contributed to their disappointing choices.

My thoughts arrived at this conclusion this morning because I was irritated with myself for failing to properly assemble some cheap bookshelves yesterday. I’m usually pretty good at the task because I’m experienced. Since moving into my current apartment alone, I’ve successfully assembled three sets. But, yesterday, my mind was on other things.

I was thinking about the spiritual director with whom I am no longer working. I approached her last week about terminating our relationship because we never prayed together and because she rarely — if ever — made a scheduled appointment. She would cancel at the last moment, telling me she would contact me about another time, and I wouldn’t hear from her for weeks. Eventually, I’d contact her and we’d get together, but little occurred in terms of spiritual direction at these meetings.

I think she had difficulty dealing with the fact I am unemployed. In October, I attended a retreat at which God opened my heart and I experienced a complete sense of surrender. I sat in front of the Blessed Sacrament with tears streaming down my face, repeating two words: “Anything, Lord, anything.” In reflecting upon the experience later, I thought God might be renewing the call to religious life, and told him I would go if he would take care of my student loan debt. (Religious orders want women, regardless of their age, to come unencumbered by debt.)

When I tried to talk with my spiritual director about these things so we could discern together what God was doing in my life, she said, “You have to come down off this mountain and get a job.” Through long hours of prayer, and a couple more powerful experiences of the heart, I eventually discerned that God had opened my heart in order to bring healing into my life and to create in me a clean heart, one that was not hardened by difficult life experiences and the shame of poor decisions, one open to doing his will.

Of course, yesterday, I wasn’t thinking of these things. I was pondering the possibility of giving my former spiritual director a little advice. Instead of paying attention to what I was doing, I was trying to find a gentle way to tell her not to agree to serve as a spiritual director to individuals if she didn’t have time to meet with them. Good intentions, I wanted to say, don’t help someone who is in need of reflective conversation. I also wanted to suggest that she pray with individuals when she meets with them.

With my mind wrapped up in these matters, I failed to notice that I hadn’t lined up a plastic peg with the hole into which it was supposed to slide. Before I knew what had happened, the peg broke. I spent the next half hour trying to figure out solutions to the problem. Eventually, I decided I would nail the two sections together, but one of the nails didn’t go in straight and i ended up splitting the shelf. I was incredibly irritated with myself for making a mess of such a simple job.

This morning as I was thinking of this, I realized my spiritual director was like my mom some ways. Mom has achieved the stature of sainthood in the minds of those who knew her because she died young, had numerous friends and was active in the community. Those with whom she shared her life missed her desperately after she died and tended to forget her human fallibilities.

The truth is that I couldn’t count on my mother — for the things that mattered to me — any more than I could count on my spiritual director. Just as my spiritual director was focused on me getting a job, and didn’t think the pilgrimage of the heart to which God called me was important, my mom was focused on trying to make me into her image of the perfect daughter.

She wanted me to be popular, an extrovert with boyfriends; I was a socially-inept introvert. Her advice — which felt like criticism — only made me more self-conscious and inhibited about normal human interaction. I used to hide in the closet to read; the only thing my mother read was the daily newspaper after supper in the evening. I didn’t show her my drawings or the poems I wrote because she would mock me in front of her friends when they had coffee together. I also couldn’t share my excitement about my academic achievements with her, because she believed guys didn’t like smart girls and would encourage me to spend less time studying.

In thinking about these things this morning, I realized I’m a big girl now — and I’m not talking about my physical size. I mean I realized I have allowed my mother’s lack of support to set the course for my life. When I was working to build an art career in the 1990s, I felt guilty for doing so and gave it up when the opportunity arose to do something my mother would respect. Granted, I only see this now. As recently as yesterday I would not have been able to explain why I gave up my art career. I only knew that I did and that I regretted it with a heartsick sense of having betrayed myself I could not explain.

So now, because I assembled a set of bookshelves poorly, because I had been thinking about a spiritual director who failed to actually provide spiritual direction, I know this truth. Jesus said, “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Hopefully, with God’s grace, this truth will set me free to do the work He calls me to do with the gifts He has given me.

And, hopefully, the three or four faithful readers I have will hold me accountable and remind me of this when they notice I have forgotten.

A Dog: Necessary or Convenient?

Well, I did it.

I got tired of hearing about the dog, so I hit the dreaded “unfriend” button for one of my Facebook friends. I’ve done it before when I have gotten tired of political propaganda that I found offensive, but my self-image involves being tolerant, especially when it comes to pets and passions (apart from politics).

However, I discovered fundamental value differences can extend beyond politics into other areas of life. I’m still a little disconcerted to discover this one involves a dog. Granted, I’m a cat person rather than a dog person, but dogs usually like me and I don’t dislike them.

