Small essays about faith and life to lift your spirit and give you hope.
Small essays about faith and life to lift your spirit and give you hope.
Fear seems to be built into us. Even in the best of times, it lurks deep in our being. Like a stranger hiding in the bushes, it could leap out at any moment and snatch our predictable lives away. Well, in a sense, that’s what’s happened. In little more than an eye blink, we find ourselves facing a rapidly spreading, fear-inducing new virus, one that's flung our everyday expectations into an existential abyss while medical experts develop schemes to retard its spread, governments struggle to explain it and change continues to engulf nations, cities, neighborhoods, homes and lives.
Your favorite restaurant closes without warning, and the folks who worked there--people we knew and liked--stand on the sidewalk bewildered, without a job; families get quarantined; flights get cancelled; cruise ships can’t find a port that will take their passengers while churches close their doors, sports figures stand idle and governments grapple with economies that have fallen into a tailspin. People suffer. So we practice “social distancing” to "flatten the curve" and relieve the suffering, although we aren't quite sure if social distancing includes our parents, grandchildren and kindly Aunt Esther, who lives by herself on the far side of town. What’s more, the kids are housebound, bored with their digital babysitters and threatening to go over the wall (as we consider for a wild moment whether to let them). Overarching all of this, of course, is a word that heretofore had remained quietly in the background, except for its occasional appearance in history books, research studies, science fiction and chilling apocalyptic movies. Until now:
Pandemic. And there are so many questions!
Will there be work? Will there be school? Will there be travel? Will there be groceries? Will I get the virus? Or my family? Will there be toilet paper, for heaven’s sake?!
Even normal fears can upend our world--accidents, sickness, money problems, shattered relationships and other personal tragedies. But when something truly abnormal comes along, a turn of events so unlikely that it seems practically impossible (like a black swan), we can be stunned into becoming even more fearful.
It's fascinating to note that the word fear appears almost 400 times in Scripture (KJV). And, as if to punctuate that fact, Jesus promised his followers that they would see trouble. Yet, here’s something even more fascinating, pointed out by noted theologian R.C. Sproul in a radio broadcast shortly before his death in December of 2017: “The number one negative prohibition in the New Testament is ‘Don’t be afraid, fear not.'” Christ says it so often that “we miss it,” Sproul says. “It’s like hello and goodbye. Every time Jesus shows up it’s ‘Fear not’.”
Jesus knew all about fear. Picture him splayed on the ground, face down in the dirt of Gethsemane on the eve of his crucifixion, abandoned by his sleep-besotted friends and in anguish to the point of sweating blood. Jesus knew the cross was coming and, in his humanity, was still afraid. His disciples had no hint of the cruelties that soon would beset their Teacher, but neither could they see the new Truth glimmering unseen over the horizon, a Light that eventually would comfort them and, in time, reach through the centuries to comfort us, as well: "… the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding." (Philippians 4:6-7)
I experienced several emergency hospital stays during 2019. As I lay there connected to one medical device and then another, I felt unusually calm as the peace of God expressed in Philippians made its home in my heart. Isaiah also has spoken of peace to me over the years, especially during difficult times (26:3-4), so I knew that if I kept my thoughts on God instead of dwelling on my immediate circumstances, I likely (although not certainly) would be home from the hospital and recuperating within a few days.
Charles H. Spurgeon, the acclaimed Reformed Baptist preacher, told Londoners in his New Year’s message of 1884 that “If we will believe our God as he deserves to be believed … we shall be prepared for trials, and shall even welcome them as black ships laden with bright treasures.” When fear comes in the night its presence can batter our faith against the rocks. Yet, we know morning will come at last and spill its welcoming light over the horizon, pouring it into our lives, extinguishing the chill of night and banishing the darkness--just as Christ’s divine Light has done in the past, does now and promises to do in the future. It is this Light, this Bright Treasure, that gives believers the confidence to say with our Lord, even in the time of coronavirus,
As I was working on this essay, Pandora presented me with Natalie Cole’s version of one of the most recorded songs in American musical history, George and Ira Gershwin's “Love is Here to Stay”, written in 1937 during the waning years of the Depression. These lines caught my ear:
The more I read the papers
The less I comprehend
The world and all its capers
And how it all will end.
Nothing seems to be lasting …
(It all sounds so familiar here in the Spring of 2020 …)
The radio and the telephone
And the movies that we know
May just be passing fancies
And in time may go!
But our love is here to stay.
