A Lament for the Church

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There is a serious problem in Christianity. It is not isolated to a single denomination. It may not be a global problem, but it is certainly ravaging Western society. It is being magnified by the unchristian behaviors of our world leaders, media news stories, and the heroes of pop culture; however, each of us is ultimately responsible for it and we cannot shirk our responsibility. It is resulting in the loss of souls and new generations who are growing up to reject Christ. It is undermining the legitimacy of the Gospel message and earning us every charge of hypocrisy we have ever received. It is so urgent that we should be sounding alarms and rallying troops, charging into battle against the evil that has infiltrated us.

The problem that we face is that, through our lack of love, we have become resounding gongs and clanging cymbals (1 Corinthians 13:1). Backed into a corner by our increasingly secular and permissive society, we have responded with anger instead of turning the other cheek and speaking the truth in love (Matthew 5:39 and Ephesians 4:15). Rather than seeking to meet our neighbors where they are, rather than cleaning and bandaging their gaping wounds, rather than saying,”Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” (Luke 23:34), we mock them, belittle them, hate and vilify them.

The absence of love colors our approach to homosexuality, end-of-life issues, contraception, denominational differences, racial discord, and countless other pressing topics that litter our social and political landscapes. Ironically, unlike many mothers who become more enraged by abortion after infant loss, since Noemi’s death, I have come to see our lack of love most poignantly in the way we address abortion.

Within a week of my daughter’s death, some dear friends gave me the book Sunshine after the Storm – A Survival Guide for The Grieving Mother, which contains a chapter about grief after medically recommended abortions. One of the stories in that chapter really struck me. While I absolutely believe that a new life is formed at the moment of conception and while I believe that abortion is, therefore, wrong, I also could not help but feel the agony of the mother in this story who was told,”Your child will be incapable of living without significant medical assistance. She will most likely seize to death upon delivery.” When that mother explained her choice to abort her baby by saying, “We did not want our daughter to exist solely because of machines…as much as we loved and wanted our daughter, we didn’t want her existence to be one of constant suffering,” I got it, I totally got it.

Having worked with profoundly disabled individuals who suffered years of intense pain and were constantly subjected to medical procedures that sustained their limitted existence, I was happy for Noemi when she died after 30 minutes of failed resuscitation. Had she lived, she would have sustained incredible brain damage and the choice to maintain her life would have been a way to avoid my own loss, rather than an opportunity for her to experience life. I am not saying that, had God granted her life, it would not have had value, nor that I would ever have deliberately ended it. Instead, I am saying that I would rather my daughter be in Heaven than be subjected to such a painful existence. Having experienced these thoughts about my own daughter, I understood the reason that this grieving mother chose to abort her child. Far from a “murderer,” she was a mother who, because she did not share my beliefs about abortion, did what she believed was the most loving thing that she could do for her baby.

How would Christ have responded to this mother if He met her leaving the abortion clinic? Would He shame her and condemn her or would He wrap her in His arms and allow her to sob on His shoulder? For that matter, how would He respond to a frightened teenager who gave her body away in an effort to feel the love and acceptance that she never recieved at home? Or to the young woman whose life was so incredibly painful that she preferred drug induced feelings of numbness and dissociation and then came out of her stupor and found herself “great with child?” Or to the mother who can’t feed the five children she already has or who fears that carrying a child to term will leave her children without their mother? Or to the young professional who has no relationship with God and has never understood how a bunch of cells can be considered a human but knows that those cells will ruin her career if she lets them grow?

He would never have compromised the truth or overlooked their sins, but, given the way He responded to the woman at the well (John 4), I suspect that He would have been more concerned about their salvation than about their sins. Afterall, He has already dealt with their sins, but He longs for a relationship with these women. I would venture to guess that He would have been careful to treat them with dignity and love.

What would our Christian witness be like if, instead of responding to these mothers with rage, disdain and condemnation, we responded like Jesus and we offered love? What would the world be like if, rather than resounding gongs and clanging cymbals, we were doves of peace and ambassadors of God’s love? The possibilities are endless because “love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:8)

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

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.”

The Battlefield

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I just watched two Canada geese, with their feathers ruffled and necks stretched straight ahead of them, chase two other geese who were hoping to get some bread from me. Even though I didn’t have any bread and wasn’t planning to feed any of the geese, I was angry at the two aggressive Canada geese since I dislike all forms of aggression. It is no surprise, then, that I tend to pass over Bible verses that talk about the spiritual battle we are engaged in. Lately, however, I have been thinking about them more frequently and I am beginning to realize how much they reflect our reality. Whether I like it or not, we are living in the midst of a battlefield where the forces of evil are doing everything they can to diminish the glory of God and to destroy His beloved children. Of course, we do not need to fear because God has already won victory through the death of Christ but, in this time between Christ’s death and the final restoration of His kingdom, the battle still rages on.

I recently read something that helped me to realize that, in me, the battle is most apparent in my distorted thoughts and feelings. Too often, I find myself thinking that the world is out to get me, that I am not good enough, that I am deprived of something, or that life is not fair. Not surprisingly, these thoughts quickly lead me to feel depressed, frustrated and bitter. *

I have to remember that the devil is the father of lies (John 8:44) and that He loves to pull me away from God’s truth by getting me to believe untruths about my reality. If instead of believing the devil’s lies, I choose to believe the truth of God’s love and abundant graces, my feelings of depression, frustration and bitterness quickly change to joy and thanksgiving. Ephesians 6:11-12 and 14 says: “Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in heavenly places…Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth…” Of course, the most powerful of God’s truths are found in the Bible: we are His creation (Genesis 1:26; Psalm 139; Acts 17:26-28), we are deeply loved (John 3:16-17; Ephesians 2:4-5; Romans 5:8; Romans 8:38), He is intimately involved in our daily lives (Proverbs 16:9; John 15:5; Romans 8:5), His plans for us are good (Jeremiah 29:11; 1 Corinthians 2:9; Romans 8:28), we serve an important purpose (Matthew 5:13-16; Romans 12:1-5; 1 Corinthians 16:12-20; Acts 1:8), and we are saved (John 3:16; Ephesians 2:1-10; Romans 8).

