Heart Scars

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As many women do, I have scars from both of my daughters. In both cases, the wounds that turned to scars were the result of urgent to emergent situations and I had little warning that they would occur. As a result, when my skin was first cut, I couldn’t bear to look at it. It was gross. It was painful. It looked horrible. In fact, one of them was so ugly that my obstetrician said, “Wow, you can tell that (the surgeons) were in a hurry.” Over time, however, I grew to view my scars as cherished reminders of my children and the physical manifestations of my mother-love for them. This is especially true of the scar I bear from the daughter who died because it is one of the few physical reminders that I have of her.

In addition to my external scars, my second daughter’s death also left scars on my heart. In the month after Noemi died, I took the above picture because I believed that, just as God had turned a scarred and broken city landscape into a place of peace and beauty,  He would take my wounds and turn them into something beautiful.  A year later, I am beginning to see that transformation. I will always have sadness – we were made for eternity, not death – but because of eternity, I am increasingly aware of the gift that my daughter’s short life here on earth is.

In light of this, I should not have been surprised that, while I dreaded the first anniversary of Noemi’s death, it was truly a blessing. In fact, I had so much joy on that day that I woke up the next morning and wished I could live it all over again. Rather than making myself visit her grave, look at her pictures, rummage through her hospital box, and remember every detail of the hour of her death, I spent the day with my family and friends. We taught kids, had an adventure, and went out to dinner. Certainly, I remembered and celebrated both Noemi’s earthly and heavenly birthday, but I also felt a strong conviction that I was not supposed to spend the day picking at my heart scars and trying to feel their sting. Instead, I felt that I was meant to behold the peaceful beauty of those scars in the light of Heaven. I believed that I was meant to hear Jesus speaking the words he spoke to Mary, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you’re looking for?” (John 20:15) and to know the power of His resurrection that makes my heart scars precious beyond anything I could have imagined.

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Thankfully, God is Not The Little Red Hen

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My oldest daughter and I read the classic tale of The Little Red Hen this week. If you haven’t read it, the story is about a hen who decides to plant grain and turn it into bread. She invites her friends to help her with each step of her project, but they never do. Instead, they have a multitude of reasons why they can’t assist her (the weather is too bad, the weather is too nice, they are busy, etc.). When the freshly baked bread finally comes out of the oven, the hen’s friends are suddenly eager to share the fruits of the hen’s labor. The hen, however, won’t share and basically says, “You don’t get anything for free – no work, no pay!”

As my daughter and I discussed how important it is to do our share of work and not to mooch off of other’s efforts, my daughter said, but “Jesus gives us bread that we don’t help to make.” How true!

I read recently that, because God knows everything that ever will happen and everything that ever has happened, He knew everything about us at the very moment when He sacrificed His Son for us. He knew all of the things we would do to let Him down, He knew all of the times we would turn away from Him, and He knew all of the times we would betray Him. Yet, He still offered His Son for us – our living bread.*

Unlike the Little Red Hen, God didn’t require us to work for our bread. Instead, He prepared it, broke it, held it out to us, and said, “Take and eat” (Matthew 26:26). “Take and eat” even though you have done nothing to deserve this bread. “‘Take and eat’ even though I know that you have let me down and will let me down again.’Take and eat’ even though I know that there are times when you abandon and betray me. ‘Take and eat’ because I love you. He prepared our Life and all we have to do is eat!

*Flynn, Vinny. 7 Secrets of Confession. Mercy Song, Stockbridge, MA, 2013.

Unbaptized Little Ones

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When I was a young teenager, I had a dream one night that continues to impact the way I understand life after death. In the dream, God put me in the vestry of my church and told me to stay there, no matter what happened. After a few minutes, I began to hear explosions outside and, when I looked out the window, I saw a dazzling fireworks display that was partially obstructed by the window. I went to the doorway so that I could see better and, eventually, I took a step outside so that I could see the fireworks that were bursting behind the steeple. Instantly, the church doors slammed shut and flashed with light as if they had been struck by lightning. In that moment, I knew that my dreaming self had been shut out of a relationship with God forever. I was overwhelmed with a gut wrenching, all consuming agony as I wrestled with the realization that I was fundamentally alone and eternally separated from God.  The pain that this knowledge caused me was greater than any physical pain that I could imagine. When I woke up, I concluded that whether or not Hell is full of flames, its greatest horror is separation from God.

