Sunday, September 28, 2014

Goodbye, little box. Don't come back now, you hear?

The other day, we received an email from our mission director.  Our work permits have been approved by the government in our mission country.  We should have our visas in hand and be able to buy plane tickets around October 8th.  I need to keep in mind how I felt when the husband read me that message.  I smiled, high-fived the husband, and felt genuinely happy and maybe even a little excited.

I need to keep this memory fresh, because now my doubts are taking over.  There is quite a bit going on in my family right now.  Am I okay with leaving everything during this crucial time?  Perhaps this is God letting me know that He will handle it all and I need not worry.  Then again, our foreign mission is a ministry of presence.  Is my presence there more important than me being present to my family?  Is it really a matter of one being more important than the other?  

When I play out these two scenarios in my mind (staying home vs. going on mission), I feel more at peace when I think about leaving.  I am honestly not sure why this is.  I have written before about discerning whether what I hear is God's voice.  According to my research, God is asking me to trust Him in a radical way.  

During our retreat with the SDBs (Salesian priests and brothers), we had an opportunity to go to confession.  My tendency to hold back a little bit of myself in serving God and others had been weighing heavily on my heart.  I told the priest that I did not want to keep doing this, but I was scared of letting go completely.  He smiled as if he knew exactly what I meant and encouraged me to jump into the arms of God's mercy.  "You can do this," he said.  "You've done it before.  You guys got married young and probably didn't know what you were doing, but you trusted God and jumped in.  You have a wonderful husband and a beautiful marriage.  Don't be afraid.  Be bold for God.  He's got you."

In that confession, God blessed me with the grace to let go of that last piece of myself.  Before, it felt as if I kept a little box sealed tight in my chest.  Now, that box has been flung open and tossed into the wind.  I feel free.  Yet, even with this incredible blessing, I still battle fear and trepidation.  I have said yes to God, but I am a little frightened to find out precisely what that means.  I hope I continue to open my heart to God and not to seal up that box again.

I thank God with every breath that He has blessed me with my husband.  This man shows me every day what love is, who God is.  I am blessed to have someone to encourage me along this uncertain path and to remain firm when I try to stray from what we both know to be right.  By simply being himself, he teaches me how to love God.  I must trust his goodness, love him without reserve, and rejoice in his presence beside me.  

Now, don't sit there and think, "Wow, I wish my marriage could be perfect like that."  Allow me to dust the stars from your eyes.  Our marriage is far from perfect.  We have to overcome our own faults every day to create a loving home.  Many conversations begin with "AAAARRRRGGGHHHH," and end with, "I'm sorry."  Yet, he is my vocation - my road to Heaven.  I am better with him than without him.  

Thank you to all who are praying for us as we prepare for mission.  Please keep all the other SLMs in your prayers as well.  We are all facing unique challenges in this journey.  Let us pray also that all people may discover their vocations and that God may bless them with peace as they find their way.

Friday, September 19, 2014

When Jeremiah 29:11 sounds like a cruel joke...and then maybe not

So many times during our infertility journey, people said to me, “This is God’s will” or, “God has a plan.”

These statements do not comfort one suffering like the speaker might hope.  Really, they create a rather confusing image of God.  If I tell you I feel as if I am drowning and may never be happy again, and you tell me that this is what my supposedly loving, merciful Father desires for me, I feel somehow less inclined to lean on Him.  How can I trust someone who wants to hurt me?

“Offer it up,” you might say.  Excuse me while I go throw up.  I have met few people who actually understand what this phrase is supposed to mean.  Unfortunately, most people who have said it to me have meant it as a sanctimonious “Get over it.”  What I finally discovered is that in offering our sufferings to Christ, we say to Him, “I know you have already borne and redeemed this pain.  Let me walk with someone who also feels this way so they can feel your love.”  As a rule, this is a dreadful thing to say to someone who is suffering acutely.

