Seeing Beyond the Gate

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Last week I guest posted over at “Women in the New Evangelization” (WINE) about the mother of the sons of Zebedee in a post called “Can You Drink the Cup?” That particular Gospel narrative is one I need to hear frequently — about a mother who tried to guarantee a rosy future for her sons, and a Savior wise enough not to give her what she asked.

Two weeks ago I started another blog series over at Father Ubald’s blog, writing weekly posts about this summer’s writing expedition to Rwanda, where I helped Fr. Ubald put the finishing touches on his upcoming book with Ave Maria Press, Forgiveness Makes You Free (April 2019). His testimony of survival and healing is a powerful reminder to place every part of our lives — past, present, and future — into the hands of the God who created time itself.

The image above has particular significance in Fr. Ubald’s story — it is the gate of his former parish, destroyed in the genocide, where he was driven out by his own parishioners so that they might slaughter the 5000+ Christians inside who had come to the church for sanctuary. “For ten years I had been their pastor, and attended to their needs. And suddenly, I was out. It was a great burden for me, knowing that despite all I had done there, so many lives were lost.” The blue gate was the last sight he had of the parish — as he walked through those doors, the Hutu militia were walking in to do their dirty work.

Each time I see this image, I am reminded of another gate — the gates of Auschwitz, which I saw in 1992 during my summer in Poland. “Arbeit macht frei” the message read. “Work makes freedom.” It was an ignoble lie, of course — the only work going on behind those gates, with rare exceptions, were works of evil. And in that moment back in 1994, it must have seemed the same to Fr. Ubald — for a brief moment, the gates of hell had seemed to prevail.

But just as he entrusted his people to God in that moment, back in 1994, Fr. Ubald continued to trust his own life into the hands of Divine Mercy. And in sparing Fr. Ubald’s life, God set him up to do tremendous works of healing and mercy that would have been unimaginable while he was running for his life.

“I am the gate,” Jesus declared to his followers (John 10:28). “Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

God knows we are weak and frail. He knows that we can handle only so much knowledge about what the future holds. What is he asking you to entrust to him today?

 

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My Dirty Little (Not-so-Secret) Life

toilet-paper-150912__340I’ve reached the stage of life where it seems like half of my waking hours are spent monitoring someone’s delicate internal workings. The kids’. The dogs’. My mother’s. And yes, occasionally my own. (Fortunately, my husband manages his own. At least for now. Fingers crossed.) If I let down my guard for even a minute, things can take a very nasty turn.

Sometimes you just have to laugh and carry on. Take last night, for instance. Outside, rains pelted the house as thunder erupted on the quarter hour, sending our Chiweenie Gretta into a state of mortal terror, quivering and shaking while hiding between my thigh and the couch cushions. The time had come and gone for her walk (there was NO WAY she was setting a paw outside), and so I got out the doggy diapers. Normally she hates these things with the passion of a thousand suns, pooping through the tail hole in payback as she dives under beds and other low-hanging places in an effort to tear off the tabs so she can wiggle free. This time she submitted to the diapering without a whimper, and went in her crate without incident. (That’s one for the home team … no pee spots to clean from the rug tonight!)

And then, just about this time, the electric recliner made its characteristic nightly whine. Time to put Mom to bed. Off with the day pants, on with the night pants — and now, with the morning sheets, another load to wash, dry, and have ready for the next use.

Here’s the thing, and I’m going to try to sketch this out in vague terms because I love my mother. Sometimes things get messy. Really messy. And while I do the best I can to get her cleaned up without making her feel bad, I’ve sometimes wondered if I’m the right person for the job.

It’s not that I don’t want to do it, not really. After all, this is the woman who diapered me and my sisters for the first years of our lives. And yet, I can’t help but feel that somehow I’m crossing a line. Most mothers don’t want their children to see them that way … yet here we are. “It’s okay, Mom. I don’t mind.” I try to catch her eye to reassure her with a smile, but she averts her gaze. If this is hard for me, just imagine what it’s like for her.

This is how tiny her life has become, unable to do some of the most basic things for herself. Things she’s done all her life. Now her daughter does them for her, just as she once did them for me. Our lives have merged in a way they never had before.