This early understanding of what existence is like apart from God, is partly responsible for my desire that all of my children spend eternity with God in Heaven. Unlike the mother of James and John, I don’t ask for them to have any special places of honor in Heaven, but I do beg God that they will reach Heaven, even if they have the lowliest place in there (Matthew 21:20-21).

That is why one of the things that has continued to bother me about Noemi’s death is the fact that her unexpected death meant that she was not officially baptized and this means that we have to trust that God has some not-by-the-book way to take away the stain of sin that she inherited as a member of the human race.

I wasn’t raised Catholic so, until recently, I was not aware that the dominant opinion of the modern Church has been that unbaptized babies, due to the sin that they inherited from man’s fall in the Garden of Eden, go to limbo (In fairness, limbo is envisioned as a place where the unbaptized babies are believed to be completely happy while spending eternity separated from God. For me, this is problematic since, as I explained, I don’t understand how anyone can be completely happy while being eternally separated from God). Although the idea of limbo never became an official Church teaching, it resulted in many unbaptized Catholic infants being denied a mass of Christian burial and being barred from burial in consecrated ground. In fact, there are still people who fervently believe that baptism is so essential to salvation that little ones who die before baptism will never be able to see God. Fortunately for me, the whole time that I have been Catholic the Church has welcomed unbaptized babies into their cemeteries and allowed them to have a special burial mass that entrusts them into the arms of God. More importantly, the Church proclaims that there are “serious theological and liturgical grounds to hope that infants who die will be saved and brought into eternal happiness, even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in Revelation…the Church respects the hierarchy of truths and therefore begins by clearly reaffirming the primacy of Christ and his grace, which has priority over Adam and sin” (International Theological Commission, 2007)

This teaching is more in line with my own hopes for my daughter which began to form when I was a protestant, pre-adolescent listening to The 2nd Chapter of Acts sing “Killing Thousands” (a song about abortion). At the time, I was becoming increasingly aware of the importance of accepting Jesus into our lives and so I asked my mother how aborted babies could go to Heaven even though they had not asked Jesus for salvation. She replied that, while the Bible does not say anything about what happens to unbaptized little ones, God made them, loves them, and died for them so we can trust that He would not condemn them to an eternity without Him, nor would He condemn himself to an eternity without them.

The problem for me is, that while I know that I should be satisfied by both the Church’s recent teachings on Baptism and my mother’s response to my question about salvation for unbaptized babies, my need for certainty often rears its ugly head. It drives me crazy that we don’t have a Bible verse that specifically says, “an unbaptized infant, who died at the time that God chose and is deeply loved by God, will be welcomed into Heaven and bask in the presence of God.”

Without any such revelation, my “by-the-book” personality makes me want to be able to say, I baptized Noemi, so she is in Heaven. I so easily fall into the trap of thinking that if I can’t have a direct guarantee from God, then the next best thing is having an “if I do this, then God will do this” kind of formula to follow. However, this is a dangerous preference, for two reasons. First, if God always responded in a quid pro quo way, there would be no room for grace and where would any of us be without grace? Second, what I am desiring is absolutely not my faith – in fact, it is the antithesis of it. My faith is based on the fact that “Grace is totally free, because it is always a pure gift of God.” (International Theological Commission, 2007) I am saved because Jesus chose to save me, not because of anything that I did or did not do. Yes, He calls me to participate in my salvation through things that I do, but my salvation comes only from Him. This is also true for my children: their salvation is from Christ, not from anything that they do or do not do.

So when I think about Noemi’s salvation, it is no different from my own, nor is it different from my hope that my living daughter will be saved. Instead, my hope for all of our salvation rests on faith in the death and resurrection of Christ. It depends on the mercy of a gracious and forgiving God who created us and who loves us – a God who wants us to be with Him so much that He would sacrifice His own child to make that happen. My faith is full of “confidence that what we hope for will actually happen” (Hebrews 11:1), because of who God has revealed himself to be throughout time and Scripture, not because of anything that we do or do not do. My own salvation may be “by-the-book,” but it is no less dependent on the will and mercy of God than Noemi’s salvation that could not be “by-the-book.”

We believe in a loving and merciful God. We believe in an all-powerful God who is not bound by our understanding of things. We believe in a God who sacrificed His own son for the salvation of his created ones. It is belief in this God alone that offers us hope for our salvation and for the salvation of the little ones who died before baptism. We can be grateful that our own lives offer us the opportunity to respond to and to accept that salvation through the rituals that have been given to us, but we should also remember that the rituals, while incredibly important and powerful, are gifts for us, not gatekeepers to Heaven. We should never forget that God can work however He chooses, even if it is not at all “by-the-book.”

