2016

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I know a man who never says it is a bad day. Instead, he says that God made even the most difficult days and, therefore, no day is bad. In fact, when I have complained about the nasty weather or some other frustrating situation, this man has reminded me that there are no bad days . I have to admit, hearing his exhortations can be annoying since few things are as unpleasant as someone seeing right through my socially appropriate small talk and into my ungrateful heart. The truth is, though, this man is right: if God really is in control of all things, then there are no “bad days.” Sure, there are bad things that happen during our days because this is a fallen world; however, each day is a day that God has made and He is using even the hard, unpleasant pieces as parts of the puzzle of His redemptive plan for Creation. Each day that we wake up, we are privileged to be part of that redemptive plan and to play a role in the most amazing story ever written.

As 2016 reaches its end, it is tempting to join with the those who have dubbed it the  “worst year ever.”  Each of us has experienced disappointments and losses this year. Some of us have had our worldviews shattered by news stories that reveal things that we never wanted to know about humanity. Others have lost their feelings of safety and security as a result of heinous acts of terror. Popular icons have died and have left their grieving fans behind them. Many of us have lost loved ones through arguments, relocation and death. There is no doubt about it, 2016 was a hard year for many of us.

Still, 2016 was not the “worst year ever,”  nor was it a bad year. In fact, 2016 was a year that was composed of days that were each gifts from God. 2016 was an opportunity for each of us to play an important role in God’s plans for salvation. It was a chance to explore and experience God’s creation. It offered us the possibility to see the world more like He does: beautifully made but tragically marred by sin. It gave us time to love and to be loved. It held countless people and events that were meant to show us how faithful and merciful God is to us.

For me, 2016 was a year of immense joy and intense sadness. It was full of unexpected turns and it brought me to places that I did not intend to go. Yet, it was a good year because those places that I would rather have avoided were exactly the places that God wanted me to be. I am excited for the hope that 2017 holds, but I do not want to  dismiss the gifts of 2016 as parts of a “bad year.” I want to be forever changed by everything that happened this year so that I may become more of the person that God meant for me to be and I want to appreciate 2016 as critical to the salvation story that God is writing.

Psalm 118:24 says “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” As 2016 draws to an end, let us remember that it was a year that the Lord made and gave to us as a blessing. Let us think of both the good and the difficult parts as precious gifts from God, because we know that each of them brought us closer to the culmination of His plan for the world. Let us rejoice and thank God for the many ways that He shaped 2016. Let us rest in hope for 2017 and let us pray for His will to be done in the year ahead.

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Better to Believe

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It is often said that one of the reasons that losing a child is so painful is that it is a reversal of the natural order of things. Children are meant to outlive their parents, so you expect the death of your parent but not the death of your child. This inversion of the typical life cycle makes it easy to fall into the trap of thinking about the “should have beens”  which inevitably triggers feelings of sadness and self-pity.

I found myself lured into this trap yesterday when I was bringing our older daughter to my parents’ house to celebrate Christmas: “This should have been Noemi’s first Christmas. I should be carrying her up the stairs right now.” Thankfully, these thoughts were interrupted by my oldest who, for no apparent reason said, “Mommy, it is better to believe in Jesus.”

It is better to believe in Jesus. Better to believe that He existed. Better to believe that He was born two thousand years ago. Better to believe that He lived, died, and rose again so that we could spend eternity with Him. Better to believe that His plans are good, even when they do not follow the usual pattern for life. Better to believe that there are no “should have beens” because God is working everything out according to His purposes. Better to believe that while I do not get to witness my daughter’s first Christmas, she will be with me for my first Christmas in Heaven and, judging by the angel choirs, magnificent star, and diverse visitors who celebrated Jesus’ first birthday, Christmas in Heaven must be amazing!

