Discernment

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I had high aspirations for this Lent. I planned to do a bread and water fast for one meal each day in order to physically demonstrate my love for God, remind me to petition Him regularly for a healthy baby in the future, and assist me in overcoming my habit of turning to food for comfort and boredom. I figured that God would help me to get through the fast since my reasons for fasting seemed valid, even though I had come up with the plan with little prayer and it was more something that I wanted to do than something that I felt called to do.

In light of my confidence, I was surprised to find myself getting increasingly dizzy and confused as my second day of fasting progressed. I thought I might be dehydrated so I made myself some tea and then continued with my day. An hour later, I returned to the kitchen and found the teapot removed but the stove burner still burning and realized that, however good my intentions might be, God would not want me to put my family’s safety at risk to complete my fast. Eventually, I settled on a much safer way for me to participate in Lent this year.

Still, I was bothered that I had not been able to complete what I had set out to do. As I reflected on my two days of fasting, I realized that, while my intentions had been good, I had come up with them on my own rather than prayerfully seeking God’s desires for my Lent. Then, I had relied on God to sustain me through plans that I had devised without His input. As I read an Anxiety Novena that night, I was convicted by the following sentence: “You are not sick people who ask the doctor to cure you, but rather sick people who tell the doctor how to.”  That is exactly what I was doing! I basically told God that I wanted to draw closer to Him, to have a healthy baby, and to overcome my dependency on food and then told Him that the way I expected Him to achieve those things for me was by sustaining me through my Lenten fast. Instead, I should have been asking Him how He wanted me to grow during Lent and what sacrifices He desired me to make.

I want to be clear that what I learned really had nothing to do with fasting at all and I certainly believe that fasting has an important role to play in our lives. Instead, what I learned had everything to do with our need to seek God’s will for our lives even in the mundane acts that we are called to fulfill each day. Evidently, this Lent God was more concerned about refining my dependency on Him than on eliminating my dependency on food and, while I would love to be thin and healthy again, my spiritual health really is far more important.

*If you would like to try the fasting rolls, you can find the recipe here: http://catholiccuisine.blog-spot.com/2011/03/fasting-bread-for-lent.html. Even if you are not fasting, making them is a great activity with kids because of the symbolism of the ingredients that is described at the end of the recipe. 
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The Good Shepherd

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Today marks six months since our baby died and I am beginning to understand what people mean when they say that your body remembers anniversary dates, even if your mind isn’t aware of them. For the last week or so everything has felt just a little bit harder and I am tired so much more quickly. The tears come easily again, as do the surges of anger at the pregnant women I see at the library and at the new mom who complains about her baby’s lack of sleep.

Perhaps it is because of this that my mind isn’t working well this week, though I am sure it does not help that we were up with a sick four-year-old last night. Suffice it to say, I feel like I am back in survival mode which means that the only thing that runs through my mind is “God is making everything okay. God is taking care of it,” and the image of Jesus, the tender shepherd who gently cares for all of the needs of His sheep. However, there must be more going on in mind of my sick four-year-old because she stopped watching Beauty and the Beast long enough to say, “Mommy, Noemi is dead to us because she is not here, but she is alive to Jesus.”

The truth is, if the only two things that my family gets out of this six month anniversary are the knowledge that “God is taking care of it” and that “she is alive to Jesus,” then that is sufficient grace and evidence that we are deeply blessed. This week, I pray that each of you will also be blessed with the confident assurance that The Good Shepherd really is making everything okay.

Apple Seeds, Pirates and St. Bernards

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God is a master story-teller. The life-stories that He writes are frequently unpredictable, contain unexpected twists and turns, and leave His people breathlessly murmuring, “I never saw that coming!” Yet, like any good story-teller, God knows where each one of His stories is headed before He even begins writing it.

Have you ever felt the awed satisfaction of hearing a finely crafted story? Despite the hardships that the characters face and the conflicts that drive stories along, truly good tales leave their readers with a sense that every unexpected turns was necessary and even worthwhile in the end. In fact, the unexpected and undesired parts of the story become valuable parts of an incredible work of art. The lives of God’s people are full of such stories and reflecting on them can offer us a glimpse of the often overlooked Church that C.S. Lewis described as “spread throughout time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners” (The Screwtape Letters).

