Leaning into the Longing

Leaning into the Longing

“What could you possibly want?”

I had just given a talk in prison about how the Lord calls to us and yet how there are so many other voices calling to us as well. The goal, I said, was to listen through the cacophony and follow the still, sure voice of God. Afterwards, the small group I was leading commented on my talk, saying they didn’t know I could speak like that. Then we delved into the small group discussion questions. One question asked what other voices we listen to apart from God. I shared that sometimes I listen to the voice of comparison, which causes me to focus on what other people have that I wish I had or experiences they’ve had which I have not.

“What could you possibly want?” one of the guys in my small group asked, with the most sincere look of befuddlement on his face. “I heard you talk and you spoke like no other girl I’ve known. What could you want that you don’t already have?”

This sincere question struck me in two different directions. One aspect was that I should be grateful for the many gifts I’ve received and stifle more ardently that insidious voice of comparison. Having just given a talk about how we should listen to voice of God and not the other voices clamoring for our attention, I was forced to consider how often I do not do that very thing. Here was someone in prison asking what else I could possibly want when seeing a glimpse of my life. And I couldn’t argue that I lacked much considering my position in life.

Yet the other thought that came to mind was surprise that to someone I seemed to have everything. I wanted to pour out a lengthy list of all the things or experiences I long for yet do not have. Marriage, children, a job that completely satisfies me, a published book or two, the perfect work-life balance, the ability to run a marathon, a large built-in bookshelf with a ladder like in ‘Beauty and the Beast’, a perfectly planned upcoming vacation, no mortgage, and the list could go on and on. However, I wanted to tell him that even when one follows Jesus, there are still longings we have for other things, even if we strive to live an ordered life. The desires we experience should be responded to in such a way that we are led to reach for goodness, truth, and beauty instead of making us ungrateful for what we have by focusing on what we lack.

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No Place I’d Rather Be

No Place I’d Rather Be

At a retreat a few weeks ago, I found myself singing Set a Fire with the other retreatants and the line “there’s no place I’d rather be than here in Your love” struck me a little deeper than usual.

It was incredibly bold. There is no place that I would rather be?

And I imagined the life I wanted for myself, filled with a husband and kids gathered into a warm home, and I sang that lyric again. Those words, in a brief blitz of grace, became something I fiercely desired to be true. Instead of all of my vain imaginings about the future, a future which may never be, I wanted to want to be in that moment, receiving the Lord’s love.

It doesn’t mean my heart no longer wanted those things, but I was shaken with the renewed realization that God can only be met in the present moment. The Lord isn’t in my rosy dreams of domestic bliss, even if He desires it for me in the future. Similarly, the Lord isn’t in my imagined ideal job, where my gifts are fully utilized.

The Lord, instead, is present in the here and now. It is in this moment that He offers me grace. And it will only ever be in the current moment. He has plans for my future, great and beautiful plans, but He is with me in the now.

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The One Longed For And Yet Present

The One Longed For And Yet Present

The longing of God’s chosen people fills the Old Testament.

For generations they are waiting for God to redeem them, to restore their nation, and to enter into a new and lasting covenant with them. They tell their children and their children’s children about His mighty works and the promises God has made to them. While they don’t know how these promises will be fulfilled, they trust that they will be.

I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will meditate on all your work and muse on all your mighty deeds….You are the God who works wonders, who have manifested your might among the peoples. With your arm you redeemed your people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph.

Psalm 77:11-12, 14-15

For years I’ve viewed the birth of Christ as the end to their waiting and a fulfillment of their longing. All that they were waiting for was there, wrapped in flesh, lying in a manger. The King they were waiting for had come. We celebrate Christmas with that in mind: the Hope of the Nations is born and so we rejoice.

Yet this year I was filled with a recognition that one of the most important moments in human history happened and yet virtually nobody knew about it at the time. Similar to the quiet yet monumental yes at Mary’s Annunciation, the birth of Jesus took place in a relatively hidden way. Angels told some shepherds and wise men arrived from the east, yet as a whole, Israel was unaware of what was happening in their midst.

On the day after Christ’s nativity, they awoke….and didn’t know that anything was different than the week before. They still longed for a king and awaited the redemption of Israel. Yet He was there, the little King, already laboring to save them. When they gathered in the synagogue to pray, recalling the promises and the works of God, they did not know that the incarnate God was with them. As they provided work for St. Joseph, they did not know that it was the God-man who crafted and created alongside him.

Christ was living and working in the world and yet the world did not know it.

For thirty years, Christ was hidden. He lived the ordinary life of a son, a neighbor, a faithful Jew, and a carpenter. People laughed, worked, ate, prayed, talked, and experienced life with the God-man and did not know it. The One an entire nation longed for washed His feet to remove the dust, ate His mother’s food, and slept deeply after a day of laboring.

He was there, known and yet unknown.

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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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Small Things

Small Things

On my drive to and from school, I keep reminding myself to soak it up and take it in. Instead of getting lost in thought or just robotically staring at the road ahead, I attempt to look up and look around. So often I find myself in the early part of winter wondering what happened to the fall days I cherish. The trees seem to be blazing scarlet and golden hues for such a brief period of time. While I think fall is often inconveniently truncated, I also forget to embrace the days we do have.

This year, I’m attempting to make my morning and evening commutes a time for noticing. Noticing the particular blush of the tree near my house, mostly green but with a warm glow on top. Noticing the checker of colors on the trees as I wait for the light to change. Noticing the warmth of the afternoon sun and the slight coolness in the morning air.

