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Simon Helps Jesus Carry The Cross

At the end of November 2011 I learned two terms I’d never heard before: “irritable uterus” and “wimpy white boy.” Irritable uterus leads to 37-week C section. 37-week C section leads to “wimpy white boy” spending ten days in the special care nursery two hours away from home.

Ten days in the special care nursery two hours away from home leads to…well, a family situation nobody was prepared for. Christian was trying to work–because he couldn’t take time off while I was gone and be there to help when we got home as well–and keep the kids’ anticipation of Advent activities. And clean. And cook. And grocery shop. And oh yes, prepare the choir for Christmas.

Thank God, he didn’t have to do it by himself. As it turned out, the ranks mobilized. My parents. My sister. Friends took turns watching kids, too, so Christian could work and grocery shop and meet choir obligations. People brought food. Cleaned the house. Took care of school transport. At my end, once I was officially checked out of the hospital, people brought food to save me from beggaring myself in the hospital cafeteria.

It was a humbling experience. We had always been sticklers about thank you notes, but it was soon clear that there was no way we were going to be able to keep track of who we owed thank you notes to, much less get them written. And I realized that if the tables had been turned, I wouldn’t have been at all worried about receiving a thank you note.

As long as we’re alive, there will be unpleasant or difficult situations forced upon us. Like Simon, impressed into service to carry a cross up to Golgotha. It’s good for us to be reminded that even Jesus didn’t get to Calvary all by himself. He needed help to carry the cross.

Then again, did he, really? Isn’t this more like it was in the desert, at the beginning of his ministry, when the devil tried to get him to use his divinity to his own advantage? Jesus could have thrown himself down and required the angels to save him. Likewise on the way of the cross, he could have played the God card to get him to the top of the hill. But that would sort of defeat the purpose. Because his human frailty, which made hade him need help, serves to remind us that we don’t have to carry our burdens alone, either. In fact, we can’t carry them alone.

The idea of rugged individualism sounds great, but the reality is that we need each other. Especially when those tough times come calling, and we’re faced with situations nobody should have to handle. Think of 9/11, of Sandy Hook or Katrina. Stories of heroism come out of the worst tragedies and the ugliest realities of human existence.

We need each other. That’s what Jesus teaches us in this station. We need each other, and when we are willing not only to give with grace, but to accept what others give, that is when humanity shines brightest.

Meeting Mommy

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Reflections on the Stations of the Cross

Jesus Meets His Mother

Does anyone actually say “This hurts me more than it hurts you”?

I have to admit I have my doubts. I certainly never heard it except in a Bill Cosby routine. I can’t help thinking that’s one of those “elder” tales that everyone learns without ever being told, like walking three miles uphill both ways in the snow.

20111201-115727.jpgAnd yet there are times when I know there’s a truth beneath the tall tale–at least in the case of the pain a parent feels on behalf of his or her child. How many times I’ve wished I had that horrible virus instead of my kid, because I can take medication and I know how to cope with it. How many times I walked into the PICU/NICU braced against that heartsick twist as I looked at the masses of wires and IV lines and sometimes vent and NG tubes. My baby couldn’t feel it; she was heavily sedated. But it hurt me.

There are other kinds of heartsick on the way. Every once in a while I snag a glimpse of them, when Alex wilts under a slight real or perceived, when awkwardness or embarrassment sends his tender soul diving for cover. In temperament he is exactly like me, and I still get the heebie jeebies when I think about adolescence. It warn’t pretty, folks. Not at all.

Yeah, exactly.

Yeah, exactly. Apropos of nothing, I think that may be the tractor my mom used for my first driving lessons.

But there can’t be anything quite like watching your child die.

Jesus Meets His Mother

I can only imagine that as Mary watched her son approach the cross, she wasn’t thinking of angelic visions or gifts from kings, prophecies fulfilled or miracles achieved. She must have been remembering that game he played, where she threw her arms open and he, giggling, ran full-speed into them. That glimpse of tenderness he showed when he was only six or seven, the one that filled her with awe at what a beautiful soul had been entrusted to her care. Maybe even the exasperation she felt when she discovered yet another clay pitcher lying in pieces on the floor.

