Abandonment

20181207_155205Our little guy just spent some time in the hospital. The place was packed and we had to spend over twenty-four hours in the emergency department while we waited for a room. During our stay, the room across from us was occupied by a school-age boy whose parents were not with him. Instead, various hospital staff members took shifts sitting in the room while he played computer games and fought sleep. When it was time to transport this boy, he became so combative that the hallway was full of adults who were trying to pacify him. In a scene that was reminiscent of a shell-shocked war veteran, he screamed for his mother while being physically restrained by strong security guards. The response he was repeatedly given was, “We are trying to find your mom. We don’t know where she is.”

I don’t know the story behind this young boy’s hospitalization, nor do I know where his parents were. I certainly do not mean to cast judgement on them without knowing the whole story. However, I do know that this little boy was suffering without his parents. His panicked actions reflected his feelings of fear and abandonment. It was heartbreaking to witness.

I also know that a little baby was born 2000 years ago who would also cry out to a parent who was not there for him in the midst of his suffering. As we admire our beautiful creche scenes, its easy to forget that God did not just send His Son for the adoration of Bethlehem but also for the isolation of the cross.  That Son, who God abandoned to death as a ransom for His creation, stretched out His arms to die and called out to His Father: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)

As a parent, I cannot fathom abandoning my children to death and suffering. However, because God chose us as His children and refused to abandon us to the penalty for our sins, He was willing to give His Son. He sent this Son to be born in a stable filled with dangerous germs, in a land where a king wanted him dead before he was even born, and to a people who would one day choose to crucify him in exchange for the release of a notorious criminal. While the angels sang songs of triumph to shepherds in the fields, God witnessed the birth of His Child, knowing what this victory would require. He gave His son His first breath, fully aware of how He would exhale His last. He looked upon the wonder of Bethlehem knowing that He would turn His back on Golgotha. Yet, still, He gave.

How many of us have, like the young boy at the hospital, felt neglected by those who are meant to love us? How many of us have felt abandoned by God Himself? Yet, if we remember that God refused to abandon us, even at such incredible personal cost, we will be convinced that we are deeply loved and never alone. We might even find ourselves drawn into the warm fellowship that radiated from the stable in Bethlehem so many nights ago, when shepherds and kings, angels and beasts gathered around the little family of the newborn King. We may hear our hearts sing, “This is my family, too.” For by abandoning His Son, God adopted us as His own.

Divine Mercy

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I haven’t had much energy this month for writing. Its been one of those “everyone is fed, everyone’s clothes are clean, we did school today, everything else can wait” kind of months. However, I led a small group of women in a discussion of Divine Mercy today and I thought that I might share something that I learned as I prepared for that talk: God is love and His Divine Mercy is the outpouring of that love in response to our needs.

John 4:8 tells us that “God is love.” As incomprehensible as it is, His very being is love. When that Love encounters our many needs, He acts in mercy because that is what love does when it is confronted with need. Our needs are many, so we can see His mercy manifested in countless ways throughout or lives: comfort for our sorrow, peace for our fear, satisfaction of our hunger, justice when we are wronged, the presence of His Spirit to teach and grow us, and so many others.  In all these ways God’s Divine Mercy is manifest in our lives.

Yet, the most pressing of all of our needs, the one that threatens to separate us from God and even to destroy us is our sin. That is why, the most profound way that God demonstrated his Divine Mercy was by sending his Son to suffer and die and then to conquer death and rise again. Because God is love and His love for us is unchanging, He responded to the great need that our sin created by offering this incredible gift of love and mercy.

As we approach Divine Mercy Sunday, I pray that we will all have the time and the energy to spend quiet moments reflecting on God’s great love and Divine Mercy as they were revealed to us on the cross at Calvary and in the empty tomb. And I invite you to pray with me that each person on this earth will be filled with a deep, heartfelt knowledge of God’s mercy, for to be loved so deeply and not know it must be the greatest tragedy of all.

