Trash or Treasure?

“You shall be called by a new name, pronounced by the mouth of the Lord.” (Isaiah 62:2)

I don’t know why, but the idea of being called by a new name appeals to me.

I like being called “Mom” — very much. I think my primary vocation in life was parenthood. I base that assertion not only on my experience, but on what I’ve read. In her book, FOLLOW THE PATH: THE SEARCH FOR A LIFE OF PASSION, PURPOSE AND JOY, Sr. Joan Chittister writes, “Real passion focuses our efforts. It becomes the compass needle which presented with multiple options becomes the direction we take at every fork in the road.”

Providing a secure and emotionally stable home for my girls was the compass needle of my life for years. Sometimes, I erred — primarily when I accepted jobs in order to alleviate our poverty without really considering the impact those jobs would have  on our lives. But, overall, I think I succeeded. The odds were slim that either  of my girls would graduate from high school, because I was a single parent who suffered from depression, raised her children in poverty, and was scarred emotionally by violence. We beat those odds. My girls not only graduated from high school, but also graduated with honors from college — and the oldest went on to earn three more degrees, recently completing her doctorate. Granted, the work was theirs, but I think I gave them a stable foundation on which to build.

So, “Mom” is a good name, and “Grammy” works well, too. Hearing the twins’ beating hearts for the first time unleashed in me creativity I hadn’t experienced in years. For me, that’s a sure sign of love. I was grateful to be among their first caregivers and cried all the way from their home to the airport the first time I left — and the second — and the third. I prayed for more than three years to be part of their lives — never imagining where that would lead.

Writer. Artist. Woman of Faith.

These are good names, too, but they don’t pay the bills — at least they haven’t since I left the newspaper business. While many people my age have the luxury of enjoying retirement, spending my life in a state notorious for low wages and an average annual income that’s lower for women than men, I must work. Fortunately for me, I enjoy working. I enjoy accomplishing something. I enjoy the social interaction of the workplace.

But, at this stage in my life, I need something different in the workplace than I needed while my girls were growing up. While the girls were growing up, I needed a job that I could do well and leave, because what gave life meaning occurred outside the workplace. Now? I want to do work that is meaningful — not necessarily work that I have to take home with me,  but work that enables me to contribute to something greater than myself, work which makes me feel that I am doing what I was created to do, work that makes me feel that I have been called by name.

After the crucifixion, Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene, but she didn’t recognize him; when he called her by name, she knew him (John 20:14-16). Currently, I feel as though I am walking in the dark. Raising my children is behind me. Building community by reporting honestly and with integrity is behind me. I go to the tomb — to the last place I experienced meaning in my life — but it is empty. It has nothing for me now. I explore new opportunities, seeking the one which will enable me to use my gifts and to find satisfaction in contributing to the greater good, but I have not found it.

Each time one doesn’t fit, I slip into the patterns of thought I learned at home, variations off a single theme: “You’ll never amount to anything.” But the other day, when I was knitting and allowing recent experiences to tumble around inside my head, a familiar idiom rose to the top: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

And I recalled the Scripture verse that I had meditated on earlier in the day: “You shall be called by a new name.”

And I thought of Mary Magdalene, whose name I share. And I began to wonder, as I turn from the tomb and I am called by name, could the name I hear be “Treasure”?

 

What Did You Learn?

“The older brother was so angry that he would not go into the house; so his father came out and begged him to come in.” (Luke 15:28)

The two boys really weren’t all that much different, when you think about it — the two sons in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. (Prodigal, in case you don’t know, means — according to our good friend Merriam-Webster — “characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure: lavish.”) They both were concerned primarily with themselves; they just expressed it differently.

The younger son wanted money so he could go off and do what attracted him — which unfortunately involved not only travel but reckless spending. The older son stayed with his father and worked, knowing that when his father died everything would be his; after all, his brother was long gone!

The difference between them was a fairly simple one. The younger son gained wisdom and humility. The older son’s heart was hardened and he remained selfish.