It must have been hard to be faithful that day.

Our children stretch us in ways we could never have anticipated, or likely borne if we knew about it in advance. They give us battle scars we wear with pride. They bring us closer to Heaven than we’d ever get on our own, not because they’re so angelic (though they are sometimes), but because they grow our hearts, our tolerance, our capacity for unconditional love–perhaps when they suffer, more than any other time.

Fallen

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Reflections on the Stations of the Cross:

Jesus Falls

Sunday morning, 8:35 a.m. The family hurrying to and fro, getting coats on to get to church for choir warmup. Nicholas didn’t like the side of his reversible coat that was facing out. He wanted me to change it. I was trying to show him how to do it himself, and he went fish-limp, lip stuck out like a sulky three year old instead of the all-but-five year old he is.

I lost my temper.

Sunday afternoon, deep in the middle of trying to upload a home video–a job that’s been hanging over our heads for months (two Christmases on this video, if that tells you anything). Our camcorder uploads in real time. And woe to you if you touch anything on the computer while it uploads. Ten minutes before it finished, some little finger managed to get over there and disrupt the upload, causing us to have to start over.

I lost my temper.

Sunday evening, after dinner, tearing through video edits and feeling conflicted about not having cleared the table. “I’ve got it,” Christian said, and I breathed a sigh of relief–until, at 9:30 p.m., I discovered he stacked them in the sink instead of loading the dishwasher.

I lost my temper.

(News flash: bedtime is not a good time to lose your temper. Especially if you have a history of trouble sleeping.)

There’s been a lot of stress the past six weeks. The details aren’t important, but my self-appointed task during this time has been to keep the household running and the kids sane–and above all, to make Christian’s life easier by shouldering things I would ordinarily pass off to him. I always knew I had a husband who did a lot, but I didn’t realize just how wearing it was going to be to try to do those things myself on a sustained basis.

Until yesterday.

Falling under the weight of a cross is, unfortunately, something we’re all much better acquainted with than we’d like. Jesus fell down three times on the way to Calvary. So many parts of the Passion got skipped when they put these stations together; why did they put three falls in?

Maybe it’s precisely because the experience is so familiar, so inescapable, for all of us. It’s not falling, per se, that is so hard–although a fall definitely bruises my sense of self as follower of Christ. The trick is to get back up, which requires greater emotional and spiritual energy.

What’s really hard, though, is when I have to do it over and over and over again. Times like these, when stress makes itself known through lack of sleep and a sense of swimming upward through sand, the falls come faster and closer together. And the more times I have to pick myself up, the harder it becomes–especially when so many other people are depending on me.

That last time, it had to be a sheer act of will that brought a bruised and battered Christ to his feet. And although the act of being crucified and rising from the dead to break the power of death certainly outweighs an example of persistence, that example is what I most need to get me through.

Carrying The Cross

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Reflections on the Stations of the Cross
The Second Station:
Jesus carries the cross

I spend a fair amount of time puzzling over the lack of faith in the modern world. Although there are a lot reasons, the one I keep coming back to is this: life in the western world is pretty easy. We can have whatever we want to eat, whenever we want it. Entertainment and distraction is available at the touch of a button 24-7. There is plenty of shelter, plenty of space, and the law of the land protects us from the kind of terror that results from unbridled power.

So much is taken for granted, we no longer recognize the bounty and the institutional safety that has been given us by those who came before us–or by the sheer dumb luck of living here and now. It’s easy to lose touch with how fragile and precious life really is. Without obvious, visceral reminders to the contrary, there’s a place deep inside that says “I don’t need anybody else, least of all some higher power telling me what to do. I’ve got this.” Or, as Julianna would say, “I do ee (it)!”

So faith founders because faith is based on a recognition that we are small and weak and in need of something we can’t even quite put a finger on.

It is life’s crosses–mental or physical suffering, illness, untimely deaths; the moments when we recognize our smallness, our pettiness, the habitual sins we can’t shake and the faults in our souls–that send us running back to God.