This week, I want you to delight in the masterful story-telling of our Father and to see a tiny sliver of the triumphant Church that He is creating. I would love to be able to offer you these stories over a crackling campfire, but, since this is not possible, please indulge me as I spin a few of the tales that have recently astounded me. The first takes us back almost 1,600 years ago to a prominent household in Europe…

  1. St. Patrick

The patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick was born in Britain. Although he was born into a Christian family, St. Patrick was not particularly interested in Christ during his early years. He certainly did not aspire to be a great religious leader! One day, when St. Patrick was only sixteen years old, he was kidnapped by pirates who took him to Ireland as a slave. Things must have seemed bleak to St. Patrick as he labored away tending animals that were not his own. He had been ruthlessly torn from his family and all of the dreams that he had for his future had been shattered. Yet, somehow, amid the agonies of slavery, God moved into the center of St. Patrick’s life. Eventually, St. Patrick escaped from slavery and began his studies in a monastery. St. Patrick could easily have spent the rest of his life living in relative comfort and ministering to friendly, god-fearing people. However, God had other plans for him. One night, St. Patrick had a vision in which he heard the voices of the people of Ireland calling for him to come back to them. Ready to do God’s will, St. Patrick returned to the land where he had been enslaved in order to teach the Irish people about the God he loved. The rest of the story is, as they say, history. As the Bishop of Ireland, St. Patrick helped to draw the Irish people away from pagan worship and introduced them to the one true God. Because of his work, his saint day is still celebrated, 1,500 years after his death. Yet, none of the stories that we know of St. Patrick would have happened if God hadn’t thrown a few unexpected twists into the life that he had originally envisioned for himself.

The second tale is much more recent. It begins not far from where I am writing this, in a little, colonial town called Leominster, Massachusetts…

  1. Johnny Appleseed

Most adults who were educated in the American school system would recognize that a picture of a wild-looking man wearing a cooking pan on his head was an image of Johnny Appleseed. Most would also remember hearing stories about Johnny Appleseed’s wilderness adventures and legends about his prolific apple orchards. However, many would be surprised to discover that Johnny Appleseed (born John Chapman) was a real man who grew-up in a small farmhouse with his eleven siblings. When Johnny Appleseed was in his early twenties, he decided to leave his home and to explore the frontier, though he had no idea what he would do when he reached the wilderness. At some point during his exploration, Johnny had a vision of angels who showed him a wonderful place that was surrounded by apple trees. The angels told Johnny that his mission was to travel around the United States and to plant apple trees wherever he went. Now, I might be wrong, but I imagine that Johnny Appleseed never expected that his life’s mission would involve scavenging apple seeds from cider mills and rowing two canoes full of apple seedlings across a newborn nation. Nonetheless, he committed himself to carry out his calling while continuing to live his life in a way that reflected his love for God. His generosity towards struggling families was more legendary than any of his animal adventures and many pioneers  remembered Johnny Appleseed reading to them from his Bible on evenings when he stayed in their homes. In short, because Johnny Appleseed was willing to carry-out his unlikely calling, he became a blessing to countless settlers and a bearer of God’s truth to those who welcomed him into their houses.

My next story is relatively modern, but requires us to journey back across the Atlantic Ocean to the city of Alencon, France, known for its beautiful lace…

  1. The father of St. Therese of Lisieux

Apparently, St. Louis Martin did not set out to be the father of a Saint. In fact, as a young man, he traveled to the Alps and attempted to join the monastery of the Augustinian Canons of the Great St. Bernard Hospice, where he hoped to embark on a life devoted to religious devotion and thrilling mountain rescues. However, St. Louis was turned away from the Hospice because he did not know Latin. His plans dashed, Louis began a business as a watchmaker and eventually met a woman named Zelie Martin who had also been denied a religious life. The two fell in-love and decided to marry but determined that they would not consummate their marriage and would instead use their relationship only to further their religious devotion. Shortly after their marriage, however, the priest who counseled them suggested that God had other plans for their marriage and that they should be open to all aspects of marriage. Taking his advice, the Martins went on to have five living daughters, all of whom pursued religious lives. God used their love for one another and their careful, faithful parenting to shape their youngest daughter, Therese, into one of the most well-known modern saints. In fact, because of the way that St. Louis and St. Zelie loved one another, raised their children, and lived their lives, they were canonized as saints in 2015.