What Am I Called To Do?

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Last week, I shared about my failure to prayerfully seek God’s plan for my Lenten journey. I realized that, while it is easy to enter into seasons of intense prayer when I am faced with a major decision, I rarely pray for discernment about the daily tasks that God has assigned to me. For example, how often have I asked God how He wants me to feed my child, clean my kitchen, dress for my husband?

When I was trying to choose which college to attend, I spent many days praying for God’s wisdom. One Saturday morning, my father took me on a walk so that we could discuss my thoughts about my future. After listening to me talking anxiously about the pros and cons of my two top choices, he said, “I think maybe God doesn’t care so much about which school you choose – He can work with either one. I think that He is more concerned about what you do wherever you end up going.”

At the time, this idea was simultaneously world-view shattering and a huge relief. Yet, in the years since I have become increasingly aware of the wisdom behind my father’s words. Often, we get hung up on big decisions that we, from our limited human perspective, see as life-altering. Yet God is just as concerned (perhaps even more concerned) with those little decisions we make each day that draw ourselves and others closer to Him. In the same way that we ask God to guide us to the right schools, jobs, spouses, retirement plans, we should be asking Him to guide us through each of the tasks that He assigns to our daily lives.

In light of this, I would like to offer some of the questions that I find helpful in discerning the ways that God wants me to fulfill my various roles. Please know that I am greatly challenged by these questions myself. I offer these questions to you, not because I can honestly answer yes to all (or even any) of them, but because I hope that they will help you to reflect more deeply on the daily tasks that God has assigned to you.

Don’t be overwhelmed by the length of this post! Many of the roles I play will not be applicable to everyone and I encourage you to skip over the roles that you do not play and use only the questions that correspond to the roles that you do. Don’t stop at just answering the questions! Use your answers to guide your prayers for God’s direction in your daily life.

As a child of God, am I: 

  • Ensuring that I have not let anything become more important to me than God?
  • Repenting of my sinfulness and praising God for my salvation?
  • Thanking God for each of the good gifts that He has given to me?
  • Trusting God with all of the scary, painful and difficult parts of my life moment-by-moment?
  • Turning to God in prayer with all of my doubts, questions and anger?
  • Honest with God?
  • Taking time to pray and nurture my spiritual growth through books, retreats, bible studies, etc?
  • Open to changing my plans if God leads me to do something different from what I had expected?
  • Using each of my relationships to share God’s love and story of redemption so that God can be reunited with all of His children?
  • Participating actively in a faith community that proclaims the Gospel in a way that reflects God’s amazing love for all of His created people?
  • Looking for the needs of those around me and making it a priority to meet them?
  • Striving to see the image of God in those around me? Quick to forgive? Slow to anger? Offering love?
  • Participating in activities that bring God glory and focusing on things that are good, rather than allowing negative and ungodly thoughts and activities to take up my time?

As a wife, am I: 

  • Praying for my husband each day and throughout the day?
  • Praying with him regularly?
  • Encouraging my husband in his faith and challenging him to grow spiritually?
  • Making time available to be with and available to my husband?
  • Thankful for the gift that my husband is, for the things that he does for our family, for the amazing ways that I can see God’s craftsmanship in him? Do I let him know this?
  • Gentle when I need to address a problem and willing to accept blame?
  • Quick to forgive?
  • Eager to change the things about myself that breed conflict?
  • Carrying out the tasks that I have agreed to complete around the house as loving gifts to my husband?
  • Making his physical, emotional and spiritual health a priority in our family?
  • Speaking of him with respect when I talk about him with friends, family and our children?
  • Trying to look nice and fulfilling the physical aspects of my marriage vows with excitement and passion?
  • Ensuring that I do not let anything or anyone besides God become more important to me than my husband?

As a mother of a living child, am I: 

  • Praying for my child each day and throughout the day?
  • Praying with her regularly?
  • Helping my child to know and love God?
  • Encouraging and guiding my child on her journey through this world?
  • Nurturing a longing for Heaven in her heart and giving her an eternal perspective?
  • Demonstrating God’s love to her through my own care and enjoyment of her?
  • Keeping her safe physically and mentally?
  • Helping her to use and value the gifts God has given to her?
  • Teaching her to accept the things that God has not made her to excel in with grace?
  • Giving her the academic and social skills to thrive in our society?
  • Modeling how to interact with those around her in a way that reflects God’s love?
  • Providing a clear understanding of right and wrong?
  • Communicating freely and being available to her whenever possible?