Sure, it’s a love song. Yet here we are in a situation where love is very much in order, a time when so much of what we’ve come to know as “normal” has flown far afield--so much so that it’s no stretch to suggest that at least some of the change being stirred up today will blend into a "new normal" that may in itself prove discomforting. But there is a Truth that never changes. Come what may, Light undiminished also reigns, an unchanging Gospel Truth anchored in a Love that over arches plagues and pandemics, failed businesses, fractured families or even diminishing freedoms.
“These things I have spoken to you,” Jesus tells his disciples at the end of John 16, “that in Me you may have peace (despite the world’s) tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
Some days it's not easy to write, especially when words seem to have deserted you for the time being. It's not easy to go to school when a test looms or there's a bully on the playground. It's not easy to go out and jump your car battery on dark mornings when you'd rather stay in bed than go to work. Some days, it's even hard to pray. We've all been there. We may be there now.
Maybe especially believers, because when we cede our lives to Christ, we expect things to turn around like we’ve taken some kind of magic pill. Trouble is supposed to vanish like a lifting fog, and as soon as possible! But then, when illnesses don’t get healed and businesses still go bust and marriages crumble and your kid's college application gets lost in the mail and life’s disappointments continue unabated, what’s a believer to do?
Proverbs 3:5 suggests that we should trust in the Lord with all our hearts and lean not on our own understanding, which is where I go to get buoyed up when the world presses its weight down on me, those all-too-frequent times when neither reason nor prayer seem to be working. I know the truth of that verse from long experience, which goes on to say that if you acknowledge God’s presence in all your ways, he promises to make your path straight – though sometimes his "straight" can seem more like a maze to you.
When doubt assails and discouragement stalks the corridors of your mind, know that the promises of God are real promises. You don't have to feel they are just then, but know they are. And then behave like you believe them, because your behavior is part of your testimony.
When I was in the Army, a very long time ago, there was a middle-aged man who worked the morning chow line at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. He was a civilian who was getting paid to do the job, not a soldier who’d been shanghaied into doing it. This guy acted like he resented every scoopful of scrambled eggs or cream chipped beef he ever plopped on a soldier’s tray. So I decided to experiment on him.
“Good morning,” I offered the next day, rather matter-of-factly. He said nothing.
“Good morning,” I suggested the following day, with a bit more energy. The rest of the week went on like this, and on toward Friday he looked up with at me with a glare that said “Stop bothering me with this Good Morning routine.” It took ten days or so to get a reluctant smile out of the guy, which finally became a pleasant one that I actually missed on his days off.
Joshua Warren writes about a time he gave an upbeat national television interview when his heart wasn’t in it:
“My body was exhausted from an intense treatment for a chronic illness; a doctor had just reported that my dad would probably be dead in six months; and I felt like I was failing as a dad because I was spending too much time at work. I was lost in sea of depression and I couldn’t find my way home.”
But he put on a smile anyway. All appeared well.
“I pulled out my earpiece, thanked the producer, left the studio and felt the weight of the world creeping back onto my shoulders …”
We’ve all had days like that, when we have to put our best face forward despite the worries churning inside. And we’ve all had days when its hard work to muster a smile – at least if you’re anything like me.
A couple of years ago, my vacuum cleaner stopped working and not for the first time. Vacuuming has a way of wiping me out, so I was more than a bit grumpy, an attitude I decided to take along on a trip to the vacuum cleaner store, where I was prepared to vent years of frustration on whichever clerk was unlucky enough to greet me.
When I arrived, Clerk #1 was chatting on the phone and ignored me. Grrrrr! Clerk #2 was doing a demo for a harried-looking couple with a bored child – and I had to admit, her demo was unusually good and filled with useful product benefits. After a minute or so, she looked up from the pile of dust she’d just tossed on the carpet for her prospect to vacuum up, caught my eye and walked to the service counter. How can I help you today?” she chirped.
“My vacuum isn’t doing a good job. “
“How’s that?” (gently stated)
“It picks up practically nothing – just blows air around. I have to pick stuff up with my fingers.”
“How long has it been doing that?”
“Years. Almost forever.”
At that, she reached down under the counter and retrieved something, which she held up between two fingers, swinging it tantalizingly back in forth in front of my eyes. A belt, about four inches around.
“I think your belt is broken.”
“I didn’t know I had a belt.”
“If the belt is broken, the beater bar won’t turn and the motor will just suck air. Like you said.”
Hmmm … “How much is a belt?”
“Two for ten-bucks.”
“How ‘bout one for five bucks? I only need one.” (with only the tiniest hint of grumpiness).
She placed the belt in one hand as I fumbled for my wallet with the other.
“Put that away.”
“You’re GIVING me this belt?”
“Yes,” she said, eyes darting back to where her prospects had finished cleaning up the demo carpet and were about to convince their kid that the upright vacuum they were about to buy was, in fact, a dust robot.