Christian and I give witness talks on natural family planning. As part of that, we tell about how irregular cycles caused extended periods of abstinence early in our marriage, and how we spent all kinds of time growling at God over it. We talk about infertility, the outraged howls we sent Heaven-ward, and the long, painful struggle to say–and mean–the words “Thy will be done.” And then we come to Julianna. Every time, Christian chokes up as he pulls it all together: the fact that all the crosses we have born in our reproductive life led to this moment, this ultimate “thy will be done.”

I do not think we could have accepted Julianna’s presence in our lives as easily as we did if it hadn’t been for those other crosses.

My crosses make me a better person.

Realizing this has changed a lot of things for me. I’m no more enamored of suffering or of confronting my own demons than anyone else. At the same time, I recognize that in the absence of a cross to bear, I become complacent, self-satisfied, obnoxious and generally insufferable. So I am grateful for the everyday crosses, and yes, even for those protracted periods of soul stretching. In the rawness of my soul I go looking for God, and God is always there: shrouded, perhaps, lacking the clarity of a billboard with my name on it, but present nonetheless. And always leading me through the darkness, one hesitant step at a time.

Condemned

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Reflections on the Stations of the Cross

The First Station: Jesus is condemned to Death

By Tango7174 (Tango7174) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

My first year of grad school I lived in a residential complex for upperclass and graduate students. Essentially they were apartments in a residence hall. There were five of us in a three-bedroom apartment. We met at the start of the year to set up expectations and determine how to split up chores.

I wasn’t really around. Where I really “lived” was at the school of music. I was gone every morning by 7 or 7:30 a.m., before anyone was up, and I didn’t come back until dinnertime, and sometimes later. I went to bed earlier than they did. Within a week they asked if we could rearrange room assignments, because I wasn’t around and two of them wanted to room together.

I should have realized then that trouble was brewing, but I didn’t. I’d had bad roommate experiences before, and some of it I could only blame on myself, but I’d learned from the experience. I thought if I followed the rules and minded my own business, we’d coexist just fine.

I was wrong. As things began to go south–bewilderingly so–a new friend told me she’d been in a similar experience once, where her roommates had turned on her because she was the weirdo who was never around, who was always at the school of music practicing. I couldn’t imagine anybody would be that nasty, but the farther into the semester we got, the less firmly I held that belief. First they refused to share pots and pans. Then–hello, petty– one girl accused me of using her cup. (For the record, it was not her cup, it was mine.) Eventually someone accused me of lying about having done my weekly cleaning assignment. They scheduled a meeting with the resident advisor that I didn’t realize was planned as a four-person attack on me until five minutes into the meeting–far too late to prepare any defense.

That was, without question, the worst semester of my life: lonely, introverted, far from home, without a car, without even a place of safety to call home. I don’t dwell much on that time, but whenever I hear the word “condemned,” that’s what comes to mind.

When Jesus went before the Sanhedrin and eventually to Pilate and Herod and back, he was truly innocent–far more than I was. My condemnation came because I was different and I didn’t understand the unwritten rules. Jesus knew the rules–the written ones and the unwritten. He also knew what was wrong with them, and he wasn’t afraid to point it out.

So this station for me is a point of solidarity. Much of Jesus’ passion defies true comprehension, but this–being condemned when you really didn’t do anything wrong–this I understand.  And understanding brings me a step closer.

The Lent You Want vs. the Lent You Need

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flowers in the snow

flowers in the snow (Photo credit: elpostito)

I confess: I have an idealized view of Lent. My first spring in grad school, Lent came like a breath of renewal on the heels of one of the most difficult six months of my life. My first semester had been a nightmare of homesickness and a hellish roommate situation interspersed with glorious moments of musical learning and discovering like-minded friends. When Lent came around that year, I couldn’t go home for Easter. Every fiber of my soul longed for the familiar sounds and faces of my parish back home.

I thought it would be a miserable forty (-six) days. Instead, the whole season gleams in my memory with a concentrated, pure white flame, as all the suffering and loneliness concentrated to a point and softened the ground of my soul. It was one of the most fertile times of soul growth I have ever experienced, a season in which joy walked beside me on the long daily trek from my apartment to the school of music, across fields and a creek, while winter passed slowly and softly into a spring like nothing I had ever seen. (Spring feels different in places where it’s actually cold and snow-covered all winter.)

