Thursday, October 31, 2013

In which we visit my lack of faith

If you have never listened to Christian radio, you totally should. I used to loathe contemporary Christian music, but one day while scanning channels, I heard something catchy. When I discovered I had tuned to the local Christian station, I was intrigued. I still heartily dislike hummy strummy hymns and songs in which people are encouraged to clap. However, most of the songs I have heard on this station are full of meaning and are friendly to the ears.

One of these songs, however, always had me reaching for the dial to change the station. The tune was pretty. I like the other songs the artist sings. I just could not handle the message of this one. I never mentioned this aversion to anyone and simply returned to the station a few songs later. One day, my sister in law mentioned the song in our conversation. “I really like it,” she said. “It’s not something you think about very often, but it’s so true.” I think I mumbled something in the affirmative and changed the subject.

The song, “Blessings” by Laura Story, discusses the idea that gifts from God are not always what we want or expect. They may even be the source of our greatest pains. When the song debuted on the radio, this was the last message I wanted to hear. I was experiencing a variety of acute pains, not to mention some achy chronic ones. Then along comes this sweet lady singing her pretty song about how all my problems “are mercies in disguise.” “Who does this lady think she is?” I thought. Surely, she must have the tiniest, cutest little problems. It sounds all nice and holy to praise God for the cross he has asked you to carry, but if you have the energy to sing under the weight of it, you clearly have it easy. How nice for you. Try carrying my cross some time. You won’t be singing then.

Pride is a terrible thing, is it not?

Slowly, as I learned that God has not handed me these crosses for the heck of it, I began to listen to the song a little longer each time it came on the radio.

“And all the while, you hear each desperate plea. If only we’d have faith enough to believe.”

Then, I do not remember exactly when or how, I began to understand something. God’s plans are ALWAYS the best. They are not simply whatever lies behind door number three. They are not a menu from which I can pick what I like and leave the rest. They are not even something for me to politely decline when I have better ideas in mind. No, God knows my inmost being. He already knows my desires and my pain. He is the one who cries with me like a mother who weeps when her baby gets a shot. He has already endured every pain there is, and He has not burdened me with this cross for His enjoyment.

I was reading my favorite blog the other day. The writer endured nearly six years of infertility before adopting her little girl. She now has three children, so her current posts do not speak so much to my life right now. Her archives, however, are packed with sentiments I understand all too well. How do you focus on God when the world around you is all rosy and there is a black cloud over your head? How are you supposed to feel when you do not know whether you will ever have a family? How do you keep from despairing when you are being denied your life’s calling? She speaks so eloquently to these, and I realize that I am not alone. Recently, I was reading the posts she wrote in the months leading up to the adoption of her daughter. She and her husband only found out about their little girl days before they brought her home. So, when she was writing these posts, she had no idea if they would ever have children. She expressed her sorrow over this in one entry, and I thought to myself, “Just hold on! You only have three months to go.” Hang on. Of course I knew this. I could see her whole story. When she wrote that post, that instant was the furthest she could see. The future looked bleak…like mine.
I cannot see my whole story, but there is someone who can. Not only that, He is writing it! There is someone who loves me more than I can possibly imagine who is whispering to me, “Just hold on. I have something beautiful for you, but you are not ready yet.”

“What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know you’re near?”

I am no expert at suffering. I am a sensitive little girl who cries a lot. I grow angry and impatient with God when He just won’t tell me the answers. I will sit and stew in my indignation, feeling rather justified in my anger. Then something tiny happens. Wesley makes me breakfast for no reason. My friends buy me an ice cream cake to cheer me up. A humming bird lands just outside my window. These little gifts shine with the infinite light of God. He spoils me so. Little whiny me. Then I feel silly. How could I forget that we are not asked to bear our crosses alone? He sees me. He is even bearing most of the weight for me. I only need to remain faithful.

Here is the entire song. It has always been beautiful. I pray that I can have enough faith to see that.