Whoa! I can almost hear you saying, “You’re misreading that parable.” Most of us identify with the older brother. Most of us, especially those of us who attend church regularly and try to do what is right, are in truth like the older brother in some respects. We shoulder our responsibilities rather than attempting to flee them. We do the work which must be done rather than heading off on adventures. We put one foot in front of the other, not expecting anything special — and sometimes getting exactly what we expect. (Occasionally, we have friends, families or co-workers who appreciate what we do and show us, but not always.)

We appreciate the father’s love for both of his sons — and are grateful for that metaphor of God’s love for us — but we understand the older son’s anger. We would be angry, too. And that’s what I should understand, right? It’s righteous anger that the older brother shows, not a hard heart.

Perhaps, but I strongly suspect this is another parable about personal growth. In the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1-9, Mark 4:1-9, Luke 8:4-8), we learn that our environment affects the way we receive the Word of God and the way it grows in us. In the Parable of the Weeds (Matt. 13:24-30), we learn that we must learn to live in a less than perfect world, and trust God with the harvest. I suspect this is about learning from our experiences, learning to have a right relationship with God.

The younger son didn’t want the life his father lived — he imagined something different and went out into the world to build that life for himself, failing abysmally. From that, he learned that he hadn’t appreciated what he’d had and returned as one who had grown in wisdom, capable of humility. The older son wanted what his father had and worked hard — like a slave, he claimed (v.29) — but this work didn’t deepen his relationship with his father or his appreciation of the life he had chosen. He lashed out at his father in anger when his father acted in love.

But his father doesn’t give up on him, either. Instead, he is the same loving father who greeted the wayfarer son with love. He goes out to meet his son and patiently explains their relationship: “You are always here with me and everything I have is yours” (v. 31). And then, he goes on to explain the celebration: “He was lost, but now he has been found” (v.32).

It’s not just about us, son, the father said. It’s not about what we do or what we have; it’s about relationship. In this case, it’s about creating a sanctuary so the lost can come home.

The parable does not end with the older son in his father’s arms. The parable ends with the father’s lesson  to his son. Because so many of us identify with that son, the question becomes: how do we respond? Do we learn to open our hearts and our lives to others? Do we learn to welcome those who have been lost? Do we embrace them and share with generosity?

Do we learn the lesson and throw ourselves into our father’s arms to receive his kiss? Or do we remain angry and walk away? The choice is ours.

 

Blessed

“Henceforth all generations will call me blessed.” Luke 1:48

Really?

I smile now when I recall how I initially reacted to that pronouncement. I was raised Catholic which means: (a) I grew up calling Mary “Our Blessed Mother,” and (b) I had not read the Bible in any of the religious education classes I attended during those formative years. In fact, prior to Vatican II, Catholics were discouraged from reading the Bible, so I doubt if any of my teachers had read it either.

At college, I was introduced to Scripture by a charismatic woman who lived on the same floor in my dorm. I was amazed to discover that much of it was familiar. The Old Testament readings I’d heard at Mass — there. The readings from the Letters (primarily) of St. Paul — there. The gospels — yep, they were there, too. Even the Lord’s Prayer, which I learned before starting school, was there. Wow!

But reading it myself drew me into a more intimate relationship with the Word of God, and changed the way I understood it. Unfortunately, some of my training caused me to misunderstand some passages. When I first read The Magnificat, which is what Catholics call Mary’s song of praise, I thought she was saying, “I’m so amazingly special that everyone is going to acknowledge it by calling me ‘Blessed,'” which is — of course — what Catholics do: Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Blessed Mother, Blessed Mary Mother of God. Yep, we call her “Blessed.”