So tomorrow at the Christmas Mass, I will join with all the angels and saints and sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest! Hosanna in the highest!” Unless God has plans that I do not know about yet, that is as close as I will get to the Heavenly Christmas celebrations this year, but I will look forward to the year that I spend my first Christmas in Heaven with my baby, all of the heavenly hosts, and the saints who have gone before me. And I will be thankful that, because Jesus was born, Noemi gets to spend her first Christmas in the presence of Christ. Yes, it is truly better to believe.

Guilt

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I recently had the opportunity to spend some time exploring Berlin, Germany. In the heart of the city is a block that is known as the Topography of Terror. It is a place where the remaining building structures are permeated with guilt. While I was there, I paused to stand at the center of the block. When I looked down, I could see the cellar walls of the SS and Gestapo Headquarters, where unspeakable crimes and genocide were designed and where people were imprisoned under horrific conditions. Above the cellars, I saw the remains of the Berlin Wall which divided Europe into the free West and the oppressed East for nearly thirty years. Towering above all three of these horrific structures, was the colossal building that once served as the Luftwaffe Headquarters where the relentless bombardment of the London Blitz was planned. As I was reflecting on the horror of my surroundings, a man in a suit walked by and entered the former Luftwaffe Headquarters where he presumably began his work day in what is now the Ministry of Finance building. This man’s simple, mundane action triggered a perplexing question: How does life continue in the midst of profound guilt?

It is a question that I have asked myself many times over the past three months since my daughter died and it is a question that parents who have lost a child often ask themselves. Of course, our guilt is different from the collective national guilt of the German people. It is intensely personal, limited to a single event, and often due to things that were done (or left undone) accidentally. Nonetheless, while all parents grieve differently, I have yet to find a bereaved parent whose grief does not encompass some form of guilt and that guilt is intense and sometimes paralyzing. It is an agonizing, gut-wrenching shame that often results in self-loathing and can easily steal opportunities for growth, hope and joy.

I wrestled with intense guilt during the month between my daughter’s death and the release of her autopsy results. During that time, I prayed that she had some kind of physical malformation that made her incompatible with life. I could not imagine having to live my own life with the knowledge that something I did might have caused her death. I thought that this knowledge would cause my heart to break and I would be incapacitated by it. I literally thought that I would not be able to survive under the weight of my guilt and that I would either die from the pain or that my rational self would shut down for the rest of my life and I would live as a tormented shell until I was released from guilt by death.

I know that God heard my prayers, but He still allowed me to face the guilt that I so deeply feared. The autopsy results revealed that Noemi had died from pneumonia – a pneumonia that could possibly have been prevented if I had gone to the hospital as soon as I suspected that my water had broken. My baby was perfectly formed. She was ready to live and my failure to act might have ended her life. All I could hear were the words, “I killed my baby” reverberating through my head, over and over again. I wept, I shook, and I thought that I could not bear to live within my body because I hated myself so deeply. Then a voice from outside of me began to speak. It was the voice of my husband. He called me “my love” and reminded me that he loved me, that God loved me, that I was capable of being loved, and that I had to learn to love myself again.

Whether or not I had a valid reason to experience guilt is not something I will know on this earth, but feelings are often detached from reality, especially during grief, and my experience of guilt was real. Still, God has helped me to continue living and to forgive myself. He has lifted my unbearable burden of guilt. Through my feelings of shame, He has reminded me that I am fallible. I am not a perfect human or a perfect mom. I will make mistakes and sometimes, the mistakes I make can prove fatal. That is okay, though, because God is infallible and ultimately in charge of whether any of us lives or dies. He is working for our good and nothing I do can prevent the realization of His plan.

It is also okay because He loves me. He knows that I will mess things up. He knows that I made decisions that might have led to the death of my daughter, but He still loves me. In fact, He loves me more than I love my own children. His love for me is so deep that He sacrificed His own Son to bear the weight and consequences of all of my sins. He loves me so much that no matter what I do, or what mistakes I make, I will always be His beloved.