“Why … thanks!” I said (really meaning it). “You’ve made my day.”
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4 that, “since we have received (Christ’s) ministry, we do not lose heart … For it is the God ‘who commanded light to shine out of darkness who has shone in our hearts …” He goes on to speak of a “treasure in earthen vessels,” and even though we may be “hard pressed on every side,” we carry the life of Christ in us ready to shine forth -- despite our earthly distresses and discomforts.
“So let’s be good to the cashier,” Joshua compels in his article, “our child’s teacher, the person driving poorly in traffic, our co-worker and/or our parents. Let’s give others the grace we all need (because) everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Including the grumpy guy working the chow line. And possibly even the grumpy guy inside me!
Our fuzzy little calico cat woke me up earlier than expected this morning. Usually she stays curled in back of the radio on my bedside table and waits for me to stir. Not today. It was clear by the note in her voice that she wanted me to rise to the new day on her timetable, not mine. She had no idea (and possibly did not care) that it had been well after midnight by the time I’d fallen asleep, after too much Netflix and “just one more chapter” in a page-turner of a book about American helicopter pilots out to snatch a spy from deep inside Russia. Nor did she appreciate my two trips to the bathroom as the night wore on. I whisked her off the bed a few times, but she was back in a flash. I checked the clock to confirm the early hour and turned away. She tapped me on the head. I turned back.
“Go away …” I pleaded, guarding my head with a pillow, which she immediately began kneading with her paws. Cats do that to show affection, they say, but I’ve always found it irritating.
“Stop it!” I said in a not so appreciative voice, flipped her to the floor again and began drifting back into the ozone. That’s when I remembered my very strange dream and decided that the cat (whose name is Onion for no good reason that I’ve ever figured) had done me a favor by rescuing me from deep inside what wasn’t quite a nightmare but certainly bordered on one.
The dream was of home, the house and street where I’d grown up and left more than five decades back. I’d dreamed about the house many times over the years, sometimes in snippets that resembled the 8mm movies my dad had taken of me and my brothers as we turned two and four and fourteen and eighteen and finally flew away. Other times, my dreams involved driving down our street and not being able to stop at our house because strangers lived there. My parents sold the place during the late ‘80s and moved to Florida. Strangers do live there now. What's more, they've constructed a two-car garage on our side yard, the one where we used to play baseball. And they've thrown up a tall wooden fence all around. Fine and good for them, but it doesn't do a thing for my prying eyes.
Today’s pre-dawn dream about our house was more disconcerting than disturbing, if one can even draw a line like that. The town was overgrown with elm trees that reached out for my youngest brother and me like brooding branches from a horror film (the real trees were cut down long ago to thwart the spread of Dutch Elm Disease). Rod Serling couldn’t have come up with a darker, more misshapen setting, a twilight zone of shadowed gray light within which our street played a twisted version of itself as we made our way along looking for familiar landmarks. There were none, no neighbors and houses we recognized. Most alarming, our house also was nowhere to be seen. And if that wasn’t unsettling enough, the street proceeded to transform itself into a tall concrete bridge. We could look down from it and see other streets and houses and cars below -- and (oddly) a pack of smirking coyotes staring up at us, as if to ask what we were doing in their dream.
A man came along (a pleasant fellow, kind of young, not at all macabre) and pointed to our house number tacked on a gatepost. A staircase beckoned us to descend (to a place where we presumably would find the house itself), and just as my brother started through the gate, I heard a small cat crying in the distance.
Time to wake up …
For some reason, this nightmare scenario got me wondering about home, and that got me wondering about heaven-as-home and what to expect there – after I’d fed and watered the cats, of course. Scripture doesn’t have much to say on the subject and only mentions the famed streets of gold in one Revelation passage, which describes an elaborate, be-jeweled second Heaven in which people will “need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” That certainly appeals. But what appeals more is Christ’s oft-cited promise in John 14:
In my Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?
I don’t picture rows of McMansions lining golden streets but, rather, a simple “abiding place,” as suggested by the original Greek.
“Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone,” writes C.S. Lewis, “because you were made for it – made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand.” I think of homes I have visited and felt truly at ease. I think of my family’s home when I was, say, nine or ten (with all our neighbors present and accounted for and no smirking coyotes). I think of a place that’s been tucked deep in my imagination since I was a young man, a warm and welcome home created “stitch by stitch” just for me. With family close at hand, an endless supply of good books, a cozy nook to write in – and maybe one little cat to awaken me each morning, without doing the kneading thing on my pillow.
That’s Heaven enough for anybody, don’t you think?