Months — maybe years — passed before I finally understood she wasn’t saying that at all. She was experiencing joy, and in that joy, she was expressing — maybe using a little hyperbole, but maybe not considering the role of oral tradition in her time — her wonder at the incredible gift she had been given. An easy gift? Probably not. Two thousand years and millions (if not billions) of pretty Christmas cards have removed us from what must have been an incredibly difficult experience for an undoubtedly religious and probably very young woman. And yet, she is filled with joy, wondering that someone with nothing special to commend her — at least from her perspective — should be chosen by God. She experienced her joy as a sense of being blessed, so abundantly blessed that people would talk about it.

People probably did talk, though human nature being what it is, they probably used words more akin to “slut” and “whore” than to “blessed among women.” But Mary knew the truth, knew the Word of God both from His messenger and from His life within her, and she could not contain her joy. “I’m so incredibly happy, I just know everyone will come to know the truth and realize how blessed I am”

I can’t imagine her joy, but I know my own and sometimes it does bubble over just like that! Last week, as I traversed South Dakota, hugged dear friends, talked for hours with sisters of the heart, enjoyed my daughter’s companionship, over and over one thought ran through my head, “I am so blessed; thank you, Lord. I am so blessed; thank you, Lord.”

Has my life been easy? No, but it has been good. God has worked through it all to shape my heart and mind until I could see him, could feel his hands creating in me a way of being that includes gratitude and hope and compassion as well as kindness and love. He has helped me to see his face in the homeless and to experience his grace in disappointment, to know in my bones that trusting him with the circumstances of my life leads to greater fulfillment than any plan of mine.

Will all generations call me blessed? Probably not, but that’s OK. I know I am blessed and that’s enough.

Ripples: A Different Perspective on the Parable of the Sower

“And some seed fell on good soil, and when it grew, it produced fruit a hundredfold.” Luke 8:8

St. Theresa of Avila said something to the effect that God has no hands, no feet, no voice in this world except ours and through these He works. I’m sure some will interpret that literally and will object. Some Christians will point to Scripture — God’s Word, his voice in this world. Some Catholics will point to the Sacraments — God’s action in our lives.

As literal as I can be at times, when I first read that, I didn’t think of either of those objections. I simply responded, “Yes! Let that be me! Let me be your hands, your feet, your voice in this world.” This “Yes” led me to engage in activities which would deepen my relationship with God, such as meditating on Scripture and keeping a spiritual journal. It also motivated me to volunteer for tasks which would allow me to share my understanding of God, such as teaching religious education and leading retreats.

Fifteen years later, my understanding of that call has changed. I’ve come to appreciate the Ignatian idea of God in all things, and have come to realize that to be God’s hands, his feet, his voice, we have to understand that he is present in ways infinitely beyond our human capacity to understand, present in birdsong and joy, in winds whipping across the waters and pain, present — always present.

And in that presence, he calls us always to make choices for life — choices that bring to life inside us all the gifts he has given us, choices that affirm his goodness in ways that send ripples into the world. Those ripples are his hands, his feet, his voice because they emanate from his action in our lives.

I think the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3-9, Mark 4:3-9, Luke 8:5-8) can help us do this. 

Some seed fell on the path; it was trampled and birds of the sky ate it up. Whenever we trample upon the rights of others or take from them what they need, we are failing to choose life. This has tremendous political and economic ramifications, but it has deeply personal implications as well. We must look at our lives with both charity and honesty to see if this dynamic is at work in any way. If it is, and we allow it to continue, we are conspiring to silence God.

It does happen. I worked for more than seven years for a woman who took credit for my accomplishments and blamed me for her mistakes. I had numerous reasons for staying, some better than others, but with the wisdom of 20/20 hindsight I can see the damage I did to myself and to those whose lives touched mine by failing to recognize that I was not in a place where I could put down roots, blossom and bear fruit.

Some seed fell on rocky soil and withered for lack of moisture. Different scenario, same results. Sometimes, an opportunity looks good, and we jump in with both feet, but it doesn’t work in the overall scheme of our lives. For me, personally, that means any new endeavor must be balanced with time for prayer, time to write, time to paint and some opportunities for social interaction. Without those activities, something inside me withers and dies. 