Rejoice

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The third week of Advent begins with Gaudete Sunday and is my personal favorite. The word Gaudete means “rejoice” as in “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Philipians 4:4). Not surprisingly, the candle that we light on Gaudete Sunday is the Joy Candle or Shepherd’s Candle, which reminds us of the angel’s greeting to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth: “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior – yes the Messiah, the Lord – has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David!” So, in the midst of the penitential season of Advent, we are called to joy (hence the contrast between the traditionally pink color of the Gaudete Sunday candle which symbolizes joy and the three other purple candles which symbolize repentance and waiting.

Unlike happiness, the joy that the angel proclaimed is an abiding joy that does not change with the seasons or vary with external circumstances. It is not just a warm, contented feeling. Instead, it is strong, enduring, and (for us who have the benefit of looking back after Jesus’s earthly life ended) rooted in the reality that our Savior has been born, lived, died, and rose again. Because of His life, death and resurrection, we can rejoice knowing that we are rescued from the bondage of our sins and that God is working out the realization of His kingdom in our world today.  We can be filled with joy in the midst of the most difficult circumstances because we know that, ultimately, everything will be alright.

The Bible offers us many examples of joyful people who expressed their joy in a variety of ways.  Miriam and David  danced and sang before God as they thanked Him for His work in their lives (Exodus 15:20-21 and 2 Samuel 6).  Hannah, Zechariah and Mary  sang songs of joy for the the work of God, His compassion, and His care for the poor (1 Samuel 2, Luke 1:46-55 and 68-79). The shepherds that we remember during this week of Advent received the angel’s news of great joy and confirmed it with their own eyes. Then they ran to share their joy with others and returned to their daily work “glorifying and praising God.”(Luke 2:17-20) Later, the disciple Paul learned to be glad even when forced to confront his own weaknesses because he saw God working through them (2 Corinthians 9-10). Amazingly, the Bible even offers us a glimpse of the rejoicing ones that fill Heaven: the angels and other Heavenly beings who “fall before the throne with their faces to the ground and worshiped God” (Revelation 7: 11) and those who, having “washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white,” serve God without ceasing as He shelters, feeds, protects, shepherds and comforts them (Revelation 7:14-17).

Even in the midst of our everyday lives, we see glimpses of those who live life with an abiding joy. We see it in the elderly woman at church who can say “it is well with my soul” in the midst of great loss. We see it in those who have been rescued from addiction and live each day in gratitude to the One who saved them. We see it in writers, speakers, priests and pastors. We see it in all who attest to the truth that Christ has come into our world and is at work in our lives. And when we pause to consider that truth – that Christ has, indeed come and that He is working out each aspect of our lives for good – we can see joy in ourselves, no matter what our circumstances may be. The question is, once we have glimpsed this joy, will we keep it buried deep inside or will we, like the shepherds on that Christmas night so long ago, hurry to share the good news with others and allow our joy to permeate our lives, even as we go back out into the fields and resume the everyday tasks involved in tending our flocks?

“Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns! Let men their songs employ. While fields and floods,
rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat the sounding joy!”

 

*Dedicated to my daughter, Marienka Joy Sroubek -wanted child and sorrow that God will turn to joy.

Preparations

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“Uh-oh!” I thought as I listened to my preschooler say, “I have to be really good now because Christmas is coming and I want to get all of my presents, but it’s so hard to be good!” Last year she asked us if Santa was “really real” and because she was in the midst of learning that Heaven is “really real,” and that her sister is alive there, we told her the truth. I was surprised, therefore, that she thought that Mommy and Daddy would give her coal if she was naughty.

“You know,” I said, “I want you to be good because you want to be good, but you don’t need to be good to get Christmas presents. We can never be good enough to receive the gift of Jesus, but He came anyway, right? Mommy and Daddy give you presents because we love you (not because you deserve them), just like God sent us Jesus because He loves us and not because we deserve Him.”

As we prepare ourselves for Christmas during Advent, it is easy to focus on the many ways that we are not ready to stand in Jesus’s presence. Since it is a season of penance, we rightly examine the state of our souls, but we can become preoccupied with our sins and feelings of unworthiness. We forget that our failure to measure up is the very reason that Christmas is such an unbelievable gift: Jesus came into our world in the midst of all of its unworthiness because He loves us. He doesn’t love us “if we do something.” He doesn’t love us “if we don’t do something.” He just loves us.