I’ve never had another Lent like that one. The next year I spent the season preparing for Comps, which, by virtue of being scheduled for Easter Monday, forced me to spend even Easter Sunday studying. (Blech!) Since then I’ve occasionally caught a whiff of that sanctity, but that spring of 1998 remains the ideal for which I strive.

This Lent has been just about as 180 degrees the opposite direction as it is possible for a Lent to be. I’m failing miserably at my Lenten goals (so spectacularly that at present I can’t even remember what they were anymore). As anyone who’s read my blog the last few weeks knows, I’ve not been a picture of holy motherhood and saintly living lately. And although the provocations are certainly not without justification, it doesn’t change the fact that my response has been less grace-filled and more sinful.

But it occurred to me this weekend–when I went to Confession so to leave the anger and temper loss in the past, and then came home to lose my cool again spectacularly that night–that sometimes the Lent you want is not the Lent you need. Sometimes we need to spend a few weeks staring at the excruciating image in the mirror: the one that forces us to live with the knowledge of our own powerlessness against sin, and how much we need God to carry us through it.

Welcome, Risen Jesus (Giveaway!)

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Today I would like to welcome Sarah Reinhard back to the blog to answer everything you ever wanted to know about her Lent/Easter devotional for families, Welcome Risen Jesus.

The last book of yours we talked about was Welcome Baby Jesus, your devotional book for families to use with children during Advent and Christmas. I think everybody knows on some fundamental, gut level that December is badly skewed and that we are in desperate need of resources to help us cling to what really counts. But the same can’t necessarily be said for Lent and Easter. Why is it just as important to take time for devotions during this spring season?

The earth is springing to life all around us (at least here in central Ohio), or we are at least ready for that. And there’s something renewed about me when the days are longer.

I’m an Advent dropout. Every year–and this year was no different–I walk away from Advent as though I have a hangover, and the hangover was a whole season long, and it’s a baby’s fault. Hey! I’ve been through this before!

Every year!

So Lent is almost a palate cleanser. I know I need to do all that stuff I was supposed to do at Advent, and I failed. Again. So here I am with Lent ahead of me. Again.

I’ll fail. But it’s not about what *I* plan, is it? It’s not about what *I* have in mind, is it?

Or that seems to be the lesson I need to learn.

Every day during Lent, you offer a scripture, a reflection (“Think”), and sections titled “Act,” “Fast,” and “Pray.” Some of these “fasts” are really hard-hitting: give your favorite part of the meal to someone else. Give up some play time to do two chores around the house. Be cheerful today, even when you’re annoyed. You’ve really nailed some tough things for kids to do! What’s the key to getting kids to keep a good attitude, so they don’t say, “Oh, no, LEEEEEEEENNNNNNNT!”?

Wait a minute: I have to get my KIDS to do this stuff?

Oh yeah. Riiiiiight.

Well, Kate, truth is: it’s all been a theory to me. This is the year when I put my book where my mouth is. (Actually, I’m going to use YOUR book. I need a bit more distance from my own words.)

I can only tell you what I do for myself: I just buckle down. It’s like exercise: you know you have to do it, but it doesn’t have to be THAT bad. Sometimes the dread of a thing is WAY worse than the actuality.

Most books seem to focus only on the penitential season. Why do you think it’s important to continue the devotions through Easter?

What I love about being Catholic is that we take our celebrations seriously. Like 40 days of partying seriously.

In college, when I thought a party had to come with a hangover afterward, I would have been stunned to consider this kind of serious partying. 40 DAYS! FOR REAL!

Now, granted, we’re not supposed to get sloshed and silly: this is a time to draw closer to God. And what better way to do that than continue those things we were striving to do during Lent–minus the fasting, OF COURSE.

How important is it to do this every single day?

I don’t think it matters. At least, it can’t matter for ME, because I’ll get all obsessive and focused on that. And that is NOT what the focus is to be!

If you miss a day–and chances are, if you’re anything remotely like me, you will!–forgive yourself and pick it up the next day. It’s okay. Jesus understands. And he will be there risen in all his glory for you on Easter. Period.

Do you envision these reflections as self-directed, in other words, for older kids who can read the book themselves, or for younger kids who need the devotions read to them? Since the “act” and “fast” sections are meant to be day-long activities, how do you make sure you carve out time to do them as a family?