That is not what God wants for me. If I am to be his hands, his feet, his voice, I must be alive inside and out! Only that which lives can bear fruit, and only with the fruit that our lives bear can we reflect God into the world. It’s that simple.

Some seed fell among the thorns which choked it. Our lives can be choked in so many ways. Some ways are obvious: abusive people choke the lives out of those around them by in stilling fear and by undermining self-esteem. But we can be choked in subtle ways as well. When someone we love is critical of our choices, because their expectations are different than our dreams, we lose confidence in ourselves and in our dreams. That, too, prevents our lives from bearing fruit that reflects God into the world.

We have a responsibility, a moral obligation, to seek rich soil, soil in which we can put down roots, grow, blossom and bear fruit. That is not to say we should immediately throw away everything that doesn’t work in our lives. Instead, we should begin by looking at our lives and seeking to understand what is preventing us from putting down roots and moving toward fruitfulness. Then, we should begin moving in the direction of life, trusting in the step-by-step process God’s life-giving presence.

I needed to have the courage to walk away from an employer whose choices choked me, even if it meant working in a convenience store while getting my bearings. I needed to appreciate the way God nourishes me not only with his Word and the sacraments, but also at the easel, and to make a commitment to creating art. I needed to make these decisions and others to find rich soil, but I think I have found it — and I am grateful. In my gratitude, I can only desire for others this blessing I have come to know.

Be God’s hands, God’s feet, God’s voice in this world — seek rich soil.

A Time of Miracles

We live in a time of miracles.

I don’t think my generation — or any of those that follow — can claim the moniker Tom Brokaw gave those who grew up during the Great Depression, and those who fought in the trenches and on the homefront during World War II: the Greatest Generation. Those men and women were great because they were willing to make sacrifices for the common good. When soldiers went off to war, those at home did what was necessary to pay for that war — they didn’t wave a few flags to feel righteously patriotic and then go on with their own lives as though those in the the trenches didn’t matter.

And yet, in the midst of the self-centered, “I don’t want to pay taxes but I want good roads and good schools and responsive services from the government (without government intervention in my life)” mentality which runs rampant today, miracles are occurring. I’m not talking about breakthroughs in cancer treatment (though having lost a mother to cancer, I celebrate what can be done today), and I am not talking about technology (though things might get ugly if anyone attempts to separate me from my tablet, smartphone or e-reader). I am talking about the miraculous way we are coming to see one another as human beings.

I grew up in a different world.

I grew up in a world where people were judged by the color of their skin. I was in seventh grade when Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was in third grade when he gave his famous,  “I Have a Dream” speech just months before John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He said on that August day: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are create equal.’ … I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

On that day, black men and women were still expected to give up their seats for white people on buses. On that day, signs reading “For Whites Only” stripped the dignity from black men and women. On that day, police brutality against blacks was considered acceptable by too many Americans.

Today, too many doors are still closed to blacks and other minorities as a result of poverty, but the law stands with them and that is a miracle for which I give thanks. I give thanks that American voters chose a black president in my lifetime, that while Martin Luther King, Jr., did not live to see the dream of a black man judged not by the color of his skin but by his character, I did live to see it.

And yesterday, another miracle occurred — the Supreme Court ruled laws banning gay marriage were unconstitutional. For me, that is evidence of the Spirit of the Living God sweeping across this nation. God declared in Genesis that it is not good for man (or, by extension, woman) to be alone, and in their mothers’ wombs, He created some with a same sex orientation. We must believe that He has been drawing us to this point for a very long time now.

I am grateful to have lived to see it. I have to confess that I was not aware of any orientation other than heterosexual until I was nearly 30 — but I was both naive and confused about sexuality as a result of being the victim of sexual violence. One night, I was drinking wine with a friend who was also a single parent. She said, “I love you,” and kissed me. I was stunned. I had no idea that women could love women.