There seems to be a need to soak up these moments, to store them away in my heart for the months ahead where the trees will be barren and the air frigid. In those moments, there will be much to be grateful for, too, but I want to relish these days as the colorful glory that they are for me.

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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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Whatever God Chooses Should Be All the Same to Us

Whatever God Chooses Should Be All the Same to Us

I didn’t expect to feel sadness at a wedding.

Anything near tears, I assumed, would come from the overwhelming joy of seeing a good friend get married. And while I was definitely happy, I was startled by the profound loneliness that pervaded my heart, even as I sat in a pew with beloved friends and was surrounded by many people I knew. Grateful that my friend was receiving that for which she had long prayed, I discovered a sorrow that I didn’t want to find at that time or in that place. The human heart frequently seems inconvenient, but I’ve found that leaning into that is more helpful than ignoring it.

Near the beginning of the liturgy, I heard the priest proclaim a single word in the midst of a longer prayer. He said “home” and I was immediately asking the Lord where my home was. Looking over the priest’s head, I saw the crucifix, arms stretched wide and side pierced, and within myself I heard Him say that my home was there. In His side, opened so that mercy could pour out, was my home, my refuge, the only place I belonged on either side of Heaven.

As my blog slowly moves from being thoroughly unread to something that people I know and don’t know read, I find myself hesitant to ever speak of being single. Some of my former students occasionally look at my blog as do co-workers, and it feels odd to share this particularly deep desire, even if it seems obvious or assumed or commonplace. Yet it also feels odd to share so many other parts of my heart and then withhold speaking of the vocation I feel called to, simply because God hasn’t fully answered that prayer.

I’m a melancholic and as such I am accustomed to longing. One of the most enduring longings has been for marriage and a family. It isn’t my only desire, but it is the one that seems the most fervent. This newly married friend is one I often spoke of this longing with, as we questioned when it would be fulfilled and wondered how it would happen. So I understand to a degree why this wedding also filled my heart with a bit of sadness. It was because my compatriot had what she longed for and I was still waiting, still hoping, still wondering when and if it would happen.

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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”

A Grateful Mission

A Grateful Mission

Like a mother who gushes with affection over a sleeping child, I often feel particularly fond for my students when they are taking tests.  They seem so quiet, so studious, and so devoted to the task at hand that I find myself gazing at their little, intent faces and being so thankful to be a teacher.

In all honesty, that isn’t the only moment I am thankful to teach, but it is one continually recurring theme.  Moments of quiet, moments of humor, and moments of profound learning make me grateful to teach.  The inside jokes we share and the relationships that are built over time make me thankful to interact with so many high school students.  When I am able to step back from the late papers, endless questions, and constant repetition of directions, I see young people seeking.  Seeking just like I am–for happiness, for joy, for love, for peace, for life.  When I see that perspective, I am grateful for the time to be with them, accompanying them for a short while on their journey to eternity.

It makes me wonder if I have any type of impact.  This little heart inside of me longs so much for a great mission.  And then I remember that I teach.  I interact with young people daily and if that isn’t the rich soil for a great mission, I don’t know what is.  Grades, dress codes, and attitudes can make me forget the mission that is in front of me every day.  Yet every now and then, I will get a glimpse of what God might be doing in souls.  I see that perhaps my littleness might be in the midst of something great right now and completely unaware of it all.

Still, the heart longs to know a difference is being made.  Thankfully, God gives me reminders in little moments.  There is enough to assure me that it isn’t for nothing and yet little enough so that it doesn’t all go to my head.  It is found in class camaraderie when one class writes me up for a detention when I return a little late for class.  I see it in a small group of women who enter into conversation about pursuing true beauty.  It is experienced in random after school conversations and hearing that my class is teaching something.  The look on some students faces as we tackle the problem of evil and honestly question how a good God could allow awful things to happen.  Brief moments, easy to pass by, but ones that remind me that something is happening here and now.

It isn’t because of me.  It is because of God’s grace.  Continue reading “A Grateful Mission”

When Expectations and Reality Don’t Match Up, Choose Reality

When Expectations and Reality Don’t Match Up, Choose Reality

I missed a plane and then had an extended lay-over due to a late arriving aircraft.  I nervously tried to figure out how to turn the headlights on in a new car for which I had just refused all extra insurance.  In the dark, I navigated along the fast-paced 405 and I-5, following a GPS that was guiding me to a place I had never been.  I circled the hotel to find where I was supposed to park.  Stupidly, I had to ask the hotel clerk if he knew the make of a Sentra.  I later realized Nissan was clearly written on the key I had in hand.  The room wasn’t what I expected based on hotel pictures.  I couldn’t figure out how to make the old bathtub faucet produce the water I desired until the second day of my stay.  I missed the evening part the conference that I had flown half-way across the country to attend.

Perceptions and preconceived ideas greatly change how we experience situations.

In my mind, this conference would go perfectly.  I would fly to sunny southern California, learn mountains of information, meet great people, and then blissfully return home.  The hotel would be perfect.  The drives would be scenic and pleasant.  Everything would go according to plan.

The first evening, I laid on the bed in my less-than-expected hotel room and considered the stress I was experiencing.  While there were delays and inconveniences, nothing that terrible had happened.  No accidents, no major dilemmas, nothing that would ruin my time at the conference.  Yet I still felt disappointed and a bit let down.

My expectations were not met and I realized they had been ridiculously high.  When I thought back to how I expected the few days to go, I imagined sunny days, easy drives, and luxurious sleeping quarters.  I let the novelty of the situation turn the reality into something disheartening.  When I surveyed the past day with few expectations, it turned out that reality wasn’t quite so bad. Continue reading “When Expectations and Reality Don’t Match Up, Choose Reality”