Here’s to Whatever Comes

Today, in our diocese, we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension. In other words, we celebrate the time in Christ’s life when, after Resurrecting, He spoke His parting words to His disciples and ascended up into the clouds, taken up into Heaven and away from their sight.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot more about what the disciples must have felt. This man who had been their partner, leader, and friend for three years had just disappeared. All the comfort of living in the light of His presence and being shown so concretely the path ahead of them had now vanished. Sure, He had said that it was good He was going back to Heaven. But I can’t help but think there must have been this hole in their hearts. He was just… gone. That was it. This man they had hoped, at least at one point, would kick out the Romans and set up a kingdom for 1000 years had now left them after three. And what may have been even more surprising, He left them in charge of carrying on His mission – of spreading the Gospel and His kingdom and making more disciples. Hadn’t Peter (the head of their band now) just denied even knowing Jesus a few weeks ago? Wasn’t this the same group of men that scattered when their Shepherd was taken into custody and crucified?

And yet Jesus’ words at the Last Supper were these: “…I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go.” And why? “For if I do not go, the Advocate [i.e., the Holy Spirit] will not come to you.” In other words, if Jesus didn’t go, the disciples couldn’t grow. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Something new had to happen in them. And it wasn’t going to happen if they were constantly leaning on what they could see right in front of them. This charismatic figure who had wooed them to this new faith had to be let go of, in a way, so that He could live in them more fully through the third person of the Trinity. He had to leave so that He could be with them, deep in their hearts, forever.

This has meant a lot more to me lately because our parish has been going through some of the same emotions with our two priests. One of them, Fr. Lee, has been taken up to Heaven, so to speak. He died not too long ago and left a large hole in the parish. Our other priest has been whisked away for what has been called health reasons. Our two priests who had been part of the warp and woof of our community, and who were dearly loved, were gone within weeks of each other. We have an interim priest who is discharging his duties faithfully, but still, our other two had really been instrumental in making our parish the vibrant, life-filled place that it is today. I’ve heard some in our parish describe their emotions of abandonment and loss. We don’t really know when or if our priest will come back to us.

The situation could be multiplied outward. I remember another congregation where a pastor who led his congregation for years and years felt called to another on the other side of the country. Again, it left a gigantic hole. Maybe it’s the close relative who dies prematurely or the close friend who has to move away for a job or the mentor or parent who has passed away or the move you have to make to a new area, needing to make new friends and new connections in a foreign place. You wonder where your foundation is any more. You feel like it’s crumbled underneath you.

But has it? “I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go.” We don’t talk about the spiritual discipline of detachment in Christian circles much anymore – that ability to hold what you have with a light touch and an open hand, because you know the only one who is going to constantly be there for you is God and the only thing that will constantly be there for you is Heaven. I suppose the cultural sickness of our age isn’t so much about having trouble holding on to people as it is connecting with them – learning how to form community. But it’s important to hold that ability to form bonds of friendship and love while at the same time learning not to be dependant on them. If, God-forbid, the Lord really pulls your carpet out from under you and takes away from you the people who have been pillars in your life, can you still look to the future with a smile on your face? Can you believe that it’s still going to work out? More than that, can you believe that things will in fact be better for you? That what God needs to do in your life and what He wants to open your heart to simply can’t happen or come to you with you leaning on that friend, that parent, that priest, that spouse, that city, that job, those coworkers, that everything?

Sometimes God needs to take what is good and matters so much to us away to give us what is better. If you are having a hard time believing that, believe me, I’m not the best at believing this either. But I’ll tell you what, if you’re up for it, lift you’re cup with me, let’s clink them together in the meantime and say, with whatever faith we can muster, “Here’s to whatever comes.” Who knows? It might just knock our socks off.

A Good Day

Today was a good day.

We try to have a sort of family catechism regularly and today was all about Adoration. I read a little booklet about this child who asks his mother what Adoration is and she explains, among other things, that sometimes, outside of the normal Mass hour, Catholics come to adore Christ present in the Eucharist. A Catholic will talk to Christ quietly there, or just sit and… adore Him. My children – 5, 3, and 2 – couldn’t grasp everything in the booklet, I think. I mean, the greatest theologians don’t fully grasp it, let alone me and my kids. But I decided, on the spur of the moment, that we might as well keep the momentum going and actually do this whole Adoration thing. So we went three blocks down to our local parish, and there, kneeling, Izzy thanked Jesus personally for dinosaurs, while Jack thanked Him for dragons – big dragons. The kind you can ride on.