In the midst of my healing, I am reminded of a famous father whose child died as a direct result of his actions. King David, whom God labeled “a man after God’s own heart,” (Acts 13:22) did not have the luxury of saying that if he had done something differently his son might have lived. Instead, God’s prophet explicitly told him that “…because by (committing adultery and murder) you have shown utter contempt for the Lord, the son born to you will die.” (2 Samuel 12:14) If ever a parent had a reason to feel guilt after the loss of their child, King David did. David did not cover up his guilt: he acknowledged it, he pleaded with God, he fasted and he adorned himself with ashes and sackcloth (symbols of repentance). Then, to the amazement of his servants, he kept living. He emerged from his secluded penance by saying “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I go on fasting? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Samuel 12:22-23) Then he went to comfort his wife, resumed marital relations with her, and began the task of fathering the son who would carry on Jesus’ ancestral line.

The Bible does not tell us how long it took for King David to overcome his feelings of guilt or if he was ever able to overcome them completely. However, King David himself told us something about how he dealt with the guilt that he experienced over his son’s death in Psalm 51, a song which is widely acknowledged to refer to his act of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband. King David’s prayer “Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Oh, give me back my joy again; you have broken me – now let me rejoice,” (Psalm 51:7-8) shows us that David entrusted his guilt to God, acknowledged that God could overcome his wrongs, and recognized that God alone could restore his joy in the face of his sins and their consequences. I suspect that this is a good model for all parents who experience guilt over the death of their child, whether or not their guilt stems from actual or perceived wrongdoings and mistakes.

I hope that during this Advent season of repentance, we will allow ourselves to release our guilt as grieving parents. Whether it is justified or not, God can use our guilt to draw us deeper into relationship with Him. Through our regrets, He can help us to acknowledge our own fallibility and to accept His sovereign reign. He can show us a little bit more of His boundless love for us – a love that is so unmerited and such an incredible gift. God does not want us to be trapped in our guilt, instead, He wants it to propel us closer to Him as we entrust it to Him and seek His renewal of our joy.  

Advent

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At the beginning of each Advent, our family decorates for Christmas. We put up our Christmas tree and put out our wreath. We hang our garlands and we string up our stockings. We light candles in our windows and we place our Advent calendar in a prominent place. Everything is ready for Christmas except for our Nativity scene. Of course, our stable is out and the shepherds are there. The sheep mill around in the hay and the donkey lies down for a well-deserved rest. Mary and Joseph look into the manger, but they are waiting. The manger is empty and will be until Christmas morning when their baby is nestled snugly into the hay. So during Advent they wait – wait to meet their baby, wait for their Messiah, wait for the fulfillment of all their hopes and dreams.

I have always loved this special time of anxious anticipation. As I wait for Christmas, I never have any doubt that Christmas morning will come, so the delay is sweet, beautiful. It is the same with our wait for Christ’s return. We wait expectantly for the glory and the joy that will be and we know that time will come. For now, though, we wait in the in-between. We are certain of our future, but also faced with the knowledge that mixed into the wonderful creation around us is pain, death and loss. God’s kingdom has been initiated but not yet fully realized.

I was always grateful that I was born on the first day of Advent. It seemed to draw me deeper into the wonder and anticipation of the season. This year, though, I think that God intends for more than just my birth to be linked with Advent. Instead, He plans for my very identity to be tied up in the eager waiting of Advent. Waiting to meet my baby, waiting for my Messiah, waiting for the fulfillment of all my hopes and dreams. So, this Advent, I wait with St. Mary and St. Joseph. Believing that Christ has come. Believing that Christ has risen. Believing that Christ will come again.

“For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18

May 1st, 2010

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The date is May 1st, 2010. My boyfriend (now-husband) and I have just finished dinner at the Queen of Sheba, one of our favorite restaurants in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. Our stomachs are increasingly full as the injera (bread) expands inside of us and we decide to walk off some of the fullness by taking a trip to Times Square. Even though we have lived in the Bronx for many years, we have never been to Times Square together.