The first thing that comes to mind for my family is to do the reflections the night before, perhaps as part of an after-dinner (or even during dinner) discussion. I’ve even thought about making it part of our before bed ritual during Advent.

Then, the next morning, you can just remind each other of what the day’s focus is, maybe pray the prayer together, and out the door you go with your crazy day!

Thanks, Sarah, for taking time to visit with us about your book. Everybody, I hope you can get a sense of the down-to-earth approach she takes to faith. We all need some of that! Welcome, Risen Jesus can be found at your local Catholic bookstore or by going online at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or direct from Liguori.

AND…..just as we did during Advent, Sarah and I are giving away a set of our books. She’s giving away a set, I’m giving away a set. To enter, leave a comment below (or on Facebook!), and check out Sarah’s post by clicking below.

Lentgiveaway-reinhard-basi

Scouts, Flannery & Everybody Loves Michael: A 7QT post

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Last night Alex had a Cub Scout pack meeting. His den was supposed to hold doors for everyone upon arrival. As I walked by on the way to the bathroom, I saw six boys wrestling over control of one set of doors…and Alex calmly, without fuss, holding the other set open all by himself.

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It was my first Cub Scout meeting, and it was so interesting as a parent to see renewed proof of the way my firstborn wears his heart on his sleeve. Most notably his enthusiasm and fervor for what he’s doing. He was the only person (adult or child) in the whole building who held his hand above his head as he recited the scout salute.

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Speaking of Scouts, recently my mother has been sharing with our family some information about a connection (at the national level as well as in certain badge requirements) between Girl Scouts and Planned Parenthood. I’m wondering how others have weighed this in their families and parishes. Another friend told me that the American Heritage Girls, a faith-based scouting organization, is now partnering with Boy Scouts. We have a troop at another parish in our town. Considering Alex is already involved in BSA, this seems like a good solution for us. But I’m still curious about how others have handled this.

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Wednesday nights are always very late nights in our house–choir practice–and everyone knows perfectly well that upon returning home it is toilet, teeth, jammies and bed. Yet every week we have to tell Nicholas again why we are not reading bedtime books. Then he pulls a martyr face and drags out his sense of injustice as long as possible. It frequently comes down to a countdown. You know: “FIVE! FOUR!”

Well, this week Nicholas started moving at that point, so Christian stopped counting. Silence fell in the upstairs for a moment, and then Julianna, perched happily on the toilet, got tired of waiting. “WEEEEEEEE,” she yelled (three).

Well, that didn’t come out funny. Sorry. It was funny at the time.

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Katharine, of Plume of Doom, started Tweeting Flannery O’Connor quotes this week. It was the nudge I needed to go to the library and check out her complete short stories. It’s so illuminating to the process of writing short stories, which is what I’m working on right now. But Katharine shared this quote in a Goodreads review yesterday, from a letter written by O’Connor: “”There is a question whether faith can or is supposed to be emotionally satisfying. I must say that the thought of everyone lolling about in an emotionally satisfying faith is repugnant to me. I believe we are ultimately directed Godward but that this journey is often impeded by emotion.”

Zing.

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Are you ready for Lent yet???

Cover Art: Bringing Lent To Life

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And finally, some photos, which I will simply call “everybody loves Michael…but Michael doesn’t always love everybody’s love!”

Love this shot

Love this shot

Roommates always have a love-hate relationship, right?

Roommates always have a love-hate relationship, right?

As an aside, Nicholas loves that hat. Which is good because it's a) super cute, and b) super warm.

As an aside, Nicholas loves that hat. Which is good because it’s a) super cute, and b) super warm.

Alex loves making Michael laugh by getting right in his face and SHOUTING!!!!!!! It works...usually.

Alex loves making Michael laugh by getting right in his face and SHOUTING!!!!!!! It works…usually.

Enough already!

Until it doesn’t. Enough already!

7 quick takes sm1 7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 204)

Sunday Love Letters

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Photo by Garrettc, via Flickr

When I was writing about Lent, an odd theme kept cropping up: relationships. It seemed off–I grew up associating Lent with repentance, sorrow and fasting. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the purpose of repentance, sorrow and fasting is to mend the broken relationship with God. I came to understand Lent as a journey, one foot in front of the other, on a path that leads to intimacy with Him.

