Waiting in Darkness

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Over the next few weeks, mysustaininggrace.com will be posting reflections for the coming week of Advent. Each reflection will focus on the theme of the advent candle for the corresponding week. The first candle, which we will light on December 3rd, is the Prophet’s Candle or the Candle of Hope. 

“Once upon a time…”

Every child knows that a good story begins with, “Once upon a time” and ends with a  “happily ever after.” In between those two points, however, lies unknown dangers, struggles, sorrows and heartaches. Perhaps this story format is so appealing to us because it mirrors that of the Great Storyteller who began His tale “Once upon a time” in a perfect garden and will end it “happily ever after” in a flawless Heaven. Although the festive Christmas season may prevent us from seeing it, the season of Advent reminds of us of our existence between these two glorious endpoints in God’s story.

During Advent, we are asked to remember the long wait for a Messiah, the hope fostered by the prophets, and the thousands of years worth of prayers for deliverance that flooded the gates of Heaven. We are called to recall a time when hope was just a tiny flicker in the midst of darkness, when the people waiting in darkness had yet to see a great light. At the same time, we are challenged to reflect on our own sin-stained souls and to renew our deep longing for salvation. We are forced to acknowledge that the whole of creation “waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God…in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”(Romans 8:19-21) We are required to listen to our spirits as we “groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.” (Romans 8:23).

This spiritual longing for Christ’s coming and salvation is a deep, natural one that rises up from the core of our being and permeates every part of us. It is profound and powerful and all of creation echoes our soul’s groaning. It is like a bereaved mother whose longing for her child is so strong that her arms become painful, heavy and restless as they reach out into empty darkness, waiting to be filled and receiving only the reply of “not yet.”

Advent also reminds us, though, that in the midst of that darkness, there is a flicker of light. Through the spoken words of the prophets, the written words of the Bible, the gaze of Christ looking tenderly out from a portrait, the loving actions of a neighbor, we are reminded that Christ is coming. We feel a shimmer of excitement shiver through us as it whispers, “The arrival is coming!” We hear the swipe of a match and see the tiny blaze of a single candle burning in the black of night. We smell the smoke and feel its slight warmth. Though we can scarcely believe it, it is there. A candle of hope that reminds us that He is coming.

 

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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)

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. 

Mother’s Sorrow

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“How long was she conscious?” I asked as the tears filled my eyes and spilled onto my cheeks.

“Are you asking did your baby suffer?” responded my perceptive obstetrician.

I thought of all the questions pounding on my heart: Was the last emotion she knew the panic of suffocation? As her body became bruised and beaten by frantic attempts at CPR, was she aware of it? Did she feel tubes pierce her sides, punching between bones and flesh? Did she wonder where I was and why I was not there to hold her? Did she ask why she was alone, why she was forsaken?

As I nodded my head, my obstetrician gently said, “No, I do not believe that she suffered.” Relief flooded through me.

–              –              –

I’ve never felt particularly close to Saint Mary. In fact, of all the Saints, I tend to be most detached from Mary. There are probably several reasons for this. First, as someone who was raised Protestant, I am wary of any honor that borders on idolatry and there is no other Saint whose veneration often teeters so close to the brink of worship. Second, pride has always wormed its way into my life by disguising itself as a tendency to dislike whatever everybody else likes (think insisting on dresses and leggings when everyone else switched to jeans during elementary school and being disgusted by Titanic when every other girl in my middle school class was swooning over Leonardo DiCaprio). Unfortunately for me, if there is one Saint who everyone loves to love, its Mary which means that I instinctively want to avoid her just because everyone else loves her. Third, I believe that the way that Mary is depicted in art makes it challenging for me to identify with her. For example, it is hard to connect with a woman who looks completely clean, put together, unswollen and calm after giving birth (without pain medication) in a place where they kept animals. Suffice it to say, I gave birth in a clean, animal-free environment with about a dozen doctors and nurses standing by and a nicely placed epidural in my back, yet I don’t have a single picture of me looking clean, put together, unswollen or calm after my children were born. Exhausted but not calm.