We pray for blessings, we pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering
And all the while, You hear each spoken need
Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things

'Cause what if your blessings come through rain drops
What if Your healing comes through tears
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You're near
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise

We pray for wisdom, Your voice to hear
We cry in anger when we cannot feel You near
We doubt your goodness, we doubt your love
As if every promise from Your word is not enough
And all the while, You hear each desperate plea
And long that we'd have faith to believe

'Cause what if your blessings come through rain drops
What if Your healing comes through tears
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You're near
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise

When friends betray us
When darkness seems to win
We know that pain reminds this heart
That this is not,
This is not our home
It's not our home

'Cause what if your blessings come through rain drops
What if Your healing comes through tears
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You're near

What if my greatest disappointments or the aching of this life
Is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can't satisfy
What if trials of this life
The rain, the storms, the hardest nights
Are your mercies in disguise

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

In case you are confused by my vague attempts to become a hermit...

The friendly woman on my voicemail had no idea she was delivering bad news. My number was just one stop on her list of normal test results to report. How could she have known that I had been sitting by my phone for a week, waiting for the triumphant voice of a doctor? “The test was abnormal. We found the problem. We can fix it!” Then I might have been able to breathe. No such luck. My breath caught as I listened to the hollow click that ended the message. I had pondered what this moment might be like, if it indeed did happen. I was afraid I might cry or even scream at the news. What if I threw a cursing fit or threw objects within my reach? No, I sat at my desk and felt surprisingly unaffected. Perhaps I had adequately prepared myself for such words. “Shouldn’t I feel sad?” I wondered silently. I replaced my phone in its usual drawer and attempted to resume working. Then I realized how blank my mind was. I stared at my computer screen, feeling drained of everything – my feelings, my plans, my hope. Since getting any work done no longer appeared to be an option, I quietly made a phone call to my doctor in Cincinnati. The sound of my voice relayed the test results before my words did. He told me how sorry he was, that he knew how much I wanted to have children. As I thanked him for being so kind through this whole process, the tears I had wondered about made their grand appearance. Here began the sensation of watching my dearest wish drift away like smoke and being unable to catch it when I frantically reached for it.

I cannot remember all the details of the past year. However, the tired, melancholy state of my heart tells me I’ve covered rocky ground. Even now, I have absolutely no idea where this journey is headed. But now I cling resolutely to the words of St. Therese, “You must trust that you are exactly where God wants you to be.”

Why here? I do not long for anything unnatural. What did I do wrong to deserve this? Why is God taunting me by lavishing the gifts I desire upon those around me? Fine. I can handle this. I will continue to serve God as I have been doing. I will, as they say, praise Him in this storm. What’s that? My path to serving God is shut? I cannot have children, I cannot afford to adopt, I cannot go on mission, and I cannot help mommies and babies? God is telling me he does not want what I have to offer? Fine.

This is where the angry me begins. God clearly has something horrible in mind for me, so I must keep myself safe. Everyone tells me that God has a plan for my life, and that He will not give me anything I cannot handle. This second part has already been proven untrue, and I become terrified of God’s plan. I am so confused. God already told me His plan. It was wonderful. He asked me to love and serve my sweet husband in good times and in bad. Against all fear and opposition, I said yes. We had a good thing going. Why mess it up now?

Clearly, I have made a mistake in asking God’s will to be done. How can I continue to pray for this? It has proven dangerous. Yet, deep in my wounded heart, I know I must not abandon my God. Woefully, I shout to Him, “I love you. I praise you, though I know not for what.”

Desperate for consolation, or at least commiseration, I turn to my husband. How does he feel about this mess? Apparently, though this is far from what he planned, he is faring quite well. He trusts God fully. He knows that God wills only what is best for us and that we really do not deserve anything. Everything we have is a gift. Lovely. It is just me.

Wesley is right. God loves us and wants us to be happy. Maybe He even has a plan for us. I shall try to be happy, because God loves me. If you have never attempted frantically to be happy when you simply are not, I do not recommend it. Sure, the sun will be shining, and you will feel God’s love beaming down on you. Then, as the sun sets, and you can no longer admire the sweet little daisies, you are once again left alone with your thoughts. Your sad thoughts. Here we resume the crying. Constantly. Surely, God must be trying to tell me that I am a despicable person. He has given me so much, and here I am hopelessly sad. This has to stop. God has got to be annoyed with me by now. So, I seek help.