As I thought about mending relationship with God, I kept thinking about other relationships that need healing and strengthening. I kept thinking about how our love for God is measured by our love for  others. And I thought of one of my sisters, with whom childhood was a perpetual battle of unkindness, and how, in young adulthood, our unresolved childhood angst piled up until we had a huge fight and didn’t speak for a year.

I realized that the relationship with God and the relationship with our loved ones run parallel. Maybe they’re even one and the same. So I came up with writing Sunday love letters to family members.

The idea is to write a letter to a different family member each week, focusing on what we love about them (not what drives us crazy–because let’s face it, that’s the part we notice most often), underscoring the ways in which we see God in them, and perhaps healing breaches.

We haven’t gotten it done every week. It’s been a crazy busy Lent so far. But we’ve done it twice now, and now I know that idea was inSpiration.

Here is what the first week looked like:

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The second time–yesterday–we wrote notes on leaves instead. The small format works well for little kids in big families. I read my note to Alex:

Do you know that Grandma said last night that every time you walk in, the whole room lights up? I am so amazed when I look at you.

You are JUST LIKE ME.

I love you so much.

Alex stood silently for a minute, then made a dash for his Spiderman game with a suspicious look on his face. “Alex,” I said, “are you crying?”

“No!” he said. (Duh, Mommy!) He returned to whacking bad guys with spiderwebs. “But my eyes are watering.”

Focusing on relationships can be uncomfortable.

But it is also beautiful.

When Prayer Feels Empty

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Photo by Carlos 90, via Flickr

I seem to be collecting a lot of prayer intentions lately. Not that there’s anything strange about that–it’s just that for some reason, recently they seem to be hitting a lot closer to home. In times past, I used to promise to pray and then forget all about it. (Yes, I was one of those people, I’m sorry to admit.) Eventually I learned when someone requested prayers, I had to stop whatever I was doing and pray then and there.

But these days, it seems I can’t get these people out of my mind. At odd times during the day I surface from the depths of my own affairs with a heaviness in my chest, a heaviness surrounding a name or two.

We are urged to be specific and forward in our prayers–in other words, to expect miracles. But I’ve grown suspicious of this kind of prayer. The longer I live, the more I see the value of the process. I believe God can work massive, instantaneous change, but most often He doesn’t…because there is value to the process, to the change wrought in us that would not happen if we were miraculously and instantly rescued from suffering.

So for the past several weeks, I’ve prayed for healing from my lingering ear infection, from the leftover fluid and hearing loss…but with no expectation that it will vanish overnight, despite a friend’s prayer for exactly that. Maybe that shows lack of faith. But on the other hand, through this process I’ve learned empathy for the elderly as they are slowly robbed of their hearing–a lesson I would not have gained otherwise. This experience reaffirms a different approach to prayer–one that focuses on grace to endure, on strength and understanding instead of relief from pain. Change my heart, this time. That, after all, is the purpose of prayer: not to force God to do our will, but to open our minds and hearts to accept God’s. I’ve learned to stop asking God to “fix it,” and to ask instead for the grace to accept what is. To say, “What do you want me to learn from this, Lord?”

But it’s one thing to embrace the search for wisdom and insight through suffering in myself. It’s altogether different to try to philosophize away someone else’s pain. I pray grace and strength and insight for them, too…but mostly I beg God to identify a quick exit from their suffering. And the words seem empty. Isn’t a pithy “Lord, please (fill in the blank)” just a pious platitude unless I put action behind it? Shouldn’t I seek some way to ease a friend’s suffering?

I’ve never wished I had Godlike powers so much as when I hear pain and confusion in the voices of those I care about. Yet the reality is that I have no control at all. I can’t heal broken bodies or broken relationships. I can’t remove the circumstances of another’s suffering.

So I pray, recognizing that only God has the answers. And maybe that’s the point, after all: that hurting with those who hurt binds me not only to them, but to God.

(Sharing with Michelle’s community on week one of focusing on the pillars of Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.)