-Lenten Journey: The Resurrected Life
A few days before Palm Sunday, I went with my daughter to pick up my granddaughter at school. They had an unusually efficient pickup system (compared to others I recall that traveled at the speed of a slug), so it wasn’t long before our six-year-old ball of energy came bouncing into the van overflowing with chatter about the class Easter egg hunt. Her paper basket was filled with candy that she was eager to dig into – but not before telling her Golden Easter Egg story.
Turns out that other kids had found the special golden eggs but she had not. Since that’s the sort of thing that can momentarily crush a kindergartner, I fully expected a pout, but my granddaughter delighted both her mama and me by saying how glad she was for the few classmates who had found golden eggs, even to the point of comforting a sobbing friend who also had come up empty-handed.
Self-effacement by a six-year-old is a great way for Grandpa to start thinking about Easter, the meaning of which all too easily gets lost amid the bunnies and baskets, spring savings events and just plain busyness that can push the holy occasion into the background. But, truth is, I can have a hard time settling into Holy Week, especially when I was younger. And since so much of who we are as adults has roots in childhood, perhaps that’s the place to find at least a partial explanation.
I grew up in the Catholic Church. Dutiful participation was expected of me and my three brothers, so we accompanied our mother to Mass most every Sunday (unless we could fake our way out of it) and also attended religious instruction classes. In time, all four of us drifted away from the Church. I can’t speak for my brothers, but my defection produced great relief. I was glad to have escaped the religious gloom that had begun taking root like some dark flower in my adolescent heart. No longer must I face the shrouded plaster Jesus hanging high above the altar during the week before Easter, head askew, painted blood running from his pierced heart (even though it was covered, I still knew it was there). No longer must I fear committing even the most venial of sins within reach of the Catholic Church (never mind mortal ones) – or ever again having to encounter our parish’s two creepy priests.
Now fast forward slightly more than a generation. Most of a life and four kids later, I was compelled to return to church because, (a) I had received more than a few Divine promptings in my business and personal life, (b) my children needed to make their own spiritual decisions, and (c) up to that time I had set a pretty poor example. We began attending a small mainline Protestant church, attracted to the congregation by a friend and his family. The folks there were welcoming but not pushy, and over some years, the darkness that marked my early religious experience gradually got replaced with light.
The denomination we chose is steeped in Easter. It’s the church known far and wide for its glorious Easter Sunrise services. But first comes Holy Week, during which believers are compelled to grapple with the idea of self-sacrifice, what our pastor calls the resurrected life and the world calls folly. During that time, we walk the path with Jesus as he follows his Father’s will toward crucifixion, from the triumphant expectations of Palm Sunday to the hollowness of Easter Saturday.
We don’t hear much about Easter Saturday, even in the Easter church. If Good Friday is anguish, Easter Saturday is terror. The prophesied Savior has been executed and buried, and his most ardent followers have fled. Their bewilderment and anguish must have been devastating. Even we, who know the happy outcome, can hardly comprehend the clash between lingering hope and the bleak reality of Easter Saturday with Christ’s linen-swaddled body lying cold in the grave. Some bible experts claim he descended into hell during that time, as suggested by the Apostle’s Creed, and that the whole of man’s sin came crashing down on him there. Others say not. Theologian R. C. Sproul notes that wherever it was that Jesus found himself on Easter Saturday, he had been forsaken by the Father and suffered the ultimate punishment, that of a scapegoat driven outside the city “into utter darkness, where the light of God’s face did not show.” Imagine what it would have been like to be abandoned by someone who is more a part of you than yourself – even if you know (and always have known) that this moment must come. We are exhausted at the very thought of it and may find it challenging to plumb the depths of Holy Week without calling on the Lord himself to deepen our understanding!
There is this, however: what a local pastor once called the “unmatched joy of Resurrection,” a time and place where our old lives are put to death with Christ and new life rises in its place. It is no idle tale that Jesus has fled the tomb. The truth is revealed with Easter’s first light: The Lord has risen. The Lord has risen indeed!
It is in this Light that we find our hope, our purpose and our rest.
Lenten Journey: God’s Clay
“Can the pot say of the potter,
"He knows nothing"? (Is 29:16)
It’s not hard to think of ourselves as clay to be formed and shaped in the hands of God, to be made into something beautiful, even useful. The idea of working in clay is appealing, whether hand building a pot or using a wheel. Clay is smooth and pleasing to the touch.
Before the verse above, where Isaiah describes being shaped by God the potter, the prophet talks about things being turned upside down for those who hide from the Lord and take their own counsel: the pot shaping itself. Then, in the following chapter, he warns us about the illusion of “smooth things”, turning aside from God’s way to go one's own way.