Then there’s my darling daughter. At sixteen, she has different bathroom challenges (we’re still trying to get the whole period thing under control, which isn’t easy for girls with special needs). The latest thing is that one of her medications is causing upset stomach, several times a week. We’ve talked to the doctors about changing it up, but it turns out this is the medicine that best handles her issues. So … three times a week she is asking me to pick her up from school, and most of the time I try to coach her through it: drink lots of water and eat a granola bar. Lay down for ten minutes in the nurse’s office.

No, she wants to come home. Three times a week on average. Of course I CAN’T let her miss that much school, and so I must be the Mean Mom. “Get a drink and lay down, honey. Take deep breaths.” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, there is H-E-Double toothpicks to pay when she finally DOES come home and lets me know exactly what a horrid mother I am.

*sigh* This, too, is love … She just can’t see it yet.

It all comes down to love, of course. Not the hearts-and-candy, Romeo and Juliet balcony scene variety, but the real life, rubber-meets-the-road kind. It’s meeting the other at their most personal and even (yes) somewhat embarrassing point of need. St. Paul said it best:

We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. (2 Cor 4:8-10).

Even the smallest, crappiest parts of our lives have meaning, seen through this lens. Each moment an opportunity to “do small things with great love,” as Mother Teresa so often said. Partly because it gives us a chance to love another creature (and no love is wasted, even on a dog, right?) But because it’s in these tiny indignities of life that we have a chance to strike a blow against pride, the father of all vices, until these earthen vessels of ours once more shine with heavenly light.

Jesus, we trust in you.

 

 

How beautiful are your feet…?

saint teresaToday on Sunrise Morning Show, I’ll be chatting with the hosts about Advent with Saint Teresa of Calcutta.  The book consists of daily reflections from the first day of Advent through the season of Christmas, tying together themes from the daily readings to the life and witness of Mother Teresa.  You can order the book here.

The first reading today, from the book of Romans, quotes from the book of Isaiah: “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the Gospel of peace.” This automatically makes me think of St. Teresa, whose feet (as you see here) were twisted and misshapen from traveling through the slums of Calcutta and around the world, tending to the needs of those who need her. Her feet were beautiful, not for their appearance, but because they carried her where she needed to go to “spread the fragrance of Christ” everywhere she went.

As you bend over to tie on your own shoes today, why not take a moment to bless them, and to ask the Holy Spirit to guide your feet, that you too might spread the Gospel of peace?

Lessons in Poverty

IMatterA red-haired girl, about 7, energetically dragged her prize — a rolling Disney princess bag — toward my table as her beleaguered grandparents followed, their arms laden with treasures of their own. Six panels of curtains, a leather jacket, an assortment of glasses. On top of this, a dizzying assortment of tiny, sparkly skirts and tees that were clearly intended for the little fashionista who stood in front of me, ready to check out. Her dirty face shone as she squealed again over each bit of clothing as my daughter loaded it in to shopping bags with a smile. I was so glad she’d decided to come; it had been a good day.

At 2:00 I dropped off Sarah (who promptly went upstairs for a nap) and picked up Christopher, and headed to meet the others at the Center for the Homeless, to unpack the trucks full of donations for the food pantry. I have never seen more boxed mac and cheese in my entire life, and made a mental note to start donating more toiletries — toothpaste, laundry soap, and aspirin had been much asked-for items at the Cove. I made a mental note to collect soda bottles and fill them with detergent for next time.

After spending a full day rubbing elbows with the neediest members of our community, first at the Shepherd’s Cove Clothing Pantry (Elkhart), and then at the
Center for the Homeless
(South Bend), I dragged my body home and collapsed on the couch. I was tired and sore all over from the lifting, bending, and stretching. But I had learned a few things as well.

Don’t forget to pray. I saw an elderly woman’s eyes tear up in front of me when I asked if I could pray with her. Her granddaughter was moving in with her, and she had just found out her kidney cancer was back. She grabbed both my hands as I asked God to heal her, and to keep her granddaughter safe.

Little things mean a lot. A little kid tripped and fell, and his mother and grandmother both had their hands full. So I went over and picked him up … and saw that this was precisely the wrong thing to do. So I set him down and did a little song and dance, and got a laugh, the boo-boo forgotten. At the end of the tally, little Richard waved at me. “See you next time!”