For months, I felt abandoned by God.  I could not understand why He would not let me serve Him.  Everything I attempted was snatched out of my hands with no explanation.  I felt exhausted.  It took all my strength just to keep breathing.  Yet, somehow, I knew I could not abandon my faith.  I told God, “I’m really mad at You, and I don’t even like You right now.  I hate everyone, and I don’t trust You.  But for some bizarre reason, I don’t want to leave You.  I guess I will stay.  I love You, but I am not sure why.  Whatever.”

Yeah, that is what my prayer life looked like a year and a half ago.  Pretty terrible. 

Then, one day, I knelt in our parish’s adoration chapel.  I was doing okay that day.  Just enjoying God’s quiet presence there.  A mother and her three young children knelt down next to me.  Actually, the mother knelt and bowed her head in fervent prayer.  The little ones remained very quiet, but they wiggled and climbed on the pew in front of us.  I smiled a little at seeing this beautiful family, but of course, my heart ached. 

Another woman sat down in the pew in front of me.  She laid down a book beside her.  The Grace of Motherhood.  Now I felt angry.  There God went again, taunting me.  Every time I felt the slightest hint of peace, it seemed He would dangle what I painfully longed for right in front of me – always out of my reach.  “Why?!,” I demanded.  “I can’t do this.  How can I stay on your team if all You do is wreck my heart with pain and then just sit there?!”

Suddenly, light glared into my eyes.  Bright, yellow light.  In my experience in the chapel, the stained glass windows appeared dark or evenly lit.  Confused, I looked up to see from where this light was shining.  Above the altar in the chapel is a large window depicting Christ welcoming the little children.

The woman in yellow, holding her tiny infant, was brightly illuminated.  The rest of the window appeared as it usually did in daylight hours.  The light from the woman shone directly in my face.  I gazed at her for a few moments.  Then, deep in my heart, I heard these words:

“I know your pain.”

Tears welled in my eyes as a deep peace settled within me.  God cared about my suffering.  He had not left me to figure this out on my own.  He had heard me, and He cried in sadness with me. 

After just a few minutes, the clouds shifted, and the window was lit evenly again.  My pain still sat heavily in my chest, but I felt different.  Like this agony was finally wrapped up in something and could not dig its sharp spikes into my lungs so easily.  Those short moments left me with the fragile hope that this might all be part of something greater, and it was okay that I could not fully understand it. 

I can hardly explain how those few words resonated in me.  God had not been where I thought He was during these terrible days.  He was not sitting stoically atop His Heavenly throne, doling out instances of character-building suffering.  He had been beside me, holding me, crying with me.  He did not will this awful pain.  This was never part of His original plan.  How it got here is kind of a long story, but the important part is that this and all our pain has been redeemed through the cross.  Jesus bore every pain in the history of the world.  While bleeding and dying, He thought of me by name. 

Knowing that God is with us does not take away our pain.  I did not suddenly feel like rainbows and glitter when I recognized His presence.  My pain does not appear to be leaving any time soon even though I have healed considerably and often feel happy now.  Sometimes, for no apparent reason, I suddenly remember that we will never have children.  I fly into a mental rage and have to fight back tears in public.

Attaining knowledge of a divine blueprint offers little comfort.  We can, however, rest in the knowledge that suffering has not won the day.  The battle has been fought.  Love has won.  We are not capable of dealing with life’s struggles alone.  We should not hurt ourselves by trying to do so.  We have not been left to “figure it out.”  We are called simply to rest in the arms of God and cry when life hurts.  Because it does.  And God knows that. 

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.
John 16:33

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Not being a hermit is hard.

I am struggling.

I do not want to be negative when people ask me how I feel.  I try to choose joy and appreciate my blessings even if I do not feel particularly happy.  Yet, much of what has happened to us over the past year and a half has been kind of awful or just maddeningly difficult.

As I ever so cautiously poke my head out of my hermit crab shell, I see many smiling and slightly concerned faces.  “Hey!  Where have you been?  What’s new?  I haven’t seen you in, like, more than a year.  How are you?”  

Here, I am transported to Robert Frost’s yellow wood.  I can choose one of several responses:
-       - Brief summary of time since last visit, glossing over the more gory details
-       - Longer version wherein I tell them how these events made me feel
-       - Full scale conversation that includes the bumper sticker incident
-       - I’m great!  What’s new with you?