The final tale begins in a dusty settlement in the north of the Fertile Crescent ten generations after the Great Flood…

  1. Abraham (the patriarch)

While nomadic living was common in the ancient world, the Bible tells us that Abraham’s family had settled in a particular place. For a while, Abraham and his wife lived with them, however, God eventually told Abraham: “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others” (Genesis 12:1-2). I would imagine that this was a big change of plans for Abraham who, until that time, probably was not expecting to become the famous father of a great nation. It also required huge sacrifices – Abraham had to leave his family, his way of life and many of the comforts that he was used to in order to follow God’s plan. Nonetheless, we are told that Abraham, “Obeyed when God called him to leave home and go to another land that God would give him as his inheritance. He went without knowing where he was going. And even when he reached the land God promised him, he lived there by faith – for he was like a foreigner, living in tents…” (Hebrews 11:8-9). It took God a long time to fulfill His promises to Abraham. In fact, it took so long that when He finally blessed Abraham with a son, his wife Sarah laughed in disbelief (Genesis 18:12-14)! Then, just when Abraham must have thought that he could finally see God working out His plan, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering. God waited until Abraham had raised the knife to kill his son before He intervened by providing him with a substitute offering (Genesis 22). Yet, even with all of the surprises in Abraham’s life, God was faithful to Abraham and eventually gave the Messiah through Abraham’s family line.

Do you see what I mean about God being a master story-teller? The life-stories He writes are absolutely beautiful, reflect His glory, and are utterly unexpected! It makes me wonder, what kind of twists and turns does God have planned for our lives and are we ready to embrace them as part of the great story that He is writing for His Church?

References

http://www.louisandzeliemartin.org

Moses, Will. Johnny Appleseed The Story of a Legend. Philomel Books, NY, 2001.

Welborn, Amy. Loyola Kids Book of Saints. Loyola Press, Chicago, 2001.

Wust, Louis & Marjorie. Louis Martin: An Ideal Father. Daughters of St. Paul, 1957.

Sacrifice

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There is one story in the Bible that has terrified me more than any other. It’s not found in Revelation, though that book contains plenty of frightening stuff. It’s not a story about any the first Christians, even though their lives certainly make me wonder about the cost of following Christ. Instead, it is a little story that is tucked in the middle of Genesis – the book that first introduces us to a God who is simultaneously good and terrifying. It is a story about a God who asks us to give Him everything we hold dear and to hold nothing back. It is a tale about a God who says to His servant Abraham “take your son, your only son – yes, Isaac, whom you love so much – and go to the land of Moriah. Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering…”

Have you ever spent some time really pondering this story? Out of context, it sounds like something out of Greek mythology. Without looking at the bigger picture, it makes God seem like a terrible, selfish, violent God – certainly not a God who loves His people because who would ask someone they love to sacrifice their only son?

I first started to wonder about this story during college. I was taking a class on the Old Testament and was spending my Saturday morning catching up on homework and reading through the book of Genesis.  I remember wondering what God was thinking when He asked Abraham to sacrifice His only son. I also remember wondering what Abraham must have thought. Up until this time, God had been pretty good to Abraham. He had promised him an incredible inheritance and descendants who outnumbered the stars. The Bible even tells us that Abraham was God’s friend. Then, suddenly God came to Abraham and commanded him to offer his son as a burnt offering. Abraham’s head must have been reeling.

There’s something else about this story that has always puzzled me, though, and that is why his wife Sarah let Abraham take her son up Mount Moriah to be sacrificed. When I first reflected on this story during college, I remember thinking that Abraham must not have told Sarah his plans because, if he had, she never would have let him do what God had asked of him. As time went on, I became even more confident that Sarah did not know Abraham’s plans because I saw more and more how, if I had been Sarah, I would have kicked and screamed and done anything I could to keep Abraham from ascending that mountain. In my own life, I was asked to sacrifice some of the people I loved and I was increasingly wary of a God who asks His people to willingly sacrifice loved ones. I was hesitant to pray “Thy will be done” because life had taught me that His will was often very painful. I also avoided reading Genesis 22 because it reminded me of two things. First, that God might ask me to sacrifice again. Second, that I didn’t have Abraham’s willingness to make any more sacrifices in my life.