The streets leading to Times Square are unusually quiet, which is pleasant for our date night, but also slightly unsettling. We round a corner and enter the square. It is eerily quiet and empty except for a group of emergency vehicles parked close by on our right. Thoroughly confused, I look up to read the ABC news feed that cycles continuously above us. Nothing there explains the strange desertion of one of America’s busiest places. I lower my eyes and see a crowd of people behind a barricade looking into the square. Then I see another barricade further down the street and turning, I see police setting up another gate blocking the street we have just walked down.

We run towards the nearest barricade and the police help us crawl around the metal gates. We ask them what is happening but they say that they cannot discuss it. Afraid to wait there, we walk quickly north towards Central Park. After walking a few blocks, we encounter another barricade that is blocking traffic and pedestrians from entering the area that we are trying to leave. A fireman at this barricade is more willing to talk: “There’s a bomb.” We don’t stop again until we reach Central Park. Then, using my boyfriend’s phone, we anxiously search the internet to find out what is happening and where it is safe to go next.

Amazingly, thanks to God’s grace and two street vendors, no one was hurt in the attempted bombing of Times Square on May 1st, 2010. I am obviously very thankful for that since my husband and I were there. To be honest, though, I haven’t thought much about that day in quite some time. My memories of it hid somewhere in my brain and made me hesitant to attend First Night and Fourth of July celebrations in big cities but were otherwise forgotten. Then, yesterday, something happened that reminded me of that night.  I was frustrated by the lack of Christian charity in an online conversation about immigrants from Islamic countries and I wrote that I felt we needed to be more forgiving and let go of our hatred. Someone responded to my comment by saying that he would remember to pray for the people who come to kill me and my family and not shoot them.

I’ll admit, I was annoyed by this response, even though I am fully aware that people often post things online that they do not mean. However, as I thought about this man’s response, I realized that I had two conflicting emotions about what he had written. On the one hand, I was angry that someone would even joke about not protecting my family. The situation that the online poster described was not hypothetical for me. Someone already has come to kill me and my now-family. His name is Faisal Shahzad and there is no way around the fact that he wanted me and countless others dead. On May 1st, 2010, the human part of me would have felt nothing but relief if someone had shot Mr. Shahzad before he parked the SUV that contained the bomb.

On the other hand, I am now a mom who has lost her baby. I know how much it hurts to be separated from a child, even if it is just until Heaven. What if Mr. Shahzad had been killed on May 1st and did not know the truth? What if He didn’t have the chance to entrust himself to Jesus, to accept forgiveness for his sins, to secure his eternity? What if he was damned to a forever spent in Hell, separated from the God who created him, who died for him, who loves him? What if God lost his precious child for all eternity? I would never want God to suffer that loss. Never, never! I know only a fraction of the pain that such a loss would cause and it is a truly terrible pain.

Initially, I puzzled over whether or not killing is ever justified. I still do not have an answer for that question, but I think that what God really wants me to know is a lot less practical than that. It is not about anything we can or cannot do. It is not even about what we should or should not do. It is about knowing Him more, seeing His heart in a different way. It is about understanding that while Jesus was a “man of sorrows,” God is a God of sorrows who grieves deeply when His children do not seek Him. He grieves for all of His lost children, even those who want to kill us. God is a bereaved God.

I believe that God wants me to share His grief for His lost children, so last night I prayed for Faisal Shahzad, the man who tried to kill me. I prayed that God will not have to suffer the pain of losing him forever. I prayed that someday, when I am walking around in Heaven, I will meet Mr. Shahzad. I prayed for the chance to hug him and to tell him that I am so very glad to see him in Heaven. I prayed that I will be able to tell him that he is the beloved son of his Father and, therefore, my beloved brother. Please don’t think that my praying this is at all extraordinary. It is easy to pray this for someone who tried to kill you six years ago and failed. The true challenge is praying these things for those who want to hurt us today and it is a challenge that each of us is called to. May we have the strength to meet this challenge!