All too often, life is a struggle between our plan and God’s plan. We can spend an entire lifetime fighting against God’s way because we believe our own way is best. We play both potter and pot in our personal drama and work like mad to shape ourselves according to our own vision and authority. Are we not great and skilled craftsmen, perfectly capable of shaping ourselves into whatever we think best (and perfectly content in our ignorance or arrogance)? Are not we taught by the world to be the kings and queens of our own destinies? Are not our lives our own to fashion? Seen in this worldly light, the American ideal becomes an allegory of our own stumbling lives as we navigate through the wilderness (call it Adam Land). When things don’t work out, we tend to our wounds, smooth out our clothes and get on with our next chapter.
But there’s got to be another way!
There is a way, but not where many of us look in our rush to create the Kingdom of Me, a way so shot through with potential that it’s difficult for one person to describe to another this side of heaven. And yet, we are not fully human until we have walked this path, have allowed ourselves to be shaped in the way of Christ. But we refuse to submit, driven by blind courage and dumb luck -- whether non-believer or believer (these days, it can be hard to tell the difference). Either we don’t know about God’s plan or we don’t perceive its the benefits. Or we understand all too well that God’s way could take us way out of our comfort zone and could even be painful!
But it is deep within God’s refining fire that some of his best work is done, where he only turn swords into plowshares but transform shapeless and aimless lives into ones ripe with meaning and filled with passion. This is the radical message of Jesus Christ! That by losing one life we find another. That hope can be reclaimed from the ashes.
And what a trade that is!
These things may not happen immediately, or at all, in this life, but our new life in Christ does become charged with fresh (even radical) possibility when the old life is handed over to God -- lock, stock and setbacks, through acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and the acknowledgement of him as Lord over our lives.
When we refuse God his rightful prerogative to shape us anew, we become a lot like Israel, which often refused to submit itself to the will of God and thus, in that sense, is still waiting for the elusive Messiah. Humanity is so full of pride that the only way God’s kingdom could be established, for Israel and for us, is for God to show us how it is done. Jesus, the Christ, had the power of the universe in his hands, which he could have used at the snap of a finger to show the world a display of self confidence such as had never been seen. Yet, he humbled himself before God. Christ’s hand lay softly in the Father’s hand, demonstrating willing obedience to accept his coming sacrifice and death. Even though he was afraid.
Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. "Abba, Father," he said, "everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will." (Mark 14:35-36)
In a few short hours it was done.
God, in his omniscient and loving way, sometimes thrusts us into a sacrificial fire -- either that or we have placed ourselves there through our choices. Either way, he ends up with raw material he can work with, and in time, we end up something new that's more like what we were meant to be in the first place had we not gone wandering off in Adam Land. Our Lord does not promise to save believers from calamities, although he does promise to see us through them, and if our world has already flown apart when we arrive at the foot of his cross, he helps us pick up the pieces and learn to live with, and perhaps even accept, the consequences of our actions. Being “saved” does not change us from a rusty old heap to a shiny new car in the blink of an eye. We might look like that same old junker with torn upholstery and a leak around the windshield that drips rainwater on our feet, but we have entered into an improvement process called sanctification.
Believers have no claim on perfection. We remain sinners while in this life, as certain as the sun comes up in the morning and goes down at night. However, we also are Holy works in progress, full of imperfections -- even doubts. By the Grace of God, we are redeemed and become willing (as best we can) to be divinely reshaped into a life that looks more like Christ’s and less like the one we have now, a life filled with doubt, anger, bitterness, bad blood, and an overabundance of self-confidence. We may continue to labor up the hill bearing our personal crosses, but our burden has been lightened. There’s hope in the air, despite the times when we lose sight of that hope and are forced to fall on our knees when the load seems too heavy, our life too broken, and cry out for mercy.
In bequeathing our lives to God, we acknowledge our blindness and imperfection and trust in Christ's truth and grace. We acknowledge, as well, that we won’t always know the way but will have his lamp to guide us. Despite the sacrifice of giving up control, despite the frequent bewilderment of it all and the pain of not knowing, we trust that the Refiner’s fire will not consume us but will save us.
Because we are no longer our own, but belong to Christ.
The Lenten Journey:
Then he said to (his disciples): “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? Luke 9:23-25
It’s not easy to hand your life over to God, to deny yourself and take up your cross the way Luke describes. Truth is, such an idea cuts across the grain of our culture. We Americans value our independence above almost all else; the American way is to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and make it on our own. Which, of course, makes it unlikely that we’d ever consider ceding control of our destiny to a God we hardly know (especially when a vocal portion of our society denies his presence and denigrates his followers). That is, until something happens to bring us up short: an illness or some other painful life's circumstance that seems to go on and on.