I admire the antique green chairs and the soft way the winter sun shines through the window. I am slightly nervous, but I am desperate for answers and direction. Father Dominic sits across from me and listens as I unload my tangled mind. I reassure him that I understand God has a plan and that I will be just fine, thank you. Then I reveal to him my guilt in being terribly sad about God’s fabulous plan.
“How long ago did you find out you can’t have children?” he asks. “About a month,” I say shamefully.
I fully expect him to gasp at this expanse of time and tell me to get over myself. He does gasp. “A month?” he almost shouts. I nod. “Of course you’re sad! For heaven’s sake! Why wouldn’t you be? My dear, cry all you need. God can take it. There is nothing wrong with being sad about this blessing being denied you. The Holy Spirit is your divine Kleenex. He’s very absorbent. He can stand any amount of tears.” I stare at him and feel a twinge in my chest. Thank goodness. A trusted man of God has just given me permission to be sad. Not only that, but he reminds me that the sheer reason we exist is that God delights in us. Certainly, we are here to serve God, but He has no need for us. Yet, He created us. Why? Because we delight Him.

Unfortunately, not everyone is so skilled at offering relief in times of trial. I have found that people like to give solutions to problems. Even if all they have to present is a bizarre placating statement, they hand you the solution and promptly move on. Very few want to sit and be sad with you. People think their placations are especially clever if they rhyme. “If He brings you to it, He’ll bring you through it!” Thanks. I feel so much better now that I know you can form a couplet. Note: Here we begin the cynical me. Then people nudge you toward options that simply are not options. No, thank you. I will pass on your spray can of frozen sperm from a stranger. I’m not really in the mood to tell my husband I do not require his services. Nor am I anxious to profane the gifts God has already showered upon me. What’s that you say, I don’t want a family that badly if I say no to in vitro? Great. Here we begin the feeling alone.

We had already begun to explore adoption before receiving our diagnosis of infertility. As if I did not have enough to cry over already. I poured over countless websites for adoption agencies. I began with those I had heard of through my work in the pro life movement. Every site I visited was plastered with smiling faces. There were babies, mothers, fathers, young pregnant women, couples who picked out just the right outfit to catch the eye of a birthmother and convince her of their worthiness. Excellent. If all these people are happy, maybe I can be happy too. Then I would click on the “fees” tab. It was on these pages that I learned the meanings of the words dejection and injustice. I flipped back to the pages of smiles. No wonder they beamed. They were filthy rich! And they had babies! I mentally tapped the shoulders of all those obnoxious abortion supporters who fault pro lifers for not adopting. Sure, I could handle the everyday expenses of a child, but not in my wildest dreams would I be able to conjure up twenty five to forty thousand dollars. Now the smiling faces mocked me. I slammed my computer shut, again convinced that God was not allowing me to serve Him.

Finally, I found two paths to adoption that are free of monetary charge. They are lovely in their respect for life and insistence on the dignity of every child. However, they are both quite terrifying. The first, a maternity home for mothers in unplanned pregnancies, offers private, semi-open adoptions of infants. However, out of the forty-something babies born in the program, only five have been adopted. Most of the mothers choose to parent. This is wonderful that life is chosen and celebrated in every case, but the reality is that we may never receive a call. The second is a local children’s home. The home constantly receives referrals from the state notifying them of children who need foster and adoptive families. The staff work tirelessly to carefully place children in loving homes and to offer intensive training and support to the foster and adoptive families. I am not emotionally equipped to be a temporary foster mother. Luckily, we have the option of only accepting children whose parental rights have already been terminated. Thus, they would be in our home for adoption placement. They would only leave if things just didn’t work. What could go wrong, you ask? For parental rights to be terminated, terrible crimes must be committed against these little ones. The legal process takes no less than fifteen months, and who knows how many foster homes the children might have passed through by then. Yes, I say “children” plural. There is a great need for families who will accept sibling groups. Most parents will only accept one or two, and larger families must be split up. Who knows what kind of state these kids might be in by the time they reach our home. How will they act? Will they even want to be here? What if I cannot offer them the care they so desperately need? How old will they be? How many? Boys or girls? Nursery or homeschool room? Can we even homeschool? This is where the exhaustion begins.