After that we went down to the American River – a river that winds through Sacramento. It was the first time any of us (“us” being the kids and me) had been there. It was a wild success. People create play structures and theme parks to attract and entertain children as young as mine, but at their age, nothing will compare to finding seemingly magical insects in the mud, being allowed to throw hard objects as far as you can into a river, and splashing around. It was a hit with me, too, but for a different reason. Moving out here from the San Francisco Bay Area, two of the things I miss the most are the bay and the ocean. Looking out from the bank across the quiet river, I realized I had just made what would seem to some like an unfair trade: the ocean for a river. But rivers have their merits, too. I have a lot of wonderful memories and emotions attached to rivers, and I pulled them out like coins I’ve collected but haven’t looked at in awhile. I forgot how much I liked them.

There are so many stressful days in our lives – and especially as parents and spouses. And for us it’s been a more wild ride than I think it is for the average American family. There are the fights, the worries, the sleepless nights, and so much more that can make a person so exhausted. And I can easily come to define my life, my relationships, my parenting, everything about me by the fights, worries, and sleepless nights. I can feel like a failure. I can feel that the grand story of my subplot of a life is summed up in the number of days I’ve spent wondering where God is or fretting or getting so angry I’m ready to burst. All is a vast black universe with only pinpricks of light.

But on days like today, I feel like I get a foretaste of Heaven. And I wonder if maybe I can define my life by days like this where I realize how privileged I am to hear some of my children’s first prayers. I can define my life by the moments I spend skipping rocks with them, reluctantly letting them play in the mud, and discovering mundane things that, through their fresh eyes, are amazing. I can define my life by the moments my wife and I share a knowing glance or laugh at the same book at Barnes & Noble. And however slight a foretaste it is, if Heaven is ultimately my eternal home, that taste is still worth something. I can define my life, and perhaps all of life, by these foretastes of Heaven. All is day where the clouds only serve to temporarily block out the consistent and unchanging sunlight.

Nobody knows, ultimately, whether their lives will end up a tragedy where everything falls apart in the end (whether with a bang or whimper, as T.S. Elliot puts it) or a comedy, where through the craziness of the plot twists everything comes out fine. I guess part of what it means to be a Catholic is to believe that our difficult days do not define us and the days we are lifted above our worries and fears by what can only be called the sheer grace of God do. And some days it’s hard to believe that.

But not today. Today was a good day.


(Yeah, I know it’s not the best image. I took it off a flip phone)

Laughing at the Days to Come

I don’t know any woman who truly likes the woman described in Proverbs 31. If you don’t know, the 31st chapter of Proverbs has this description of the woman parexcellance. She cleans the dishes, knits her children everything from clothing to quilts, and is an entrepreneur on the side, buying and selling at the local market, one would imagine, with a child feeding at the breast and another little one in tow.
Every Christian woman is called to be her, tries to be her and maybe even wants to be her. I can’t tell you how many studies and sermons I’ve heard titled “The Proverbs 31 Woman” or something like that. But who doesn’t get tired just reading the chapter? The beginning question of the soliloquy describing her is, “Who can find a woman of worth?” (the woman of worth being the superwoman she then describes in the chapter). The questioner knows the answer. And the answer is silence.
But in the middle of the incredibly high-minded description of the perfect woman, there’s this little sentence that caught my eye awhile ago, and it’s a statement that follows me around like a tune I can’t get out of my head. The speaker, in describing this woman, says: “… she smiles at the future.” Or as another translation puts it, “She laughs at the days to come.”
The statement is deceiving, because it sounds so easy in comparison to everything else the woman has to do each day. Just be happy. Just be lighthearted. Just let go of your fears and act like, one way or another, everything is going to be ok.
But it’s not easy. In fact, out of everything mentioned in the glowing description of the perfect woman, it’s the hardest, most difficult thing to do, because a woman, or man, who spends all that time haggling with the local merchants, all that time trying to keep the toddlers Billy, Tod, and little precious Sophi from killing one another, all that time sewing patches on to clothing because they don’t have enough to go buy something new at the store, all that time trying to be there for the people in her life who bring their problems and issues to her because she’s “that Proverbs 31 woman” can’t possibly be expected not to worry from time to time, or to cry from time to time!… To feel alone from time to time and anything but lighthearted and joyful about the future.
But in that very same statement is the answer to how she gets through everything else, because at the end of the day, after the kids are put to bed and the last dish has been put in the dishwasher, she can look up at the icon of Christ hanging on her wall and know and feel that whatever the mess is that that the day brought, it is still a <em>holy</em> mess. And whatever circumstances and crosses the day brings, at the other end of it – and oftentimes even in it – is the resurrection. She smiles at the future as Jesus smiled at the joy of knowing His cross would bring you and me to heaven forever with Him. He didn’t like the cross any more than she likes the tired mornings, loud days, and exhausting nights. But bit by bit, day by day, redemption is being sewn along with those patches into the fabric or her life and the lives of her family and friends. And every day has it’s own little joys and triumphs that she ponders within her like the Mother of God.
I can be a workaholic. I’ve got that down. I can spout theology. That’s not hard for me. But oh how hard it is to smile at the future, because, like the woman, I know too well that the future doesn’t always hand you things to smile about. The hardest lesson to learn is how to see with the eyes of faith that, as one Puritan writer put it, our circumstances are the fingers of God in our lives. And if it is His hands, and His hands, alone that are holding us, then not only can we lay down our fears, but we can shout for joy and laugh at the days to come.

