Always Good

Always Good

The thing to combat the rampant 2020 pessimism is reflecting on the goodness of the Lord.

About one year ago, I heard people and saw social media fill with a litany of “Thankfully 2019 is nearly over! That was the worst!” People were confident in a 2020 of their dreams, something that would be better than the difficulties of their current year. While I can applaud the sense of hopefulness, it also rang with clear bitterness toward what had been offered them in the present. As a teacher, I see it year after year as students (and, admittedly, teachers) often anticipate the end of a semester or a school year.

Something better must be coming, we say. The present difficulties must yield to glorious triumphs.

So 2019 died and 2020 was born.

While it is definitively a different sort of year, I have heard many speak with gloom about this year, about the complete and utter awfulness of it all. Some have been more dramatically impacted than others, for sure. Yet, overall, the disdain for the year seems overkill.

Yes, I know about the pandemic. Yes, I remember the election. Yes, yes, all of the difficulties we endured were real.

And yet there is much to find hope in and rejoice over.

At a retreat this last weekend, I was surrounded by people who were praising the goodness of God. And I thought, Some people would think we are crazy saying that God is good right now. But it is true: He is objectively good. If we cannot praise Him unless we are surrounded by perfection, we will never praise Him. If our idea that God is good is based on our current circumstances, then we don’t know Him at all. It is a thin and superficial faith we have if it ebbs and flows in direct proportion to how fortunate we feel.

If our God, whom we serve, can save us from the white-hot furnace and from your hands, O king, may he save us! But even if he will not, know, O king, that we will not serve your god or worship the golden statue which you set up.

Daniel 3: 17-18
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Five Loaves and Two Fish

Five Loaves and Two Fish

Venerable Francis Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận spent thirteen years imprisoned in Communist Vietnam without receiving a trial. Of those thirteen years, nine were spent in solitary confinement. The prison conditions he suffered in makes the prison I go to for prison ministry look like a luxurious hotel. From his cell being so humid that mushrooms grew on his sleeping mat to his cell light being left on (or off) for days at a time, Venerable Francis suffered in ways I cannot fathom.

Yet from this suffering emerges a life shaped and formed in the crucible of humiliation. Despite the hatred of his persecutors, he continued to seek after the Lord. Years after being released from prison, Venerable Francis wrote Five Loaves and Two Fish, a simple yet profound book based on his experiences in prison. While most of us cannot relate to the particulars of his life, the truths that emerge are ones that ought to resonate deeply with each of us.

The general theme of his book, as you may have guessed, is based on the Gospel where the little boy offers the little he has (five loaves and two fish) to feed the multitudes present. The boy doesn’t know how it will be enough, but he trusts that offering it to the Lord is what he is called to do. Venerable Francis focuses on the little that we can do to offer ourselves to the Lord. He went from an active ministry as a bishop, serving God’s people with energy and zeal to a life imprisoned, unable to speak to his flock or do the work God was allowing him to do before. Yet even in this lack, or perhaps especially in this lack, he finds that God is still working, just not as he expected.

The book is short and beautiful, so I recommend getting a copy and pouring over the simple truths found in it. But I wanted to highlight two points that stood out to me.

The first truth Francis shares is to live in the present moment. Honestly, if I were confined to a cell for nine years, I might be inclined to live in anywhere but the present moment. The perspective Francis has is, “If I spend my time waiting, perhaps the things I look forward to will never happen. The only thing certain to come is death.” Keeping in mind where he found himself when he considered those words, it was reasonable for Francis to assume he would not survive prison. He chose to embrace the moment and do what he could with what he had.

Through the smuggling efforts of a seven-year-old, Francis sent out messages of hope that he composed during the night. He focused on filling each moment to the brim with love, concentrating on each gesture toward the guards being as loving as possible. The fruit of this was the conversion of many guards. Initially, they rotated the guards often so that he wouldn’t convert them, but then they decided to keep the same ones with him so he would convert as few as possible.

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Living and Active

Living and Active

It continues to surprise me how extremely relevant Scripture is to the lives of prisoners. Whether I’m reading an Old Testament prophet or the epistles of St. Paul, the circumstances of the imprisoned are never far from any given page. Listening to the readings in prison, as Paul speaks about the chains he bears for the sake of the Gospel or how many times he found himself imprisoned, adds a whole new depth to the readings.

Earlier this week, as my sister and I drove to prison for a bible study, I read the Gospel passage aloud that we were going to discuss. It was something I’ve heard and read dozens of times and yet my eyes were opening in a new way, something that has happened innumerable times since I started going into the prison. The passage for the upcoming Solemnity of Jesus, King of the Universe, was about Jesus on the cross and the conversation He had with the good and bad thief.

The rulers sneered at Jesus and said, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.” Even the soldiers jeered at him. As they approached to offer him wine they called out,
“If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.” Above him there was an inscription that read, “This is the King of the Jews.”

Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Luke 23: 35-43

I could hardly believe it when I read the passage to my sister. How striking. A passage about how Jesus, the sinless one, who enters into our lives and takes on our sin, dying amongst criminals who were sentenced justly for their crimes. What would it be like to hear this as a prisoner?

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For the Sake of the Joy

For the Sake of the Joy

Nearly every Tuesday, I have “contemplative time” for my classes.  Do they actually reach contemplation?  Probably not, but I like to provide intentional time for silence and prayer.  It is ten minutes where the only thing that is required of them is to be still.  In a world overflowing with noise, arguments, ideas, and busyness, I try to offer them a brief respite from the long list of things they must do.

To help direct their prayer, I display a Scripture passage, a quote from a saint, or an excerpt from a spiritual read for the students to use as a starting point.  A few weeks ago, near All Saints’ Day, I had them focus on Hebrews 12:1-2 for their time of prayer.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

I had fifty minutes that day to reflect on these verses.  Different portions stood out to me at various points in the day.  Yet by the afternoon, one phrase continued to stir my heart.  So much so that I wrote it out on a note card and affixed it to my desk organizer so I could continue to ponder it in the days to come.

For the sake of the joy… Continue reading “For the Sake of the Joy”

My Little Cross: An Avenue for God

My Little Cross: An Avenue for God

This, I thought, is not the cross I wanted.  Can’t I have something different?

I’ve heard that if everyone could throw their particular struggles and crosses of life into a common pile, we would go through and pick again the one we already have in our lives.  That when we would compare our crosses to what other people are struggling with, we would realize that we didn’t have it too bad the first time.  Or maybe that we would recognize that the cross we have, perhaps oddly and strangely, is one customized for our lives.

It might be true, if I knew the secret things you struggled with, that I would recognize that my cross is far more manageable than I initially thought.  Yet at this particular time, I’m simply wishing I could choose something different.  I survey the struggle and it doesn’t quite seem fair, this thing with which I’m saddled.  Or things, to be more precise.

When I speak of these struggles, I don’t always mean failures or weaknesses.  Sometimes, the cross in our lives is simply a matter of circumstance.  It isn’t anything we can choose to alter, rather it is something we choose to embrace, or at least endure.  The crosses of circumstance might be some of the most difficult ones to bear because we find ourselves unable to fix the recognizable problem.   Continue reading “My Little Cross: An Avenue for God”