All this time, an unrelated sadness has sat in my heart. I longed deeply to volunteer abroad again. I felt so intimately close to God while serving the poor in India. Before I left, I had this nagging feeling that there was something I should be doing with my life that I was not doing. I stepped off the plane in Calcutta, and that feeling evaporated. The entire time I spent there, I rejoiced in performing the most menial tasks. Everyone there injected life and joy into me. I missed Wesley terribly, though. I left India sure of at least two things: that Wesley was my vocation, my road to Heaven, and that I had fallen hopelessly in love with serving God in the face of the poor. I have always felt called to serve those forgotten by society and have been given countless opportunities to do so. Each one filled me with pure joy. However, there was something different about serving in India, and I wanted Wesley to share it too.

We decided to explore other methods of glorifying God through our marriage. I found an awesome Catholic missions organization that ministers to underserved communities all over the world. They send lay missionaries with particular professional skills to staff projects as requested by the local bishops. When I presented this idea to Wesley, he said it sounded great, but we could not afford it. I told him there was no cost and asked what were his other objections. He looked a little frightened when he told me he had none. I set about applying to volunteer abroad with Wesley and putting our house up for sale. Even if we were to stay in town, adopting was going to be hard work. I would need to quit my job or work fewer hours. We could not afford our beautiful house. However, none of that mattered because we were going on a grand adventure. Missionaries are sent out on two year missions and are assisted financially when returning home. We attended a discernment weekend in Georgia. Wesley’s car overheated in the madness of Atlanta traffic. We finally arrived, and I felt a deep happiness in being near people who understood my joy in serving abroad. The weekend was exhausting and every bit as wonderful as I had hoped. How invigorating it is to surround yourself with people, especially couples, on fire with their love for God and His people. Upon returning home, we moved into my best friends’ spare bedroom. If we were leaving for two years, it seemed silly to find a permanent home. Our friends were wonderful. Their kindness in opening their new home to us was welcome respite in a time of intense emotional upheaval. I love them so much. Then, finally, finally! I received a call from the organization headquarters in France. We were not going on mission. The committee was concerned about our desire to adopt and my being on anti-depressants. Here, we revisit dejection and injustice. Couldn’t they understand that I was sad about being in this country? The one where people die from eating too much? How could they fault us for wanting to adopt? They accommodate married volunteers who become pregnant on mission. Then again, perhaps we did need to decide what path was more important to us. More tears.

So now, I have been successfully stripped of nearly all my methods of serving the One and Almighty God. How am I to look at the timeline of my life without choking in panic? Forget the coming years, I fear tomorrow. What will I do? Am I to stare at my walls and…stare? All day? From now until who knows when? Wesley reminds me I can go to work every day. This is true. I could. I absolutely love my job. It even allows me the privileges of serving the poor and working with hilarious people who have become my dear friends. I could not ask for more in a way to spend my days, and I praise God every day for it. However, recent events have left me wholly unable to concentrate. How long will these good people put up with me? At least it will not be too boring. Rage wells within me frequently, and that offers a diversion. So here is what I have to look forward to – a lifetime of attempting to serve a God who enjoys the game “twenty questions.” Splendid.

Summer. Babies everywhere. Happy couples jetting off to learn the importance of mosquito nets and to teach wide eyed children how to read. And where am I? Hot, sticky, land locked here. Crying. Every day. At least now, it is not always sad tears I shed. I am still determined to keep my gaze fixed on my Lord, and I have even been able to see little flashes of His love for me. Any time I ponder this abyss of pure love, I weep. How could the perfect, all knowing God love pouty, ridiculous me? No idea. But He does, and oh so deeply. So, since I have little else to offer, I cry tears of gratitude. The first of these realizations came while kneeling during our parish Good Friday Service. Wesley was at work, so I sat with my family. Much to my annoyance, my family loves nothing more than sitting in the very front row of church. Oh well. It felt silly to sit apart from them. Displayed directly in front of the altar during this service was a life size statue of Jesus laid in the tomb. I pondered how my sins were responsible for putting him in this tragic state. I closed my eyes and prayed. Suddenly, I remembered I had promised to pray for a friend’s intentions. I said a quick prayer and opened my eyes. My gaze landed right on the face of this broken Jesus. I started. How dare I pray to this Man? My sins brought His death. And I had the nerve to ask Him for a favor. Then I thought for a moment. Didn’t we commemorate this image at every single Mass? Had I not also read in Scripture that Jesus instructs us to call upon Him in times of need? This broken Man, for whose life I am responsible, daily invites me to ask of Him whatever my heart requires? How could someone love me like this? I could not begin to understand this kind of love, so I marveled at it. And I cried some more.