As a mother of a child in Heaven, am I: 

  • Thankful for the time that I had with my child?
  • Praying that my child will bring glory to God even through her death?
  • Trusting God for my child’s eternity?
  • Willing to share my pain to help others who are also suffering?
  • Living in the hope of Heaven?
  • Doing everything I can to help my husband, living child and I be reunited with my child someday?
  • Allowing God to teach me, through her death, that life, even when it never breaths outside the womb, is incredibly valuable and was created for Heaven? Open to bearing that life again?

As a daughter, am I: 

  • Praying daily for my parent’s and in-law’s physical, spiritual and mental health?
  • Encouraging them to grow in their faith?
  • Communicating with them regularly and listening to their needs? Trying to meet their needs whenever possible?
  • Expressing my gratitude towards them?
  • Sharing my life with them?
  • Open and honest in my communication with them?
  • Talking respectfully about them in all situations?
  • Doing whatever I can to encourage my living child’s relationship with them?
  • Seeking to learn from them and appreciating their wisdom?
  • Slow to take offense and quick to forgive?

As a sister, am I: 

  • Praying daily for my brother and brothers and sisters in-law?
  • Making communication with them a priority?
  • Opening our home and immediate family to them and welcoming them into our lives?
  • Doing whatever I can to encourage them in their own spiritual walk?
  • Honest with them?
  • Enjoying them and appreciating their many gifts?
  • Accepting their decisions and encouraging their dreams?
  • Willing to meet any needs that arise?

As a granddaughter, am I: 

  • Praying daily for their physical, spiritual and mental health?
  • Prioritizing time with them?
  • Communicating regularly?
  • Sharing my life with them?
  • Honest with them?
  • Encouraging them in their faith?
  • Slow to anger, quick to forgive?
  • Respectful?
  • Gently caring for their physical needs while doing everything I can to maintain their pride and independence?

As a friend and cousin, am I: 

  • Praying regularly for them in general as well as for each of the specific requests they have shared with me?
  • Communicating with them as often as possible?
  • Thinking about their needs and doing what I can to be a blessing in their lives?
  • Being open about my life and faith?
  • Meeting them and encouraging them wherever they may be on their journeys to find Truth?
  • Generous with my time, possessions, energy, money?
  • Assuming their best intentions and quick to forgive?
  • Helping them to raise and care for their children and demonstrating God’s love to their children whenever I interact with them?
  • Available in a crisis?
  • Willing to interrupt my routine to help them with any needs they may have?
  • Forgiving and forgetting?
  • Encouraging them to be the people that they were created to be?
  • Telling them the ways I see God in them and the things I appreciate about them?

As a teacher, am I: 

  • Keeping God and His word at the center of all of my lessons?
  • Instilling a love of learning about God’s creations, the way His world works, and the history of that world?
  • Making sure that I provide a quality education that prepares my child/the children in our Co-op with the skills and knowledge she/they need for the plans God has for them?
  • Encouraging exploration of personal interests, even if I do not share them?
  • Patient and encouraging? Do I speak words of affirmation? Do I work gently with areas that are challenging?
  • Meeting physical, spiritual and emotional needs before expecting learning to take place?
  • Seeing myself as a gardener who tends the flowers God is creating and not as a creator who determines who or what grows?
  • Teaching about the whole world and not just those people and topics that are familiar and comfortable to me?
  • Helping my child develop the skills she needs to address difficult situations and problems rather than avoiding them?
  • Discouraging the need for perfection and encouraging an understanding of effort and process?
  • Willing to let someone else teach my child if God leads me that way?
  • Delighting in the gift of teaching?

As a writer, am I: 

  • Using my words to point others toward God?
  • Genuine, candid and honest in all I write? Living with integrity and striving to allow the lessons I share to take root in my own life?
  • Praying for the people who will read my work and for the wisdom to know what it is that God wants them to read?
  • Refusing the temptation to become discouraged and clinging to the belief that if just one person draws closer to God because of something I have written, then it will all be worth it?
  • Making it a priority to put my best work forward?
  • Taking time to feed myself spiritually before seeking to feed others through my work?
  • Seeking opportunities to share what I write, not because of pride or my need for success, but because I genuinely want others to know the lessons that I share?
  • Willing to express deep, painful, and embarrassing things in order to help others know God in new ways?

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.