A Healthy Distance

There are few books that I’ve returned to over and over again to help interpret life more than Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together.” Bonhoeffer the man was fascinating enough even without his profound insights into the Christian life: a resistant German theologian and pastor during the time of the Nazis, a spy, and a participator in a plot to assassinate Hitler are just a few interesting aspects of his resumé. But layer on top of that the eloquence and depth of his writings, and you have a man I would really love to spend many hours with over beer.
But anyway, one quote that always sticks with me is the one he made about where Jesus fits in our relationships with one another. The book itself is probably sadly exiled to some moving box right now, so I can’t bring up the exact quote, but he said something like this: Jesus needs to stand between myself and every other person. Jesus didn’t just come to be a mediator between us and God – the link that binds us to Him. Jesus came to be the link between us and everyone else. In other words, as the nun said to the boy and girl dancing too close to each other during prom night, “Leave room for the Holy Spirit.” And the best way for me to describe what the means is to describe an incident in my own life.
I was sitting across the table from my older sister. The last few months she and her husband have been helping (in a major, major way) with our three children while my wife has been sorting through issues and I’ve been trying to keep up with a full-time job. Essentially, their home is my children’s home for now. This was a “family meeting,” meaning it was our opportunity to air out our issues with each other (anything we felt we had to say that couldn’t be said in a 5-minute conversation) or just check in and make sure we were all doing ok.
The issues my sister brought up were completely legitimate. What she said went something like this, “Maybe you could help out a little more around the house when you have the opportunity. Even small stuff is helpful…. How should we deal with this particular issue with Jack?….. Have you contacted that guy about getting the car out of the driveway?”
What I heard was, “I’m sick and tired of picking up after my stupid, incompetent, irresponsible little brother – even now! You don’t know what you are doing as a parent and are a failure at life. And you’re Catholic!”
How? How could she say one thing and I hear something completely different? It’s because I have this recording in my head that constantly plays back for me my life growing up. I was always the little brother. I was always the one who had to be taken care of. I was the irresponsible one who kept forgetting things. I left our Protestant faith to become Catholic, and this was hard for my family to accept – for legitimate reasons. My sister is the kindest person you will ever meet in your life. But I realized something: I was far, far too close to her. My life was emotionally tied up with hers in a way I couldn’t untangle. If she thought I was doing well, it was as though God was shedding His approval over my entire life. If she disapproved, it was as though nothing good I did mattered. I was a screw-up.
What would I have to do to see my sister in a healthy way? What do I have to do to not rise or fall based on her opinion, or my wife’s opinion, or my student’s opinions, or anyone else’s – including my own? I need to leave room for the Holy Spirit. Letting Christ stand between me and another person is like putting on a pair of glasses that take your eyesight from being a gigantic blur – like a Turner painting – to 20/20 vision. I see people the way Jesus sees people. They are not pure good or evil. Their opinions of you are not to be completely disregarded as rubbish but neither are they to be elevated to the status of the Ten Commandments. They are people doing the best they can – just like you. They want to be loved like you do. They want community like you do. And you are called to love them.
My situation could be multiplied by however many instances involving how ever many people exist in the world. We crave favor. We long so badly for validation. We need to know we are doing ok. We need more “likes” on our Facebook statuses. We need our nicer cars and nicer houses. We need that promotion. We need to be needed, because we need some cosmic “A+” (or at least a passing grade) to loom over our lives and let us know we mean something good in the world…. that we aren’t just a waste of space.
Into that seeming abyss steps Christ. And He fills that dark hole with blinding light. God’s favor rests on You because He loves You because of what Christ did on the Cross. You have all You need in Him. You have all you could want in Him. And now, you can love and cherish others because you know that in Him you are loved and cherished.
Between us and the world needs to stand Christ. If He isn’t there, something or someone else will take His place. God help the person who lets that happen. And God help the one to whom that person latches onto.

