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.

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