Naturally, my relationship with the inquirer influences my decision.  However, after telling the story over and over, I feel tired.  Like maybe I just want to move on and not talk about it all the time.  Yet, there have been many occasions in which this conversation has benefitted one or both of us.  A friend gives welcome advice.  Compassion blooms.  Pain is shared. 

God has blessed me immensely through my trials.  He has led me to the most tender and compassionate souls who soothe my angry heart.  He has drawn me to Himself and scooted me closer to my sweet husband.  He has poured His peace into me and invited me to rest. 

In Sunday's Gospel, Jesus informs us that we must pick up our crosses and follow Him in order to reach Heaven.  He firmly reminds us that our ways are not God’s ways and that we should not expect God to adhere to our plans.  Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus tells us, “I will be with you until the end of the age.”  Nothing can make Him leave us.  We cannot fully understand how deeply He loves each of us.

 Yet, nowhere does Jesus say, “Glad you’ve joined the team!  The rest should be easy from here.”  Remember that cross we are called to pick up?  It’s heavy and full of splinters, and people we pass laugh and sneer at us.  Many times, pain is still pain even amid splendid blessings.  Sometimes, thankfully, it fades.  Yet, I often find that the wonderful in life does not simply replace the awful.  We feel them both at once, and that can be confusing.

Here I am feeling peaceful, but not excited.  Joyful, but wounded and angry.  Do I really have to tell my whole story to everyone just in case they are suffering too?  Is it really my job to teach the world compassion through sharing my pain?  I certainly do not mean this sarcastically.  These are real questions.  I would hate to selfishly hide my experience from someone who is feeling alone in a similar circumstance.  Yet, I also do not wish to awkwardly burden everyone I meet with my bizarre and complicated tales or have them think I am some kind of longsuffering saint.  Sometimes, I am just tired of retelling the same sad tale.  It gets exhausting having to revisit the pain when I would really prefer to discuss anything else.  I try to let the other person lead the conversation, which has proven helpful.  But, even then, some people ask questions they just don’t want to hear me answer honestly.  For example, when people ask why we have not adopted, it is very difficult for me not to say, “Because all the babies are dead.”

I told you.  I am awkward.  And kinda angry.  We haven’t even started on how I feel about our upcoming mission. 

The first full day of orientation, our mission director informed us that the husband and I will not be going to our originally scheduled destination.  The volunteer accommodations are simply not ready and will not be for another six months or so.  The only other site open was the husband’s original first choice and my absolute last.  At our discernment weekend, I said, “I would like to go anywhere except… That site has challenges I am simply not prepared to handle.”  And then God chuckled because He thinks He’s hilarious.

Why the …, you ask?  Our new site is located in a country whose religious climate is complicated.  We are embarking on a mission in which we will not be allowed to talk about our faith.  We will still be working with young people and hopefully inspiring them to seek the truth in their lives.  However, we, along with the local priests and brothers, must carry out this mission simply by living as good Christians as we perform our daily tasks. 

I was hesitant to accept this placement for several reasons.  First, my sister has long been working diligently to be able to move to this area of the world and live her own dreams.  How could I waltz in and do her thing?  Second, I am intimidated by the isolation this site could impose.  We cannot even mention spiritual matters in emails or over the phone.  I will not be able to keep up this blog while we are there.  Yikes. 

After much prayer, talking with the husband, and a few tears, we decided to accept this placement.  This is a great act of trust for me.  I am choosing to follow my husband’s lead and let God take us where He likes.  I keep thinking of Saint Joseph when the angel told him to pack up Mary and Jesus and take them to Egypt.  Joseph didn’t say, “Eehhh, it’s really hot there.  How about Asia Minor?”  He did not ask what prize was at the end for him.  He just listened to God.  Joseph did not even live to see Jesus’ marvelous triumph over death.  He died without seeing the fruits of his acts of faith.  Yet all was well with his soul.  And, now, because of his trust and obedience, we may say the same for ourselves.