However, I recently realized that there was a more fundamental reason that I did not connect with Saint Mary: to really identify with Mary I would have to be willing to be drenched with her sorrows and they are sorrows that my humanness wants to avoid at all costs. Nonetheless, this week I overcame this aversion when I discovered the Catholic practice of meditating on Mary’s Seven Sorrows.  As I pondered the last four Sorrows, I felt that I had been introduced to the amazing Mother of Jesus for the first time. Here was a woman who knew my own pain intimately. In fact, her own pain greatly exceeded my own because, unlike my daughter, her Son absolutely suffered.

Good Friday is an ideal time for all Christians to reflect on the last four of St. Mary’s Sorrows in particular, because it was her Son’s death that caused her so much pain. Consequently, I share my own reflections on these sorrows below.

The Fourth Sorrow is when Mary met Jesus carrying His cross through the streets of Jerusalem to Golgotha. Even as a mother who has begged God to change His mind and restore life to my lifeless child, I can only begin to imagine the desperation and confusion Mary must have felt as she watched her Son carrying the horrible instrument of His own death on His back. How unbelievably awful it must have been to realize that crowds of people hated her Son enough to kill Him. She must have burned with longing to do something, anything, to help Him. She must have been filled with a desire to tear the crown of thorns from His head, to dress His wounds and to clean the lacerations on His back. She must have begged God for His help and intervention, for the protection of her Child. The Stabat Mater describes the scene thus: “Bruised, derided, cursed, defiled, she beheld her tender Child, all with bloody scourges rent. Can the human heart refrain, from partaking in her pain, in that Mother’s pain untold?”

The Fifth Sorrow is when Mary watched as Jesus was crucified and died. Her heart must have shattered as they pierced his hands with crude nails, punching between bones and flesh. I could not see my daughter as she died. In fact,I struggling with my own physical responses to surgery, I did not even know that she was dying. However, my husband watched as the doctors tried to save her and, having talked with him, I can only imagine Mary’s agony as she gazed upon her child’s body, so bruised and beaten. How she must have longed to run to Him, to hold Him as he cried out to His father, “Why have you forsaken me?” She must have wished that she could use her physical touch to show Him that He was not forsaken and to comfort Him. What horror did she know as she gazed up at her son’s face, that was contorted by the pain and terror of His last, gasping breath, unable to do anything at all except to bear witness to His sacrifice? What questions did she ask her God who silently allowed her world and the One in whom she placed her faith to be destroyed?

The Sixth Sorrow is when Jesus’s body was taken down from the cross and laid in His mother’s arms. Now, finally, I truly know her heart break for I have shared it with her. I know how anxious she was to wrap her arms around her Son’s broken, bruised body, to bathe His face with her tears, to cover Him with her kisses. I know the way she explored her Child, touched His wounds and tenderly kissed them, trying in vain to make them better. I know how good His weight felt in her arms and how she thought that she would never be able to let go. I know the cruelty of time which slowly marched forward, stealing the warmth, color, and softness from the limbs and the face of her precious Child. And I know the resignation of the moment when she realized that it was time to let go of her Son’s body because the physical changes convinced her that He was no longer there and that it was truly finished.

The Seventh and final Sorrow is when Jesus was buried. There are no words to describe the torment of a parent who is forced to bury their child. Even if Mary was experiencing shock and numbness, she no doubt felt the horror of her loss. While she must have trusted that God would raise her Son as He had promised, as she gazed at the stone rolled across the tomb, she must have also felt the excruciating absence of her Son. Did she, like me, feel that her heart was weeping blood? Did she wish she could catch all of her precious tears in a bottle and save them as tangible reminders of her Son that could sustain her until the day when she met Him again? Did she feel that she was dragging mountains behind her as she turned and walked away from the place where her Child’s body lay? Did she wake during that first night, thinking she heard her Son calling for her or shaking her shoulder, only to discover that she was all alone in the darkness? And how horrible those first moments must have been for her when she woke on Saturday morning and realized anew that her Son was gone and that she had to rise and live another day of torment without her Child!

This Sorrow, this suffocating Mother’s Sorrow, all the result of my sin, of your sin, of the sins of our world.