Consequently, I was perturbed when our nightly Bible study involved the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac one night during my 34th week of pregnancy. I even dared to voice my own inadequate faith and told my husband, “I could never kill one of my children for God.” We went to sleep soon after that and, while I was sleeping, my water broke. I never went into labor but I was admitted to the hospital the next day due to an infection that had spread to my unborn baby. By the following morning, my baby had been born and died.

A month later, when we received my daughter’s autopsy results, we discovered that if the doctors had been able to resuscitate her, her damaged lungs would have required us to make the heart rending decision to stop medical interventions and to allow her to die. It felt as if God was saying, “I heard you when you said that you could not sacrifice your child for Me, so I did not ask you to make that sacrifice at the time. I spared you from that decision because I love you, even when your faith is weak.”However, while God was merciful enough to spare me from physically handing my child over to Him, He continued to push me to grow my faith by sacrificing her to Him spiritually and by embracing His decision to take her from me.

That is when God reminded me that more happened on Mount Moriah than Abraham building an altar and binding his son to it: God saved Abraham’s son and provided a substitute sacrifice Himself. Apparently, this wasn’t much of a surprise to Abraham since, the Bible tells us that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son because he “reasoned that if Isaac died, God was able to bring him back to life again.”(Hebrews 11:19) Nonetheless, it is not unreasonable to think that, for a few moments, Abraham might have thought that God  seemed like a terrible, capricious foreign god. But Abraham knew that there was more to the story. He knew that, unlike the pagan gods, his God was good. He knew that his God loved him. He knew that God was powerful enough to work good out of a seemingly hopeless situation. And he was right: God did exactly what Abraham expected and saved his son because He really was good and He really did love His friend Abraham.

Abraham knew all of this even though he did not have the privilege of knowing about Jesus’s life and resurrection. Knowing what I know about Jesus, shouldn’t I be even more willing than Abraham to believe that God can bring my daughter back to life? Abraham had to offer his child through blind faith, I have the gift of eye-witness accounts of a resurrected savior!

I am no longer afraid of the God who asked his friend to sacrifice his beloved son as a burnt offering, because I know that there is more to the story. Even when the things God asks us to do don’t make sense, even when He demands those things we hold most dear, even when we are tempted to ask with the rest of the world, “Where was God?” I know that there is more. I know that God is good, I know that He loves His people, and I know that He can work good out of seemingly hopeless situations.

I also know that when God’s children willingly offer Him the sacrifices He demands, He offers them an amazing gift: He reveals Himself to them and to those around them. Scholars have suggested that the story of Abraham and Isaac offers a foreshadowing of God’s sacrifice of His son Jesus. It is perhaps for this reason that the story of Abraham’s faith is particularly encouraging to Christians. Additionally, Abraham certainly knew his Friend’s heart more intimately as a result of this story. He had tasted the pain that God would feel as he looked down on the cross so he could understand his Friend in a new way. Surely Abraham also had a better understanding of the abundance of God’s merciful provision. Perhaps he even began to comprehend the idea that there could be a substitute who took on Himself the weight of human sins.

Our own sacrifices can teach us similar lessons about God’s unfathomable love, his deep mercy and His great sacrifice. Therefore, as we journey through Lent, a time of penance and sacrifice, I pray that we will reflect on all of the things that God has asked us to give up for His sake (the little things, the monumental things, and all things in between) and that God will reveal Himself to us so that we can become better friends to God.

 

Forgiveness

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I am amazed by forgiveness. When I witness a person forgiving someone who has hurt them, I see a picture of God’s mercy towards me and I am filled with a sense of wonder. My understanding of forgiveness has been shaped by two of my favorite stories, one from the life of one of God’s mighty women and one from the Bible.