In this case, my friend decided five or six years ago to get a service dog due to her hearing disability. The idea amused me because I have a hearing disability, too, and nothing that distresses her — not being able to hear someone knock on the door, not knowing the direction from which sound is coming, not always knowing when someone is addressing me — bothers me overly much. As far as I’m concerned, having lived with both, poverty far is more inconvenient than a hearing disability.

After becoming Facebook friends, I was amused to discover all of her posts were about the dog. Yes, I post my cats sometimes and my grandkids more than anyone without grandchildren cares to see. However, I like to imagine there’s a little variety in that mix — but I admit I may be deluding myself.

Not long ago, though, my amusement turned to amazement and then to disbelief. A restaurant refused to allow the dog to enter. I’m not sure how they were to know her golden retriever was a service dog and not a pet, but I’d guess there is some sort of identifier they were expected to recognize. Too, it’s possible a language barrier existed because the restaurant — one of my all-time favorite Mexican restaurants — is staffed with quite a few employees for whom English is a second language.

Personally, I’m not sure why she needs a dog in a restaurant, but apparently going anywhere without her dog is inconceivable to my friend. Naturally, she expressed her outrage on Facebook.

The first time or two, I just ignored it. Then she started posting reports on her lack of success in interesting the media in her story. Thousands of people in that city alone go to sleep hungry every night, millions of children in the world are starving, and she felt the media should sit up and take notice because she couldn’t get her dog in a restaurant.

At that point, I had the audacity to speak out. An appropriate course of action would have been to write the management of the restaurant, to provide information on the Americans with Disabilities Act, and to offer to train the staff. That she went immediately from minor inconvenience — and it was a minor inconvenience because there are dozens of restaurants within blocks of the one which turned her away — to media campaign was incomprehensible to me.

Rather than tempering her reaction, my comments stiffened her resolve and caused other friends to rally around her. At that point, I decided i didn’t want to hear any more about the dog and the restaurant and the lack of media interest.

Unfortunately, putting the matter out of my mind has not been nearly as easy. It’s become symbollic to me of the attitude of entitlement the more affluent portion of the American public seems to demand these days.

A restaurant employee, whose annual income is probably less than my friend’s monthly budget, made a decision that inconvenienced her, so my friend decided to make an example of the business, which — had she been successful — undoubtedly would have resulted in the employee losing his or her job in today’s uncertain economy. She didn’t even consider a more moderate response. That’s what I found so offensive. She didn’t even consider a more moderate response.

But, the more I think about it, the more I find myself wondering if this isn’t symptomatic of something even more insidious, the American penchant to confuse needs and wants. I am guilty of this, I know.

I rarely drink coffee anywhere but at home, because I’ve become a coffee snob. I prefer Sumatran coffee with beans that have been roasted to the second crack, and I prefer coffee made with freshly ground beans. Do I need Sumatran coffee? No, I can drink coffee grown in other parts of the world — if necessary — though this new blonde roast coffee I’ve been seeing doesn’t appeal to me a great deal.

Just the fact that I have that kind of choice in this minor area of life testifies to privilege that I as an American enjoy, though my income is well below the median household income for the state of South Dakota, which in turn is well below the median household income for the nation. That’s just one way in which I enjoy the privilege of living in an affluent nation.

One of the blogs I read regularly is written by a young woman who is serving in the Peace Corps in Lesotho, a small African country. I met Heather when she interned at a newspaper for which I worked and have felt blessed to read about her experiences as a volunteer. One of her early blogs was about carrying water from the well in order to wash. I have lived in poverty, but I have never known that kind of poverty; few in our country do.

So is it surprising that any of us would confuse a necessity with a convenience? Probably not, but maybe we all need to be a little more humble about asserting our right to anything when others have so much less than we do.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

He dies at the end — it’s unavoidable.

It’s an historical fact. On Monday,  April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the Allies marched into Flossenburg, Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed there. He was 39 years old. I can hardly bear to think of it, and yet I cannot avoid thinking about it.

Last year, a dear friend purchased two copies of BONHOEFFER: PASTOR, MARTYR, PROPHET, SPY by Eric Metaxas, and gave one to me. She said we should both read it before Easter of this year. I started it shortly after she gave it to me, but became sidetracked by life — family responsibilities, moving, a new job, an extended period of unemployment. I didn’t want to tackle a book about something as depressing as a brilliant theologian dying in Nazi Germany until my life was more stable.

I knew from experience that reading about anything related to the atrocities perpetrated by the Third Reich would take an emotional toll. After I saw the movie SOPHIE’S CHOICE with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, I read the book by William Styron and went on to read a number of books about World War II. The same thing happened a decade later when I watched Steven Spielberg’s SCHINDLER’S LIST, which for all practical purposes launched the careers of Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes.