It is in response to this love that we should begin to prepare ourselves for His coming and to set out on our journey towards becoming the people who He intends for us to be. It is because He loves us that we should persevere through hardship and do the work that He has set before us to do. It is due to His love that we should be willing to go where He leads us. It is only ever in response to His love that we prepare for His coming and never to obtain His love, for it cannot be obtained.

“…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

“…his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” (James 2:22)

“The Good Life”

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Lately, I have been thinking about how to respond when my hopes and dreams are different from God’s will for me. For a long time, my desire has been to have a small, happy, healthy little family with a few children. I want to raise my children to know God, to have the opportunity to enjoy the little everyday blessings of helping children to grow and learn, and to build a strong family unit that will provide my children with refuge and support after my husband and I are gone. The selfish part of me also wants another opportunity to relish the moments that delighted me as a mother and to not take the other, less savory times for granted. I want a chance to be a better mom and to someday be a grandmother without the pressure of my living daughter being the only child who could fulfill that dream. I would like to be comfortable and to live responsibly and without anxieties, anger, or sorrow. I want my children to have a chance to grow and develop through the kind of protected childhood I had. Then, I reason, others can see the joy we have and the blessings that we have been given and see the handiwork of God.

My desire for me and for my family is a lot like the life that Chris Rice describes when he sings “Becky has a house on Abundant Live Boulevard. A good name, good family, and butterflies in her yard. Becky loves Jesus and really wants to make Him proud – she tears up in church and she sings her harmonies loud. She’s got a Bible by the bed, a prayer journal, and a fish on her car. She makes sure to bow her head and give thanks in every restaurant…” Since these things I want are all good things and none of them directly contradict God’s commands, it seems like they should logically be part of His will for me. Yet, over and over again, I feel like God brings me closer to having a small family with happy, Godly children, only to dash my hopes again. Or maybe He says, “Keep waiting,” but there’s no guarantee that what we are waiting for is what we hope for.  I find that I need to accept that God might not want “the good life” to be my life.

We are immersed in a culture that sees blessings when we are comfortable, peaceful, satisfied and happy. We feel blessed when we get a new job, a new house, or a healthy baby. But what happens when we lose our job, or our home is destroyed, or we look at the ultrasound monitor and realize that our baby no longer has a heartbeat and that we have yet another child waiting for us in Heaven instead of in our arms? What happens when we get sick and have to be subjected to painful medical procedures that we never wanted or when our good friends die too soon, leaving broken families behind them?What happens when we never get our rainbow at the end of a storm, when our problems are never resolved and when we have to learn to live with them? What happens if we never get a miracle?

What happens is that we are still blessed.

We are blessed because God continues to be intimately at work in our lives in the midst of our shattered dreams and sorrows. We are blessed because He knows what He is doing and His work is good. We are blessed because He is giving us exactly what we need to be the people He wants us to be. We are blessed because He is giving us the tools to fulfill our specific purpose in His world. We are blessed because He knows what lies ahead and He is preparing us and those around us for what will be.

We are also blessed because Jesus looked at our understanding of blessings and turned it on its head. He said:

You are not only blessed in prosperity and comfort, because “blessed are the poor in spirit.” You are not only blessed in happiness, because “blessed are those who mourn.” You are not only blessed in times of peace, because “blessed are the peacemakers.” In fact, he said that even those who are persecuted are blessed! (See Matthew 5:3-12 to see more of what Jesus said about blessings.)

Ultimately, we are blessed because we play a tiny role in His salvation story which will end in glorious redemption! All those tears we cry will be redeemed. All those losses we suffer will be redeemed. All those burdens we bear will be redeemed. All those disappointments that beat us down will be redeemed. And, most importantly, all of the world’s sufferings that, because of our human limitations we can not yet perceive, will be redeemed.

We have much to be thankful for, whether God chooses for us to live “the good life” or “the hard life.”

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!