Since that night, when my eyes were opened to the variations of sexual experience, I have met numerous amazing people who are gay or lesbian. (If I’ve met others, they’ve not identified themselves to me.) At times, I’ve ached for them — for the struggles some have faced. For the friend who was torn to pieces when she fell in love because she is also a person of faith who attends a church that still is fundamentally homophobic. For the friend who was afraid to come out to his parents because his father would occasionally make homophobic remarks; how could he be himself and honor his parents?

Truthfully, I wish I could end this by coming out, finding a wonderful woman to love and living happily ever after — now that it’s legal to do so. The writer in me likes the drama of that ending. Unfortunately, time has shown me that scars from being victimized by sexual violence stand between me and emotional intimacy, which must be the precursor of physical intimacy regardless of its nature.

And  so, I can only share vicariously the momentous joy of knowing — as it was widely proclaimed yesterday — love wins! But I do proclaim it! Love wins!

I AM Somebody

Recently I was told I could have been “Somebody” if I had tried. It’s not the first time I’ve heard a comment like that. Family members have been expressing that sentiment for years. This time, though, I had an answer.

I AM somebody, I said with quiet dignity.

Strangely enough, I believe it. Yes, I am currently unemployed, and since the Internet has adversely affected the newspaper business, as well as opened up the world of social media in ways that are foreign to me, my professional career is also in abeyance. But, I do not define my worth as a person by the income I draw or by the money I have collected in a bank.

Not anymore, at least. God, in his infinite wisdom, did not give me great ambition or a strong desire for wealth. Those gifts were given to other members of the human family, though when I was young I attempted time and time again to pursue goals which required those gifts — while simultaneously pursuing goals that used the gifts I have been given. That kind of double life is not a formula for success.

Christ said, “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand” (Mark 3:25), and bitter experience has shown me that statement’s full truth. Unfortunately, 20/20 hindsight does little more than help us learn; it does not rectify our errors. It can, however, help us grow in compassion toward others, if we allow it to do so. If we can look at ourselves and say, “I did the best I could, but I can see now why that decision was a poor one,” we can look at others whose decisions we question and appreciate that they are doing the best they can under the circumstances of their lives.

My errors have also led me to a deep appreciation of the diversity of the human family. The first book of Genesis reveals God’s passion for diversity. Waters teemed with “an abundance of living creatures” (v. 20), the skies were filled with “all kinds of winged birds” (v.21), and the earth was filled with “all kinds of living creatures” (v.24). And St. Paul writes to the Corinthians about diversity in the Body of Christ: “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all  of them in everyone” (I Cor.12:4-7).

However, we do not live in a society that embraces the value of all. We reward some generously for their work while depriving others of the basic necessities of life, justifying the inequities in ways that make sense only to those on the top — and to those who want to climb to the top. As devastating as this is economically, the way this mindset affects our relationships with others is even more devastating.

We have become a society that values only those who are monetarily reimbursed for their efforts — and then, only to the extent that they are reimbursed. But there are gifts which enhance the quality of life for all, gifts which sadly do not generate a stable and generous income: creating and caring for a home, mentoring young people who need support and guidance, creating art and poetry and music, loving unconditionally. These gifts contribute to stronger communities and more beauty in the world, but generally don’t pay a dime.

To live authentically with these gifts, to live without the monetary compensation that will garner the respect of others, individuals need a strong support system, a deep faith with a clear sense of God’s call to use those gifts — or a very thick skin. I know, because those are the gifts God has given me. Yes, if I had been gifted with the desire for wealth and great ambition, I could probably have become “Somebody” because I’m also bright and have a strong work ethic.

But I am not one who can turn my back when God calls. I can only say what she for whom I was named said: “I am the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38). And, as far as I am concerned, that makes me somebody.

Spiritual Foreshadowing

“And though The Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.” — Isaiah 30:20-21

I can still remember driving away from Pierre, SD, in the summer of 2006 with tears streaming down my face. I did not want to move, but I was out of money and the only job offer I had received required a significant move. The knot in the pit of my stomach told me I had made the wrong decision, but I couldn’t see any other options.

