Day 4: Blessed Abundance

Missionary life, like motherhood, is not a 9-5, M-F proposition. The tiny routines of our lives — the feeding and tending and being fully present — are part of each day’s experience. They are part of us.

For the past few days, my tiny routines have changed. As a mother of two teenagers, I’ve swapped out nagging and exasperation for the gentle rhythms of swaddling and rocking, of returning to a kind of childhood where I struggle to make myself understood, as the adults around me patiently try to figure out what it is I want. It’s humbling, yet a bit liberating — I’ve had more sleep these past four days than in the last four years.

marketToday we took a break from sorting clothing donations to go into the city to the farmer’s market. The stalls lined a city block (both sides), with multicolor produce of every imaginable shape and color. I counted six kinds of fruit I could not name (in English OR Spanish), plus one kind of green vegetation that looked a bit like collard greens and smelled exactly like cilantro. Locally made cheese and meats (the slaughter house is just down the street from the Center), and roasted coconut completed the shopping.

While it is possible to buy the chips and chocolates and fast food that is so freely available at home, somehow I just can’t bring myself to eat it — not when so much of this good stuff is readily available. It’s too hot to eat vast quantities of food — I just keep chugging the agua con limone. Oh, and today at lunch we had lemonade with ginger. Yum.

Back at the Center, it’s nearing naptime. I assemble a fruit salad and make a cheese plate – the perfect lunch after a day on the town. No sooner have I had the last bite, I hear the cries of an infant who does NOT want to sleep, thank you very much. Tia Heidi to the rescue. Runny nose and teary eyes, the little one smiles through his tears as he looks up at me. He, too, has discovered the joy of simple abundance … of the new lady with the ample bosom who never tires of taking him in her arms and rocking him to sleep. Once I have him finally settled, the next one decides it’s his turn … and a third smacks himself in the head and starts wailing at my feet, determined not to be left out of the besos.

adorationNow, I’m not saying that life at the Center isn’t without its challenges – the on again, off again plumbing; the lack of electrical outlets to charge my cell phone, the language barriers, the stifling heat and mosquitos. But there is blessed abundance as well — the new friends, the delicious sleep under the mosquito netting, the daily Rosary (a ten-year-old girl named Lola is teaching me), the early mornings when I venture by bus to the center of town to offer prayers for the work of the Mission, and watch as local Christians gently stroke the tabernacle like the woman touching the hem of Christ’s garment. Above all, the opportunity to slow down enough to breathe and sleep and revel in the gentle simplicity of life. And I thank God for the blessings of such blessed abundance.

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Lonely at Church?

clasped-hands-541849_1920Do you ever feel invisible at church? Have you ever gone to a church event and felt lonely? Do you watch people chatting around the room as your kids attack the donut table, and crave some kind of personal connection?

I’ve felt this way, especially after moving to a new home or church. Not knowing how my kids will respond in new social situations, I’m always on “high alert,” and it’s hard to relax. It doesn’t help that I am a lot like my father, and often feel anxious about breaking into new groups — rather surprising, given how much practice I’ve had at it over the years. But there you have it.

I’ve complained to God about this more than once, how Catholic parishes are so different from the church I grew up in, a country church of about 200 families where everyone knew everyone else by name and birthday. They were generous and welcoming to a fault. The year I went to Senegal, West Africa on a year-long mission trip, my church family raised the entire amount I needed–almost $12,000–in just a couple of weeks.   These were not wealthy people — but they welcomed us as family.

When I became Catholic, the very things I most loved about the Church — her rituals, her formality, her mystery — also made it difficult to experience that same sense of family with my brothers and sisters in the pew. A name in the bulletin was the only clue that someone had a medical need. If someone lost a job or had a financial emergency, there were food pantries and St. Vincent de Paul shops … but apart from Elizabeth Ministries setting up meals for new moms, I had no idea who needed cookies.

Women’s group. Choir. Youth Group. Couple’s “date night.” Donuts after Mass.  People were nice enough — at least one person always told us they were glad we came. But I was still longing for that sense of belonging, and never quite finding it.

Right after Easter, I decided I would start going to daily Mass until I left for Costa Rica, to volunteer at St. Bryce Mission. At Queen of Peace, morning Mass is at 8:15, preceded by morning prayer — a chance to learn how to pray the red book! Score! I could drop off my kids at school and go down the street to church, and get in a few minutes at Adoration before morning prayer and Mass. The same twenty people or so were there every day … my friend Kelly showed me how to use the Book of Christian Prayer.

Soon I was a regular, getting smiles and nods — and the connections began to come. Yesterday the president of the Jubilee women’s group came up to say they had decided to donate the missionary offering to me this year, to help St. Bryce Mission. And today between prayer and Mass, a man came up to introduce himself and tell me how much I reminded him of his sister. “She’s a beautiful woman, and so are you!”

As he turned to find his way back to his own pew, I sat and thought about what I’d just experienced. I realized that my approach of trying to get friends, of wanting to receive rather than to give, had been part of the problem. And I discovered that giving, in prayer and presence, is a wonderful way to belong in God’s family.

 

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!