Clinging to Faith for Dear Life

When things are going well, and the problems in our lives seem like nothing more than little bumps on the road, our faith can feel something like a warm blanket. In the evening, nestled next to a fire, we ponder, with effortlessness, how blessed we are. God loves us. God is watching over us. God has a wonderful plan for our lives. And this is obvious because, by any measure, our lives look like they’ve been blessed.
But when suffering comes, when our idyllic life comes crashing down on us, and all the good things we mistakenly thought were gifts from God turn out to actually be idols that He violently and, without mercy, strips from our lives, we have a choice. We can cling as best we can to our idea of the “good life” or the “good family” or the “good job” or the “good marriage”, even while they are being ripped away from us, or we can cling to our faith, and all those beautiful promises God gives us about how He loves us and cares about us, with greater tenacity and vigor. We can let go of our faith, or cling to it like a mountain climber holding on to the cliff for dear life.
Because that, in all honesty, is what our faith transforms into when trials hit us. God’s promises stop being the warm blanket that anesthetized us and lulled us into a quiet, peaceful sleep, and they start becoming more like armor we wear in the midst of the battle of life – the shield we hold up on our darkest days to keep back the depression, hopelessness, and guilt that try to tear at us, bit by bit, and sink us into a kind of Hell on earth.
I know I’m speaking in somewhat vague terms, but I think anybody who’s had their dreams or hopes ripped out from their hands knows exactly what I mean: a mother who loses her child, dealing with a chronic mental or physical illness, the death of your dearest friend…. all those things that radically change your life forever and that you never really completely heal from.
I haven’t gotten to the point of turning my back on God because of suffering. I’ve gotten angry. I’ve lost hope at times. I’ve gotten burnt out, that’s for sure. I’ve had quite a few arguments with God. But I’ve also had those promises. I’ve had that faith that’s been like a protective shield around me – that has helped me see beyond my own pain and has, I think perhaps, even saved my life. And these particular promises – just three of them – are what I want to share in this post:

1. Nothing God asks of us is too much to ask.
Ok, so not so much a promise as a simple fact. This is for those days when I want to wallow in self-pity. It’s not a pick-me-up like, “Hey, just look on the bright side of life!” or “Count your blessings!” It’s more like a shock to the system: “Remember, kid, you have no clue what suffering really means.” I look up at the Crucifix each Sunday and see Jesus depicted there, having been brutally whipped, punched, and nailed to two pieces of wood so that I could spend eternity with God in Heaven. And when I am tempted to get frustrated with how my life is, it’s as though He looks down from there and asks, “Have you suffered this much for me yet, Jonathan?” And my answer is always a sheepish “no.”
We tend to think that because God is God, He is so far above the fray and so in control that nothing bothers Him and He couldn’t possibly understand the anxiety and fear we have in life. But I think it’s the opposite. I think because He is God, He knows the unpredictability of life only too well. He knows it will all be ok in the end just like we do if we have faith, but He sees and feels all the suffering we are all going to have to go through to get there – let alone all that Christ has gone through already for us on the Cross. And if this is how far He has come – even to death – for us, is there really too much He could ask us to bear for His sake?

2. Everything God asks of us is for our good.
In the Catholic way of seeing things, our suffering is doing an indispensable work – not just in our lives, but in the world as well. There’s this catch-phrase in Catholic culture we use when we see a friend dealing with suffering. We say “offer it up.” And what we mean by that is one of the most beautiful and profound truths of the faith: when we unite our suffering with Christ, when we give it to Him, He uses it to make us and the world a better place. It may be an easing of time in purgatory for us or someone else. It may be for the healing of a person either physically or emotionally or spiritually. Sometimes, when I fast (as every Catholic is called to do at different times during the year), I do it united with prayer for my children. I offer up the fast for them. Our suffering, in whatever form, whether it be publicly taking a bullet for a fellow soldier or living out the twilight of our lives, struggling with sickness and old age in a nursing home, when lifted up and united with Christ, is used by God to make the world, and ourselves, fit for Heaven. The tears we shed are the seeds of the richest spiritual fruit.