I began to make peace with God. I knew He held the desires of my heart in His own, and I took comfort in this. I needed to make this time of suffering worthwhile somehow. I decided that I would do everything in my power to be the best wife and Christian I could be. I appear to be failing miserably, but I am trying. Wesley says I am a lovely wife, but we all know he is far too patient. So, along went my precariously happy little journey to love where God had put me. Then, as if to taunt me, God would place events and people in my face. One Sunday at Mass, a missionary sister from Kenya spoke to the parish. She talked about her congregation and the little children they served. In her sweet east African accent, she related the kind of poverty the people endured and how the sisters work to alleviate their suffering. “Really, God?’ I thought. “Don’t call me to serve You like this. I tried. You told me no.” Suddenly, I could bear no more. I hastily scooted past Wesley, genuflected, and left the church. I looked at the floor the whole way back the endlessly long aisle so that no one could see my tears. Finally outside in the perfect summer evening, I cried bitterly. “Why are you doing this to me?” I demanded. “What do you want? I give You everything, and You throw it right back at me! I can’t take this!” After literally fifteen minutes, I stopped crying enough to return to Mass. Afterward, I did not think I wanted to talk to the visiting sister for fear of crying some more. However, after we chatted with our friends, I found myself wandering back into church to find her. She stood alone in the back of the sanctuary. I greeted her and thanked her for coming to speak to us. She introduced herself as Sister Dionecia and began to ask me questions about myself.
Was I married? Yes, happily.
Did I have children? Sadly, no.
I told her of our recent struggles and our failed attempt to serve as missionaries. She looked genuinely hurt for us. “That is so very sad,” she said to me. “But you must remember one thing. Just keep praising God, no matter what. He is always faithful.” I told her that I was trying and failing. Then she reminded me that children are not the purpose of marriage. They are a gift. “You must desire God, not His gifts,” she told me. The joy had returned to her beautifully dark face. She was so sure of God’s faithfulness. I could tell she was not brushing off my pain. She did not offer any of the common solutions. Where had she been, and why could I not grab Wesley and return to Africa with her? Lack of plane ticket funds aside, I felt a tiny spark of hope. I clung to Sr. Dionecia’s words. Someone so full of Christ’s love had to know how to hold on to it in times of trial. Indeed, everything can be taken from each of us in an instant. All of our gifts, dreams, desires. Everything, that is, except Christ Himself. St. Paul admonishes us to remember that nothing can separate us from His love. That is all we need. St. Teresa of Avila’s words challenge me in this regard. “Let nothing disturb you. Let nothing frighten you…All things pass away…God never changes…God alone suffices.” God alone.

This journey is not over. I still have much to suffer, much to misunderstand. I will look back on this day and wonder at my weak knowledge of God and my fledgling attempts to please Him. As I have recently learned, God did not impart to me His entire plan for my life on my wedding day. That day, He gave me the person with whom I am to travel to Heaven’s gate, both of us being properly clothed in the glory of God. Since then, He has showered me with graces and spoiled me shamelessly with people who heal little pieces of my heart. He has seen fit to strip me bare. He has taken from me dreams, hopes, jobs, homes, money, time, and even people. What has He left me with? Everything I ever needed and ever shall need. He has left me with Himself, who is love. Knowing that our infinitely faithful creator is not finished with us, my beloved and I shall “boldly go before the throne of grace to obtain mercy and grace to help in time of need.”