But that’s where we find God waiting. Not at the end of the rainbow but at the end of ourselves. That’s where we find the Christ of the Cross beckoning:
For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. - John 3:16 -
These words can totally transform our lives. Because hidden within the good news of Christ is the promise of redemption, no matter how lost or worthless or off-course our lives may seem. Because through the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, hope has been reborn … hope that offers new life to a world loaded down with sin and dashed dreams.
During Lent, we are invited afresh to enter through Christ’s open door into the transformed life, but the transaction doesn’t come cheap. We are asked, as Jesus was asked, to give our all – even to accept the possibility of additional seasons of suffering! Suffering was Christ’s cross. He chose to deny his divinity and suffer fully and completely as a human being, so much so that he experienced despair deep enough to make him sweat blood while praying in the garden at Gethsemane.
Suffering hurts. Sometimes it hurts like crazy, whether mental or physical. Sickness, injury, just plain meanness or even confusion about which way to turn next can dash our hopes for a fulfilled life. It can overwhelm to the point of distraction, so much so that we sometimes feel left by the roadside while everybody else zooms by in their shiny new cars on their way to whatever happens next in their clearly perfect lives.
Sometimes, it almost seems as if God has abandoned us, like so much spit in the sea -- no matter how much we think about him, pray to him or do things for him and his Church. We can say we believe that God will rescue us from adversity and, at the same time, despair that he doesn’t.
Here’s a story.
It’s about a young woman named Agnes. Early on, Agnes knew that God had a unique mission for her here on this Earth, and in time, she was gratified that things seemed to be going exactly that way. She was led to a place to serve and set about doing what she believed God would have her do there.
Agnes was a schoolteacher at first, then was called to work among the poor -- a “call” in the sense that she had a clear command from God to leave one thing and do another. And “do” she did, exemplifying in her work what it means to know, love and serve God in this world. But then she began to suffer through what Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul, which, for Agnes, lasted the greater part of her ministry. Even so, she and others who shared her God-given vision brought both physical relief and the light of Christ to thousands of impoverished people born into a society that considered them little more than human refuse -- junk people.
Despite a hollowness of spirit that stemmed from feeling that she had been forsaken by God, the Catholic nun the world came to revere as Mother Teresa persevered in her mission among the poor of Calcutta. It’s hard to imagine the spiritual assault she suffered, the pain she endured.
Mother Mary Teresa died a thousand little deaths -- perhaps many times more -- in her private agony. Yet, in God’s mercy, she at long last began to see her pain as “a small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth.” Her epiphany was the realization that she had been given the “deep joy” of sharing Christ’s suffering, including the anguish of what seemed like daily separation from her Beloved. She shared her Lord’s Passion, climbed the slopes of Golgotha with him every day. She helped shoulder his cross time after time after time and still was able to bless “the least of these” through her pain. Day after day, this Saint of the Gutters acknowledged the certainty of God’s Grace and the certainty of his presence in her life, even though she couldn’t feel it.
We all have our private pains, our deep, enduring disappointments -- not to mention those little discouragements that nibble away at the edges of our lives. We may despair loss of what society proclaims as “the good life” and instead suffer a bewildering blizzard of bills, health issues and relationship problems. We are overcome by lack of opportunity, lack of fulfillment, lack of love. Or we may have “the good life” and wonder if that’s all there is!
When we’re children (especially teens), we often feel inadequate, as if we’re the only person in the world who feels this way. Then, as young adults, we sometimes think we know it all and can do no wrong! We reassess as we grow older, of course, but our inadequacies can remain, lurking in the background -- as if to mock our abilities and accomplishments. Suddenly, we’re astonished to see an old person looking back at us in the mirror! Time is running out. Our lives seem to have vanished with the morning fog. We wonder where God is in all of this, because so much of what we had hoped for doesn’t seem to be happening.
“Where are you?!” we shout to the sky.
We know God is there, yet there are moments, common to us all, when his presence fades. Agnes didn’t see the Lord’s face for many years but she persisted in her work, knowing that he was there. “Though he slays me, yet shall I trust him …” is Job's retort to three friends who thought he’d be better off dead than continuing to suffer.
So here we are in the midst of Lent, those weeks on the Church calendar when we are privileged to participate with Christ in his passion, to walk with him … often stumbling … on our own path to the cross. We retrace the final steps of a man singular in history, a man wholly human and wholly God who is about to become wholly consumed in the fire of self-sacrifice. Thus, it is in the immolation of the Christ that we find our own hope. It is from the ashes of despair and hopelessness that new life is born in our lives, as the lilies once again show their faces to the warming sun.