Each time, I have felt baptized by the horror of it, the unspeakable horror of man’s inhumanity to man. Perhaps “baptized” is a strange word to use in this context, but it is the only one which describes the sense of being cleansed of illusions which occurs upon encountering the facts  history lays before us. They show us the question “how could this happen?” has a simple answer. It happened — and can happen again –because good people allowed themselves to be manipulated by those who wove threads of truth with propaganda that preyed upon their hopes and fears.

Each time, I have surfaced from an informal study of  World War II, I have a more deeply-seated commitment to truth and the common good, because each time it becomes more apparent to me the two are inextricably linked. When decisions are made because they benefit a few at the expense of others — as they too often are today, then truth must be compromised. To recognize the truth of the far-reachhing repercussions of self-centered behavior would make those choices untenable.

I am reminded of that again this weekend. For Lent, I gave up entertainment (movies and television) and junk reading (romances and mysteries). Because I read, on average, between eight and ten junk books a month and have the television set on most evenings, that Lenten sacrifice created a lot of empty hours. Last week, I decided to pick up the 542-page tome that is the Bonhoeffer biography which has been laying on my nightstand for nearly a year.

At 18, Bonhoeffer made an observation that many who are far older do not understand, even today: “Interpreting is generally one of the most difficult problems. Yet, our whole thinking is regulated by it. We have to inerpret and give meaning to things so that we can live and think.” In other words, the way in which we interpret the world shapes the way we think and the way we live. Most of us do not realize this and therefore do not accept the moral responsibility for shaping a worldview which is broader than self-interest.

It was also at that young age, while in Rome, that he began to understand the catholic or universal nature of the church. After finishing his theological studies at Berlin University at the age of 21, he served as the vicar of a German congregation in Barcelona, and then studied in the United States, where he encountered the gospel in a new way at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, a church for African Americans in Harlem. Metaxas decribed it this way: “For the first time, Bonhoeffer saw the gospel preached and lived out in obedience to God’s commands. He was entirely captivated.”

This, it would be fair to say, was a pivotal experience in his life and shaped his destiny. From that time, he would live in obedience to God’s ccommands as discerned through prayer and meditating on Scripture. He expressed it this way in a letter to his brother-in-law when he was 30: “One cannot simply read the Bible, like other books. One must be prepared really to enquire of it. Only thus will it reveal itself.Only if we expect from it the ultimate answer, shall we receive it. That is because in the Bible God speaks to us.” He went on to say the message would not be easy, because it woud lead to the foot of the Cross as demanded by the Sermon on the Mount.

From the beginning, Bonhoeffer was an outspoken opponent to the Nazi regime. He advocated standing with the Jews when the Third Reich began to remove them from government office, teaching positions and positions within the Church. (That his twin sister’s husband was Jewish made this an incredibly personal issue for him and for his whole family.) When the Nazi’s usurped the Church, writing the Jews out of Scripture by eliminating the entire Old Testament and removing references to them in the New Testament, and getting rid of the crucified Christ because it was defeatist and depressing, he pushed Christians to take a stand but they were unwilling to do so.

He worked unceasingly to bring international awareness to conditions in Germany, and to influence the Christian community in Germany to oppose the Third Reich. In 1939, friends in the United States arranged for him to have a teaching position in New York because they feared for his life. However, after traveling to the States, he realized he could not help to rebuild the church in Germany after the war if he did not suffer with the German people. For the next few years, he played cat and mouse with the Gestapo. While supposedly working for military intelligence, he was part of a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler.

It was because of his role in this plot that he was eventually executed, but it was because of his role in helping seven Jews to leave Germany that he was arrested in April 1943, shortly after becoming engaged. By this time, his faith had been so purified he was able to submit himself completely to the will of God and to minister to other prisoners.

Metaxas described Bonhoeffer’s faith at this point in this way: “He had theologically redefined the Christian life as something active, not reactive. . . It had everything to do with living one’s whole life in obedience to God’s call through action. It did not merely require a mind, but a body, too. It was God’s call to be fully human, to live as human beings obedient to the one who had made us, which was the fulfillment of our destiny. it was not a cramped, compromised, circumspect life,but a life lived in a kind of wild, joyful, full-throated freedom — that was what it was to obey God.”

I know how the story ends, though I’ve read no further than this. I am humbled by Bonhoeffer’s faith, and by the way his faith led him to give his life in an effort to avert the evil which was devouring his country.

Christ said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). For Bonhoeffer, the whole universal church was part of his circle  of friends, and he was willing to lay down his life for them. It strikes me that it is appropriate to read his biography during Lent, and to embrace the reminder that all of us have a responsibility to submit ourselves completely to God’s will, as Christ did, regardless of where that leads.