Ironically, some of the lies that I believe are so simple that I can easily refute them with logic when I spend time actually thinking about them. For example, today I was feeling sorry for myself because of the many “challenges” I face. Yet, when I spent a moment thanking God for the blessings in my life, I quickly realized that the blessings greatly outnumbered the difficulties. In fact, I am so blessed that when I tried to count my blessings, I couldn’t do it!

There are other lies, however, that are much more powerful and can only be refuted by clinging to God’s Truth. One of these is the lie that the story of my youngest daughter, Noemi, is entirely and only sad. While her story absolutely contains sadness, it is saturated with joy! Joy that God chose to create her – a unique person with a beautiful body and her own special soul. Joy that God chose us to be her family. Joy that we had eight months to have her in our lives here on earth. Joy that our belief that she was a tiny person allowed us to accept those months as her life. Joy, unbelievable joy, that she still is, that she brings God glory, and that we will be with her again.

A few weeks ago, I went to Noemi’s grave alone and, for the first time, rather than petitioning God to take care of my baby and allowing me to see her again in Heaven, I found myself thanking Him for Noemi and her story. As I stood there, looking at the ground where I had laid my baby’s body, I was overwhelmed with gratefulness for her life and eternal story. I felt God’s sweet victory which won, not only my daughter’s eternal life, but also my freedom to embrace the Truth and to conquer the lies that the devil had strewn across my battlefield.

*Our emotional struggles are complex. I absolutely believe that the battle between Good and evil is waged largely in our minds and hearts. As a result, our feelings and mood can often be heavily impacted by this battle. That being said, I also firmly believe that there is both a physical and a chemical basis for our mental health. Fortunately, God grants us insight into the biological bases of mental distress through the fields of psychology, psychiatry and neurology. I would never want my words to diminish the importance of these fields in helping those who suffer or to make someone feel that their mental health difficulties are somehow their own fault. 

We Are A Resurrection People!

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Ten years ago, my friend and I got to spend Holy Week in Seville, Spain. Each day, we walked into the city to watch the procession of the pasos, which are giant sculptures of the Virgin Mary and Jesus’s passion. Musical bands played somber music and groups of barefoot penitents accompanied the pasos as they made their way through the city streets. As the days passed from Wednesday, to Maundy Thursday, to Good Friday, the excitement and sorrow surrounding the processions seemed to climax. By Good Friday evening, it was difficult to get around the city because each of the main streets was blocked off to make room for one of the processions. On the Saturday after Easter, things were quieter. There were a few more processions, but like the disciples on the day after the crucifixion, the whole city seemed to be waiting and anxiously anticipating Easter and the Resurrection paso.

On Easter morning in 2007, we jumped out of our beds and ran into the city. It was warm and sunny, so I was out of breath by the time we reached the city center; however, I was full of expectation! If the commemoration of Christ’s passion had been so powerful then, surely, the celebration of His victory over sin and death would be absolutely amazing! As we turned onto the street where the procession was suposed to take place we were surprised to find the road almost deserted. Eventually, we found a local resident who told us that the Resurrection paso had been canceled. Now, it is possible that this person did not know what he was talking about and that the procession actually happened at some other place or time in the city; however, for us, the Resurrection paso was “canceled.” As we stood in the street full of disappointment, we could not help but feel that all of the excitement of Holy Week had led only to a great, empty void. After all, why would we ever celebrate Christ’s suffering and death if not for the unbelievable victory of Easter morning? If it were not for the Resurrection, all of our penitence, all of our religious actions, all of our praise would be hollow, meaningless, futile.

In our own lives, we often cancel the Resurrection paso, don’t we? We get so wrapped up in our sins and sorrows that they become the central focus of our lives and even our faith. We repent and confess our sins but continue to allow our feelings of guilt to keep us at a distance from God. We talk a good talk about how selfish, or impatient, or jealous we are but we don’t let go of those identities in the face of Christ’s  salvation. When we grieve, we hold onto our grief by doing things like refusing to reintroduce color into our wardrobes, failing to give the deceased’s room a new purpose, even choosing not to lose the baby weight that reminds us of our lost children! When we have been mentally hurt by cruelty, we become acutely aware of our woundedness and held in bondage by our feelings of victimization. In other words, we live our lives in a way that proclaims why Christ had to die but doesn’t make room for the Resurrection.

Yet, with the dawn of  Easter morning, we are called to lay down our sins and sorrows, to proclaim that they no longer hold any power over us, and to trust in Christ’s amazing victory! We are called to remember that, through God’s great mercy, the sorrow of that first Holy Week ended in joy and victory! On that first Easter morning, Jesus’s grave was empty, but the promises of His Passion were anything but empty! His people would never again be irreconcilably separated from Him. Death would no longer wield any power. His love had paid the cost of all of our sins. Each of the chains that bound His created ones was smashed. As my four year old proclaimed, “When the tomb was empty, God had done everything He meant to do!” Hallelujah!!!

So, no matter what our lives may hold, no matter how high the cost of our discipleship, no matter what we have done or failed to do, no matter who we have lost here on earth, let us never forget that “We are a resurrection people,” (St. Augustine of Hippo) and we live in the power of our resurrected Savior. Let the unshakable joy of our lives be our Resurrection paso that proclaims Christ’s victory to all as we declare with our lips: He is risen! He is risen indeed!