The first is the story of Corrie ten Boom. Corrie’s family helped to hide several Jews during the Holocaust. When they were discovered, Corrie, her sister and her elderly father were arrested. Corrie was the only one who survived imprisonment and was eventually freed due to a “clerical error”. After the war, she traveled around the world to give presentations about how God was with her throughout her trials. After one of her talks, a man approached her and reached out to shake her hand. Corrie recognized him as a former S.S. guard who had been cruel to her and her surging anger toward him made it impossible to take his outstretched hand. However, Corrie prayed “Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness,” then she reached out and grabbed his hand. As she did, she was overwhelmed with love for the prison guard and realized that her ability to forgive did not come from herself but from God. ***

The second story is found in Genesis 37-50.  It details the life of Joseph, a young man whose experiences could be made into a TV show that would rival Borgia, Vikings and Medici. Briefly summarized, Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, spent years in jail, and eventually became an Egyptian ruler whose power was surpassed only by the Pharaoh. He used his political clout to store food for a coming drought and, in doing so, sustained Egypt and its neighboring countries throughout a lengthy famine. During the drought, Joseph’s family ran out of food and his brothers traveled to Egypt in search of grain. They were ultimately reunited with Joseph and when they apologized to Joseph for selling him into slavery, Joseph expressed his forgiveness and explained that he could forgive them because “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good.”

Over the past year, God has been imprinting the message of these beloved stories on my heart. In 2016, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that resulted from traumatic events that occurred when my first engagement to be married ended. As I wrestled with the intense fears that accompanied this diagnosis and impacted my daily life, my anger at the family that had caused my trauma resurfaced. While I was incredibly grateful that I did not marry the man I was previously engaged to, I found myself having difficulty forgiving him and his family for the ways that they had introduced terror into my life. I knew that I needed to forgive them, but I didn’t know how I could do it while I was continuing to suffer from the emotional ramifications of their actions.

Remembering what Corrie ten Boom did when she could not forgive, I asked God to give me the mercy that I needed to truly forgive this family. What I did not know was that, as I prayed, God was answering my prayers through a little baby that He was forming inside of me. Without taking a single breath, that little girl would deliver the forgiveness that I had been praying for.

Throughout my pregnancy, I battled my unforgiving heart. Then, suddenly my baby died and with her death I was thrust into a grief that was deeper than any pain I could have imagined. During the first few weeks after her death, the pain was so deep that I felt as if my chest had been cut open and my life was bleeding out of me. In those initial days, there were nights when I lay on me bed clutching my heart which literally felt like it was being ground in a garbage disposal. The physical and emotional pain was so deep that I often thought I would not survive it, that I would drown in it. In fact, I might have been lost in my grief of a thought hadn’t broken through my tears and shined hope into my darkest moments: I have survived grief before. While the grief of losing my fiancé was far less painful than that of losing my child, it was an experience of real loss and God had helped me to overcome it. I knew that He could do it again.

Through the loss of my first engagement, I had learned that the pain of grief comes in surges, like tidal waves, so when I felt like I was drowning in grief for my daughter, I knew that I would be okay if I just held on until the pain subsided. That earlier loss had taught me that grief would change me and that rather than fight that change, I should embrace it because the person who God was making me to be was even better than the person I was before my loss. I had also learned that God’s plan for me was good, even when it hurt, and that He has hidden blessings in the midst of my suffering. I had learned to embrace my grief rather than to fight it, to seek comfort from God and from those around me, and to choose abundant life in the midst of my trials. When my daughter died, I depended on these lessons that I had learned through the end of my engagement as if they were a life vest and, through this dependence, I began to see God’s amazing work in my life: the very events that has resulted in me developing PTSD also taught me critical lessons that I would cling to during the hardest trial of my life. God had turned one family’s attempts to harm and traumatize me into an incredible, life-sustaining gift.

This realization freed me to forgive the family that I was first engaged to marry into. In fact, I found myself echoing Joseph’s words in Genesis 50: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good.” Corrie ten Boom and Joseph could forgive because of what God had done in their lives and I discovered that I could, too because the truth is that God is at work redeeming everything that happens in our lives. Whether we are lucky enough to see what God is doing to bring good out of our pain or not, we can choose to believe that He will do it and that frees us to forgive.

***The information about Corrie ten Boom and her meeting with the S.S. guard is taken from her book The Hiding Place. If you haven’t read this book, I definitely recommend it! During college, I was blessed with the opportunity to tour the ten Boom house and to gaze into the hiding place where they hid their Jewish guests. The picture at the beginning of the post is of a wall that was cut away to reveal the ten Boom hiding place. It is amazing to see the ordinary people and places that God works through in extraordinary ways!