Sometimes a backyard workshop or auto body shop will have lots of extra bits of metal left over -- the ends of steel rods, odd angle irons, pieces of fenders, hole-riven mufflers and other seemingly useless stuff, things that have been hammered and bent and worn and abandoned. Ideally, it all gets melted down, poured into a mold and made into something useful. So it is that your new pocket knife or bed frame could once have been a bumper on somebody’s ’57 Chevy!
The smelting process reduces scrap to its basic elements. The dross rises to the top of the cauldron where it is skimmed off and thrown away. The more this firing and skimming is repeated, the purer the product -- the way gold is refined. The metal doesn’t get used up (or left out in the rain to rust). It’s transformed into something else.
When Christ was crucified, it looked like he was used up. But he rose from the grave. His old life, the old order, had passed. That’s the way God works with us. We are his raw material. In our willing sacrifice -- in effect nailing our selves to the cross with Christ, we suffer the death of our wants and desires, hopes and dreams and start becoming what God would have us be and do. We hand over our difficulties and discouragements, too, even though we may be reluctant to submit, fearful to confess, afraid of repentance, uncertain about embracing trust. Not to mention that it's all too human to think that we are innocent of grievous offense in the first place, so we why we should offer ourselves up at all?
The answer, of course, is that we all are guilty; we are born into it. There was only One true innocent, One who -- despite his own perfection -- submitted himself to a gruesome and agonizing death to absolve each of us of our sins. As a single Lamb led to slaughter, God, in the person of his Son, burns away our guilt and leaves redemption in its place. It happened in the blink of an eye to one of the thieves on the cross. It happens to us in our time -- no more, no less a sinner than that criminal, a man who did not whine piteously of his innocence but acknowledged his guilt … and spoke of the Innocent hanging beside him. With one simple act, he stepped forward in faith, as Mother Teresa had to do in living out her Truth every day. In order to truly live, we, too, must give ourselves up to Christ on the cross, knowing that we will not be burned up, but reborn. Because Easter is coming, with a Light brilliant enough to penetrate and illuminate the ages.
"Our Lamb has conquered. Let us follow him!"
The Lenten Journey:
A compelling news image caught my eye yesterday: a woman, hugging a young girl after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. At first, you only see the pathos, but as the TV camera zooms into the image, a cross-shaped smudge of ash on the woman’s forehead becomes visible, applied at an Ash Wednesday service only hours before.
The fear in that picture seems like it’s been snatched out of the very air we breathe and distilled into a single image. There is so much darkness these days, even apart from events like this latest school tragedy. Our nation acts more and more like two sharply polarized, verbally armed camps than one country with myriad experiences, outlooks and aspirations but a single heart.
The hope of Easter seems so far away.
Ash Wednesday was born in the early church at a time of great hope. Jesus, the long-awaited Christ and Savior of the Jews, was about to enter Jerusalem. The waiting crowd was buoyed by expectations of a triumphant, conquering King, a hope that would soon fade into hopelessness, like the smudge of ash that stays on the forehead until it, too, fades away.
All can seem dark and desperate as Lent stretches out in the distance and we grapple with the fearful, unfinished parts of our lives that never seem to get resolved -- no matter how much we worry over them. Too often, we close off or compartmentalize these hurts, hold them away from God. We fool ourselves into thinking that he either doesn't care about us (and our issues) or can't see through our heart’s locked doors. But here comes Lent, a season of humility and self-sacrifice when we are asked to open ourselves to the Lord, make room at our table for hope and present him with an inestimable gift: nothing less than ourselves -- whole, complete, unfinished and unconditional. Dreams, warts and all. Our gift is leavening from which Holy Bread is made. And the light glimmering in the far distance is Easter.
One intriguing way of traveling the Lenten road that a friend suggested several years ago involves writing all the things that make you weep in the night on a scrap of paper and then burning them. Are you haunted by lost love or dashed opportunity? By an illness that digs deeper instead of getting better? Does loneliness consume you? Do you mourn the death of a loved one, like those lost so tragically yesterday? Write them down, light a match and watch the smoke take your worries toward heaven. You will not be lifting your concerns to God thinking they will vanish overnight. You are placing them on Christ’s shoulders … just as he asks … to carry along with him as he undertakes his journey to the cross, where hope first will be dashed and then be reborn when Easter’s glorious light at last spills into the morning and warms our hearts.
In the meantime, please pray for the families who are hurting today in Florida and for people experiencing the sudden loss of loved ones all over the world.
Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your soul. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Mt. 11: 28-30
A stolen Sunday nap this day found me drifting in memories of a New England mountain lake where my family used to vacation during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Seen from the air, which I was privileged to do thanks to a friend with a pilot’s license, the lake sparkled like a glittering blue diamond set in the surrounding hills. From a rowboat in its center, I often became mesmerized by glowing shafts of sunlight descending into the water until they could be seen no more. I wondered if they would ever reach the bottom.
This lake appears more and more in my dreams as old age sneaks up on me. It may be that I’m yearning for a return to a time when life was unmarred by anything more demanding than rowing the boat back home in time for a picnic lunch with my mom, dad, brothers and friends from across the inlet. Much of my young life was spent either at the lake or thinking about being at the lake – at least that’s how it seemed, although the truth was that our vacation never lasted more than a single week per summer in a rented cottage.
For some reason of late, I have folded memories of that lake into thoughts of the disciples in the days between Christ’s crucifixion and his reappearance on the road to Emmaus. It’s easy to imagine how they must have felt during that difficult time. Their Messiah, whose promise had been brighter than sunlight, had been taken away and put to death in an especially cruel and public way, sending the disciples sinking into the depths of despair. All seemed lost. Black clouds troubled their minds, wind and rain whipping their tranquil lake into a froth of confusion. They were about to become mere fishermen again instead of soldiers in a commanding cause led by a God-man whom they believed had come to save them from the Romans. He had been the Promised One, but now it appeared that the Light of their world had been extinguished, lost even to hope’s most feeble grasp.
But we know about the Easter they did not, that the darkness of Good Friday was but the beginning of Light, that hope was not lost but about to be born anew in the reappearance of their risen Savior.
The storm abates. The sun appears, sending its life-giving light deep into even the darkest waters of our lives. There is no need to despair, because that darkness has been vanquished by the Light of Christ. Forever.
Prayer: Lord, lead us out of the darkness of our lives and into the light of your Truth. And help us live accordingly.
Back in the 1950s, my grandmother watched Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s Life Worth Living television program religiously. In fact, nothing would stand in her way -- except possibly the Boston Red Sox. Had a game been on at the same time, the good bishop may have been out of luck. Sheen was a pioneering radio and TV broadcaster, perhaps the earliest true televangelist, and so great was his popularity (and preaching skill) that he won two national Emmy Awards during his career. Up to 30-million viewers tuned in each week to hear him ad lib his sermon. He had a wonderful voice and an assuring manner, and although born in Illinois, sometimes revealed a hint of Irish brogue (at least to my ears).
That would have been the clincher for my grandmother, who was born every inch a Doyle.
In time, Sheen was named an archbishop of the Catholic Church and eventually put in line to become a saint. My grandmother knew none of this, of course, but she considered the bishop she invited into her living room every Tuesday evening at eight o’clock on a par with John F. Kennedy (who could do no wrong) and Carl Yastrzemski, Boston’s left fielder and RBI king over 23 years with the Sox.
For some reason I associate the song If Everyone Lit Just One Little Candle, What a Bright World This Would Be with Bishop Sheen’s program. It was a hit by Perry Como back then, so the song and Sheen likely had no real connection except in my mind. What I recall more clearly, however, is an image of a lone candle lighting the show’s open.
The word light appears 272 times in the King James Bible and infuses Holy Scripture with its presence: Jesus is the light of the world; The lord is my light and salvation, etc. I was reminded of these truths anew this late winter morning when I noticed well over a dozen turtles sunning themselves on two logs in the pond in back of my house, the big ones on the big log, the small ones lined up helter-skelter on the smaller log. They had pulled themselves from the cold muck at the bottom of the pond and risen into the light, attracted by the warming sun. This may not be as poetic as Bishop Sheen’s words would have been, but the analogy works for me!
A luminary of a different sort, J.K. Rowling, wrote in one of her Harry Potter books that “We've all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on.” Do we rise to the surface following the “light of a star” (per Bishop Sheen) or are we content to lie in darkness, as Nietzsche wrote in comparing man’s struggle toward the Divine with a tree: “The more he seeks to rise into the height and light, the more vigorously do his roots struggle earthward, downward, into the dark, the deep.”?
It’s a lot easier for most of us (certainly me) to remain dozing deep within our selves than it is to allow the Divine to lead the way -- in contrast to the turtles lined up on their logs that clearly have no more choice in rising toward the sun than they have in breathing. I may have gotten Bishop Sheen mixed up with Perry Como’s hit song way back in my mind, but there is truth to be had in linking the two, because when we give way to the illumination of that One Little Candle, it leads us out of our self-imposed darkness and into the Light.
Where life ... we learn in time ... is really worth living.