Punctured With Grace

Punctured With Grace

The other day, I was surprised when the thought ‘it is good that I am single’ came into my mind. Yet in sitting with these words, I recognized there was a truth found in them. It occurred to me while in the chapel and I found that the truth was seen primarily in how much I desire them not to be true.

Over the past few years, I’ve realized that something interesting happens when a group of people is asked to introduce themselves to the rest of the gathering. Understandably, many people introduce themselves by referring to their spouse or children or even the number or kind of pets they own. Right out of college, I could get away with listing off my siblings, but the more time passes, the more odd it seems to include them in my sixty second about me for a group.

However, what I deeply desire is to have an identity that is solidly rooted in being the wife of so-and-so or the mother of whomever. The idea of having a person I can always show up to things with or children who become the focus of the conversation rather than me sounds incredibly alluring. I’m not trying to downplay the difficulty in these ways of living, but many aspects of it fill me with great longing and deep desire. For all the hard found in that vocation, there is an abundance of beauty and grace found there, too.

It is in light of those particular desires that I was realizing my singleness is a gift from God. One I hope will not continue forever and yet is most assuredly a gift.

Why?

Because my very hope and desire to have an identity shaped by my relation to a spouse or children shows how desperately I still need to root myself in Christ. The goodness of the Lord is found here, in my current situation, and I am being given a privileged chance to become more assured of my identity in the Lord. I don’t get to hide behind attachments or people who I very much desire to be part of my life. And that ever-present ache can be a piercing reminder of my need for God, one which can’t be assuaged by cradling an infant or a date night with my husband.

It is incredibly, boldly present from the fact that my students address me as Miss (or Mrs. but I am reminded of their wrongness when they do it, even if I rarely correct them) to the fact that I’m not helping children through the serving line at family gatherings. The gaping ache can, if I permit it, become a place the Lord can fill, a place of pure desire surrendered to God, recognizing my own inability to fulfill myself. It can be become empty hands, waiting to be filled, trusting they will be filled, and yet acknowledging the goodness of still being empty.

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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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Turbulent Prayer

Turbulent Prayer

The plane hit a patch of turbulence and shook.

Not wanting to overreact, I clenched my fists, trying not to grab the armrests and betray my worry. But then we soared into another current in the atmosphere and the plane was shaking and I was bracing myself on the seat in front of me, praying under my breath so as not to alarm my fellow passengers.

Despite the fearfulness I was experiencing, I also chuckled a little interiorly. The seat in front of me couldn’t save me. Clinging to the armrest won’t do much good. If the plane was going down, it was going down. How foolish it seemed to grab onto the material things that surrounded me, expecting them to pull me to safety.

Yet it is what I felt compelled to do. I had to actively think about not grabbing onto something in order to remain steadfast, but it took no thought to latch onto anything close at hand in a moment of chaos. It was an impulse, illogical though it may have been in the larger scheme of things. The actions I took weren’t helpful, but they were something.

As the plane continued the flight uneventfully, I knew that the reason I clutched something was because I wanted to hold onto someone. If I was married and flying with my husband, I would have unthinkingly grabbed onto him. If I was with my sister, I probably would have reached for her arm. And while the bumpy flight did leave me longing for a husband to comfort me, it also reminded me that my fictional husband wouldn’t have been able to change the course of that plane. Like the seatback and the armrest, we would have been going down together.

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Jesus Knows What it is Like to Wait

Jesus Knows What it is Like to Wait

Within the past year, I stumbled upon a verse in Scripture that gave great comfort to my heart. I know I’ve read this verse before and so it surprised me when I read it before quickly backpedaling to read it again. Maybe I had always read it in a slightly different translation or it didn’t seem like it applied to me, causing me to gloss over the words. Whatever the reason, the particular moment I read it was the perfect one for it to have an impact.

Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work.

Luke 3:23 (NRSVCE)

I paused.

One sentence helped lay to rest some of my worries and concerns.

The God-man began His work when He was about thirty years old. Perhaps I’m not behind. Perhaps this isn’t all a waste. Granted, I didn’t spend the first thirty years of my life with the profound intentionality of the Incarnate Word, but it was a gift to be reminded that missions can begin at thirty.

It isn’t that I think thirty is ancient. I don’t. It is simply that I had assumed I would arrive at different milestones before reaching this particular one. This time hasn’t been a waste, but it is difficult to see what has been accomplished. In high school and college, one moves from one grade to the next, learning information, being continually formed, and preparing for what lies ahead. And I’m still very much on an academic calendar, with neat endings and fresh beginnings. Yet…there doesn’t always seem to be movement.

Interestingly, it wasn’t that I longed for a life filled with adventure. I mean, I did and yet I was entirely prepared for a life that was normal, ordinary, even repetitive. Oddly, it seems that doing mundane tasks for someone else would seem far more fulfilling than doing mundane tasks for myself. Realistically, I know that is simply the lie, the trick that makes one think that the things that frustrate wouldn’t if they were shrouded in different circumstances.

Jesus lived a hidden, ordinary life for thirty years. Over the past year, I’ve returned repeatedly to this reality of angels heralding His birth and then shepherds and magi and then…a seemingly ordinary child grows up. Each day wasn’t lived in a glorious ray of light. People weren’t continually falling at His feet, acknowledging His divinity. He played, studied, prayed, and lived with others and nobody recognized God was pitching His tent among them.