Though I want to go on this mission, and am happy about it, I do not feel very excited.  We will face some obvious challenges, and who knows what unannounced trials we will face.  When pondering whether this was all a grand mistake, I revisited my own words.  In my job as a social worker, I met incredibly generous people who are ever ready to perform whatever task necessary to assist our suffering neighbors.  I also encountered people who wanted to help the poor, but only on their own terms.  It seemed to me that they preferred to help in ways that looked nice or had a certain “warm fuzzy” quality to them. 

“Caring for the poor doesn’t always look cute,”

I have been known to say.  It is often tedious, frustrating, and exhausting.  Yet, how refreshing is the deep peace I feel knowing I have faithfully answered God’s call.  On the surface, this mission makes but a little sense to me.  I must ask myself why.  Is it because any positive results of my work will be all but hidden from me?  Or maybe because this community is not materially poor, and I don’t see why they need us?  What’s so important about learning a few English words anyway?  Is this really worth leaving my family for so long?  I don’t see the point. 

And I have decided I am strangely okay with that.  I choose to trust God in this and see what ridiculous adventure He has in store for us.

But, again, explaining to the general population that I am not currently experiencing giddy emotions over this trip is a little weird for me.  I think I feel somewhat frightened that someone is going to say, “You’re not excited?  No mission for you!”

 Irrational?  Probably.  But have you read anything else about the inner workings of my brain?  Anyhoo…  This is yet another area of my life I am not sure how to express.  I do not enjoy feeling like I have to worry about people’s insensitive comments at every turn.  I dislike that those comments bother me at all.  I do not want to feel like I must constantly defend myself and the weirdness that is mine and the husband’s life.  I want to be joyful in the midst of all this.

Mary, Help of Christians, help me stay close to Jesus in my struggles.  Pray that my heart might be quiet and I learn to trust in Him and cease all this silly worrying.  Help me drown my anger in His peace.

Orientation: three weeks of AWESOME

Hello, friends!

We are back home from New York after three weeks of orientation.  We had an amazing time.  The first week, we learned about living in another culture and how to make our transitions to and from mission as smooth as possible.  We also got acquainted with our fellow missioners, who will be an important support system for us in this journey.  On our day off, we toured Manhattan.  Wesley and I walked about 10 miles and saw Central Park, Midtown, Times Square, and ate dinner in China town.  We also attended Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral with our whole group.

Central Park

our room for most of orientation

Divine Compassion Center, where we stayed for weeks 1 and 2

The second week, we served at a Salesian Parish in Port Chester.  We assisted at their summer camp and at the Don Bosco Center (soup kitchen, clothes closet, day laborer advocate program, etc.).  Our days began at 6:30 AM with morning prayer and ended between 8:00 and 10:00 PM.  The hospitality shown by the brothers and parishioners was astounding.  Different groups of parishioners took turns cooking dinner for us, and we were hardly allowed to leave if we did not eat seconds. 

soccer.  lots of soccer

taking a cantaloupe break after our hard work

sun too hot while you paint?  No worries when you have your handy box shade.

Week three was more relaxing.  We spent these days on retreat with the Salesian brothers and priests.  We learned about Salesian spirituality and educational methods.  One of the priests led us on a hike of Bear Mountain, which is part of the Appalachian Trail.  We were commissioned in a Mass celebrated by the Provincial.  He reminded us that Jesus has called us by name for this mission, and we do not go alone.  Our group enjoyed getting to know the brothers and hear their stories of how they came to the Salesian family.  On our last day, we were privileged to attend a profession Mass for two brothers.  One made his first profession, and the other, his perpetual vows. 

Father Tom and me.  He's the sweetest.

at the top!  and soaked from the rain.

about half way up.  view of the Hudson River

Such good times!  We truly felt at home with the Salesians.  Their reverent, humble love for God and tender devotion to Mary lie at the heart of all they do.  They work tirelessly for the good of young people and are truly young at heart themselves.  In the spirit of Don Bosco, they serve as excellent role models and are always ready to school you in soccer or sing Jesus, you’re my superhero.  We are thrilled to have the opportunity to serve with them.