Fear can make you greedy. I’d often heard this in foster training, in relation to food hoarding, but it came back to me as I watched people bring 30 shirts and 20 pairs of pants to clothe a single child. I wondered why they needed so much … but quickly dismissed the idea. I had seen the mountains of unopened donation bags. There would always be more. If this is what they believed they needed to get by, who was I to say no?

It really does take a village. I was surprised to see how much “stuff” was available for the people who needed it. The problem was that there were so few volunteers to sort, organize, and help the clients that much of the stuff sat there for weeks, unopened and unused. Donating just five hours a month — a single Friday or Saturday — could make a real difference.

If you live in St. Joseph County (IN) and would like to volunteer your time, or if you live outside the area and want to make a donation to keep the lights and heat going, contact Sharlee Morain at shepherdscove@hotmail.com 

 

Becoming Mom: Life, Full Circle

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Mom and me on a Girl’s Day Out. October 2015

It’s official: The Saxtons are about to add another place at the dining room table, and we’re going to become a multi-generational household. Heaven help us.

On November 17 I’m going to be flying with my mom from her memory care facility near Atlanta, to bring her on an “extended visit” with us here in Indiana. We’ve found an adult daycare and a fill-in caregiver for while I’m at work. And I try not to think too much about what she’ll say about my housekeeping skills. I’m hoping she’ll be so happy not to be where she was, that even our chaotic household will be an improvement.

If you have ever made the choice to bring a parent to live with you, I’d love to hear from you. What are some of the things you did to make the transition easier? If your parent has dementia (like mine), what are some of the things you wish someone had told you ahead of time?

 

 

 

The Circular Mercy of God

An old Portuguese proverb (sometimes attributed to Thomas Merton), reminds us that “God writes straight with crooked lines.” While God cannot be accused of pointless meandering or false steps — his ways are perfect, after all — the same cannot be said of us. And because he has given us free will, God sometimes allows us to take detours, taking us in circular routes to accomplish his purposes in our lives.

prince of peaceBy way of example, I was twelve when I got my first organist gig at this little country church, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Hamburg, NJ. It was my first taste of liturgy, and the people there (particularly the longsuffering Reverend Richard Izzard and his lovely wife Eileen) were so kind to me. It was a small but necessary step in my spiritual journey, and these dear friends supported me when it came time for my first short-term mission experience. I think it is one of God’s little jokes that, thirty five years later, my family now belongs to Queen of Peace, a homey little Catholic Church in Mishawaka, Indiana.

Although you can’t tell from the picture, this church can be seen for miles, lying at the top of a hillside along U.S. 94. And one wintery day in January 1983, just a short distance down that hill, my life took another unexpected turn … a car accident in which I was badly injured and hospitalized for more than a month. As a result, I was no longer able to have children. But in his circular mercy, God redeemed even this sorrow. That accident took me on a circuitous route through missionary training, into the Catholic Church, and prompted us to adopt Chris and Sarah. In the words of Thomas Merton, “There is no earthly sorrow heaven cannot heal.”

mitchell familyIn just a few weeks, we’ll be heading to Costa Rica to help a dear friend of mine, Colleen Mitchell and her husband Greg. Colleen is the author of a wonderful book, Who Does He Say You Are? in which she shares the story of her own motherly grief, in which the loss of her infant son Bryce and four subsequent miscarriages led her and her husband Greg to create a maternity home for indigenous women and their children in Costa Rica. You can read more about it here.

It kind of takes my breath away, thinking of the way God orchestrated all this. Who would have thought, when I was lying broken by the side of the road, that God would use it all to change the lives of two children who had not yet been born? Who would have thought that, after I left missionary work and became Catholic, God would resurrect that desire to serve as a Catholic missionary? Who would have thought that, in his infinite mercy, God would redeem the brokenness of another family, using it to reach a group of people who might otherwise never have known about his infinite mercy?

I remember the deeds of the Lord,
I remember your wonders of old,
I muse on all your works
and ponder your mighty deeds….
You are the God who works wonders.

What’s your story? How has God’s circular mercy been at work in your life? Please consider how you might help to support the work of St. Bryce Missions, and please pray for us as we prepare to go and volunteer — holding babies all day. I can scarcely wait!