At least, I had not been able to see any other options until a few hours before I closed the door to my apartment for the last time. I had opened the mailbox that afternoon to discover a letter inviting me to interview for my dream job. If I hadn’t given notice on my apartment, hadn’t rented a trailer in which to pack my possessions, hadn’t enlisted the help of friends for the move, I would have done a happy dance the moment I saw the envelope and would have called immediately to schedule the interview. Instead, I sat in the stairwell, breathing deeply and slowly until the waves of despair had ebbed enough for me to mount the stairs and continue moving boxes out of my apartment.

I knew the gut-level feel of a wrong decision. I had taken a teaching job midway through the school system when my girls were growing up; bad decision. A decade later, I had allowed myself to be guilted into sacrificing my dream to help a floundering nonprofit; bad decision. Just a couple years earlier, I had allowed myself to be seduced away from a job I loved by the siren call of children in need; bad decision. And there I was, making another bad decision.

That decision did something none of the others had done, though. It paralyzed me. I could not move forward because I stood like Lot’s wife, looking back, wondering how I had come to make such an incredible mess of my life. After moving, I plummeted into depression, and would have committed suicide had a stubborn refusal not to leave my daughters motherless given me a small handhold on life. Eventually that lifted, but a pervasive lack of hope settled in its place. I fulfilled job responsibilities to the best of my ability, and cared for friends and family when I could, but I did not expect to be blessed, not in this life.

Years passed one by one, and I lived them with as much grace and dignity as I could muster. And then, I found myself seeking work yet again — and I was terrified by the prospect. What if I made another devastatingly bad decision? Would I survive it? I tried to find a spiritual director who could help me discern God’s will, but wasn’t successful in finding one who could understand that, for me, job hunting was a spiritual undertaking.

Before I made the decision to move in 2006, I was in what St. Ignatius of Loyola would have called a profound period of spiritual consolation. God taught me in new ways, drawing me into a more intimate relationship with himself and lifting me up with joy unlike anything I had experienced previously. When I chose to accept the proffered position and move, that came abruptly to an end and I didn’t know why. Why had God hidden himself from me?

During the dry years that followed, I was faithful in prayer, attended Mass religiously and became involved in parish activities, but did not experience again that joy — until shortly after I found myself unemployed yet again. I attended a weekend retreat for women and found my heart spontaneously opening to God’s love, spontaneously surrendering to that love. I abandoned myself completely to God in that moment. Over and over, I murmured, “Anything, Lord, anything.” Because an employment decision had abruptly ended a period of consolation in 2006, the one which faced me following the retreat had profound significance.

Somehow, I managed to bumble through the indecision and fear. Rather than make another major change, I took a job for which I was overqualified in order to pay bills and decided to wait for clarity. It came. It did not come quickly, but it came in that quiet, roundabout way God likes to use. At a church meeting I attended, a visiting priest suggested I read THE JESUIT GUIDE TO (ALMOST) EVERYTHING by James Martin, SJ. Through reading that book, I began to learn how to discern the movement of God in my life, and the next time I was faced with making a major decision, I was able to do so in a way that filled me with peace. Did everything fall neatly into place? No, not really, but I am at peace in the decision and have enough confidence to continue striving toward the goals set.

So what does any of this have to do with spiritual foreshadowing? (And what, exactly, is spiritual foreshadowing?) In literature, authors give hints of what is to come, hints which a sensitive reader can intuit; English teachers call it “foreshadowing” when teaching students to loathe the novel. In looking back at 2006, and the decision which haunted me for so many years, I find myself wondering if God wasn’t giving me a few hints — if he wasn’t showing me how it felt to draw close and how it felt to turn aside. Perhaps the decision itself was not actually wrong, but was in truth right — right because it opened my heart and life to be shaped by God.

And, as God says after each act of creation in Genesis, it is good — all of it.