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I Slept on the Cross

I Slept on the Cross

I often forget that Holy Saturday would have included the Sabbath rest for the early followers of Jesus. After the sorrow of Good Friday, they were ushered into a day that must have been brimming with painful reflection over the tumult of the past day. Did they go to the synagogue or temple? Did they gather together to pray? While the rest of the Jewish people were thanking God for the works He has performed, were they questioning why He didn’t act in this particular situation?

Holy Saturday is a day of waiting. Much of my life seems to be lived in a Holy Saturday state of being. I know the Lord can act and I’ve seen Him acting, yet in some situations it seems there is not much progress being made. So I wait. I wait trusting that the Lord knows what He is about and is preparing something wonderful beyond words for my weary little heart. I trust that the waiting is worth something. I trust that this period of waiting is accomplishing far more than many periods of acting could accomplish.

While we know the “end” of the story, we can sympathize with the first followers of Jesus by recognizing that the next step in our story is unknown. Entering into this liturgical Holy Saturday, we can see that God’s will and actions so often remain a mystery to us. In the fullness of time, it will be revealed and we shall see how God was continually providing for us and pouring out abundant graces upon us. For now, we must trust that the Lord is moving, even in the stillness or the quiet or the apparent absence of His action.

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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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Peace Not From the World

Peace Not From the World

Peace is my farewell to you, my peace is my gift to you; I do not give it to you as the world gives peace. Do not be distressed or fearful.

John 14:27

I feel obliged to keep somewhat informed about the spread of COVID-19 (the coronavirus) and as I was looking on a news website, I saw a link that said “Should I be panicking?” My students, naturally, are buzzing with news about the spreading virus and beneath the nervous excitement, some are truly concerned about getting sick. It is understand that fear should start to set in when it seems like very little time passes between various people mentioning something else about the coronavirus.

Apart from practical common sense attempts to not get sick, there isn’t much I can do. Yet similar to how listening endlessly to political news reports can fill me with unrest, countless stories and updates about the virus can begin to make me stressed. Jesus, despite showing concern for the poor and the suffering, doesn’t want us to be pools of despair, overcome with anxiety and worry about what may happen. We have an intellect that we ought to use, but He doesn’t want us to be frozen in isolating fear. Christ came to set us free, even from the slavery to fear.

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There Is Always Hope

There Is Always Hope

I don’t recall exactly what it was about. During parent teacher conferences, I spoke with a parent and it was either about the grade, the student’s faith, or something, but whatever it was, the parent ended with, “So there’s hope?” And I, filled with a conviction that stretched beyond the moment, replied, “Yes. There is always hope.”

I felt the weight of that truth in the moment after the parent left.

Always. Hope endures despite all difficulties.

For someone who often skews toward pessimism, it is helpful to remember that hope persists, even when it seems illogical. I mean, we worship a God who rose from the dead after three days. He chose the most unlikely people to pass on the faith, who continually misunderstood Jesus and ran away when scared. Yet this Church still lasts. In spite of corrupt popes, Church scandals, intense persecutions, harsh dictatorships, and every other difficulty, we see that life can still burst forth from death just as the frozen ground will one day again yield to the gentle strength of new flowers.

The other day in class, I found myself saying, “Death isn’t the worst thing.” For me, it was obvious that this was true. I spent much of my first year of teaching hoping for death. Not in a morbid or depressed way. Rather, I was thoroughly convinced of the glory of the Beatific Vision and I was also thoroughly convinced that I wasn’t yet experiencing it in a room filled with angsty, complaint-filled teens.

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A Strength To Find Rest In

A Strength To Find Rest In

It was a late meal and before too long, my niece was soon battling sleep. Eventually, it overtook her and she laid with her head on the restaurant table while everyone else chatted and finished their meal. Then, my brother picked her up and carried her to the vehicle to go home. I don’t know if she slept through the entire trip home or if she simply acted like it, exhaustion keeping her calm and still.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t until the next day that I found myself pondering that scene. The similarities made me think of how my parents would often carry me from the car into the house after a drive home from somewhere. At times, I was really in a deep sleep and other times I just wanted to act like it. I would be partially awake as I heard the vehicle turn off, but I wanted to be effortlessly transported into the house. Once I reached a certain age, my parents would wake me up and I would need to enter the house on my own two feet.

What was so nice about being carried? Perhaps it was the sense of being cradled tenderly or the chance to be lovingly provided for even as reaching ages of independence. I’m sure sometimes it was just laziness, but it was probably most often the joy of resting in the strength of another. At six or seven, I wouldn’t have phrased it that way, of course. Yet if I look at the desires of the human heart, I am certain that was a central focus.

As an adult, we have to re-learn the art of resting in the strength of another. We often don’t want to be carried, physically or emotionally. The ease that comes with being carried in childhood often vanishes as we become adults. The sense of being carried starts to feel awkward and uncomfortable, like how it would feel if someone picked us up and carried us over their shoulder like happened when we were kids. We need to find anew the gift of resting in the Lord’s strength.

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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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