3. Whatever God asks of us, He will give us the grace to get through.
But I should be upfront about this: I don’t mean He’ll get us through alive or without permanent scars (either physical or emotional). Jesus didn’t get out of pain. He didn’t get out of what looked like a failed ministry by the time of the crucifixion. He didn’t get out of death. He wasn’t like Job who, after a time of intense trial, got everything he lost back to him in this life – and much more so. Mother Teresa herself confessed that she went through decades of what felt like spiritual deadness.
But at the same time, what God offers us is something far, far greater than even the whole world. He offers us Himself. He offers us Heaven. It’s so easy for me to forgot what the common Christian phrase “carry your cross” really means. It means hang on to the bloody end. When I say “He will give us grace to get through”, I mean that for however long you have to bear whatever suffering you’re going through, He’ll give you what you need to not through in the towel – to not grow hopeless and lost, to not abandon your faith. He will give you the grace to cling to these promises until the storm passes and you can see the light again.

Remember that the Christian life here is not meant to be Disneyland. It’s the Battle of Agincourt. And every day we wake up with our many fears and temptations trying to stare us down. But as Henry V says in Shakespeare’s famous speech before the fateful battle, when we stand before Christ we will hold our lives cheap if we don’t stand faithful here and now.
And if we do stand? We will, with beaming faces, and in the flowing cup of communion, look on our scars not as reminders of painful memories and our sense of abandonment, but as reminders of the great feats we accomplished and the battles we won.
Close your eyes and see in your mind Heaven opened up. See the saints waiting there for you to take your seat. See the freshly poured communion cup, passed around for everyone to drink. And see Christ, at the head of the table, seeing you and welcoming you to the party.

So you call yourself a Christian? Part 3 (part of the WPF series)

Service to the Poor

Helping the poor is one of those things that is so ubiquitous, even in non-religious circles, that it’s easy to gloss over. It’s wonderful that, in addition to Christians ministering to the needy, so many secular organizations and philanthropists do the same. But I know for me, seeing so many emaciated faces of African children on TV, so many drives to help some disaster-stricken part of the world, and so many commercials asking for money for some new cause puts me on auto-pilot. I flip the channel. Or I watch it, but immediately get distracted by the next show or, if it’s Facebook, just keep scrolling down.

The same thing happens when reading Scripture. One simply cannot read the Old or New Testament without the message ringing loud and clear that the poor need to be taken care of. It was written into the Law given to Israel. It was one of the primary rebukes the prophets gave to the nation when telling them to turn back to God. Jesus, Himself, gave incredible dignity to the poor – first by being born poor, but then also by teaching that the rich would have a hard time getting into the kingdom of heaven, while the poor would be blessed with it. The early church, after Jesus had left this earth, was described in Acts as a community where “they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.” (Acts 2:44) But after years of reading these same passages over and over (or perhaps by years of having the “American Dream” shoved down my throat), I essentially ignore them.

Pope Francis, when talking about God’s command for Christians to care for the poor said, “This message is so clear and direct, so simple and eloquent, that no ecclesial interpretation has the right to relativize it.” (Art. 194, E. G.)

Growing up an Evangelical Protestant, it’s not that I didn’t care about the poor. I did. But caring about the poor was not front and center. It wasn’t an essential part of being a Christian. You believed in Jesus, and, for all intents and purposes, that was it. I tried to live a holy life, but what was meant by “holy life” could mean anything from making sure I didn’t sleep around to making sure I went to church most of the time to making sure I read my Bible regularly. Feeding the hungry may or may not have factored into it.

But delve into what it means to be “Catholic” – delve into the history of the saints or the documents of the Catholic Church – and you find that it’s as though being the ideal Catholic means being poor and caring for the poor. How many of our saints took a vow of poverty? How many of them are known for having worked with the poor? Those two characteristics are practically pre-qualifiers.

But it goes deeper than that. Pope Francis doesn’t just end with, “Help the poor and you’re doing all right.” He encourages us to really know the poor, learn from the poor, and basically be all about the poor.

“…I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us…. in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them. The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them.” (Art. 198, E. G)

I’m wrestling right now in my life with what this means for me and my family. We are in between homes, paying off debts and getting our lives back together while living with family. But I’m looking to a year or two from now when we’ll have to decide what our lives are going to look like again. The question that keeps coming up is this: if being poor, living among the poor, and serving the poor gives so much advantage in the Christian life, wouldn’t it make sense to live that way?

Of course, that’s counter-cultural, but it’s not such a radical idea even in this day and age. There are all sorts of Christians who have decided to live well below their means so as to be more open to what God might want to use them for. But living in a poorer neighborhood and well below our means means sending our children to schools that are below-average and living in what may be a more sleazy, run-down, and unsafe neighborhood. But at what point does “playing it safe” mean ignoring the best that God has not just for me, but for my family as well? How seriously am I going to take Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the poor”?

How seriously are you?