Uncomfortable Miracles

14 Nov

Last week, during an intermission at a choral concert, my friend and I were comparing notes about our rapidly changing bodies. Her third baby is due on November 24 and my first is due on November 30.

“Do these pews seem shallow to you?” she asked me. “I can’t get comfortable.”

“Is it really hot in here?” I asked her, taking off my scarf.

She’s experiencing symptoms of carpal tunnel in her right hand due to swelling. We’re tired and waddling. We’re both having fairly uncomfortable contractions, accompanied by back pain, shortness of breath, sweating, and headaches. I refilled my water bottle once and used the bathroom three times during the concert. “I’m a hot mess,” I whispered to her, and she giggled, feeling the same way. I looked around at the men in the audience with real amazement laced with both jealousy and pity, deeply realizing that none of them would or could know what my friend and I were enduring. I thought of both the trial and the gift I was living and reflected on how brokenness builds compassion.

I love the idea of being pregnant of my ability to bear another person’s body in my body. My ability to feed it and nurture it and grow with it. For me, there are serious theological ties here to communion (here is my body, broken for you) and the cross (Jesus taking our humanity, sin and death into his body and bearing it on the cross in order to offer us divinity and life). But the idea of being pregnant and actually being pregnant are two different things.

People, women with children in particular, keep looking at my gigantic belly and tell me, “It’s a miracle.”

It doesn’t always feel like a miracle. I really thought I would be one of those women who loved every moment of being pregnant, like I loved the idea of it, but I don’t. Even though I am excited to be a mother and honored to carry my child in my body, although I am curious about what my body is capable of and know without a doubt it will be worth it, I don’t think that requires me to love being uncomfortable and experiencing (although temporary) serious limitations. The idea of being pregnant is so romantic to me. Actually being pregnant is painful, consuming, humbling, and most days it is just plain exhausting. It surprises me that I don’t love every minute of being pregnant. I guess I just thought being part of a miracle would be more fun.

The idea of a miracle and actually being part of a miracle are two different things. Maybe it is how the miracle stories were written in the gospels. At times, Jesus seems to snap his fingers and the person benefits immediately. No nine month incubation period there. Maybe it is how Paul talks about life in the spirit in a way we can think it is separate with life in the body– that spiritual transformation can happen by rising above the matter of the body. Maybe it is how miracles are culturally perceived and presented in the media, with glowing light and slow music and tears of joy. Or maybe it is our constant misperception that good things are devoid of pain. But it actually came as a surprise to me how messy, draining, embodied and rough around the edges this whole miracle thing is. And I know, with the 30th approaching, it is about to get a whole lot messier.

This is a lesson I have to keep learning over and over again in life. There are real physical consequences for love. Miracles do not transcend, but work in and through the body. Love is not easy, but messy. Bodies were really healed. Jesus really suffered and really died before he really rose. And soon, through gritted teeth and pain and blood, the little creation inside of me will join us as a messy miracle.

12 Nov


“We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programs, mechanisms, and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment, and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality.”

Joy of the Gospel #204

In 2000 at the United Nations, 192 nations committed to 8 Millennium Development Goals to achieve by 2015. It took only 10 years to achieve the first goal — to cut in half the number of people living on $1.25 a day. Today 90% of the children in our world complete primary school, both girls and boys (goal 2). More than 2.3 billion people had safe drinking water by 2012.

In fact, the success of the MDGs shows more is possible. The United Nations is working on Sustainable Development Goals to focus and further the work of a sustainable future for all.

“Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, enabling them to be fully a part of society” (Joy of the Gospel #187).

What is a way you work to include people in poverty in our economy?

Gospel Reflection for November 16, 2014, 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

11 Nov

“Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said, ‘Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter, so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here it is back.'”

Matthew 25.24-25

One talent is equivalent to 6,000 denarii. One denarius is the standard day’s wage for a worker in Jesus’ time. Anyone who works six days a week for one denarius a day earns 340 denarii a year. An ordinary laborer would work 17 years to earn one talent. The master in Sunday’s gospel entrusts his servants with incredible wealth.

Each human person receives the priceless windfall of life itself. We each have life without having caused ourselves to be. Our ancestors have invested themselves in relationships and efforts that bring us to full adulthood. Jesus invested his life in the human race, identifying with us totally unto death, opening to us all we can become in God. How do we use these extravagant down payments on ourselves?

What is one of the most valuable ways you have invested your life energies in our world and its people?

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Companions in Grief

6 Nov
via Flickr user Howard Ignatius

via Flickr user Howard Ignatius

“Ellie, are we going to pray today?” a tenth grader at church asked me during programming last Wednesday.

“Yes, we are going to close in prayer today. Why?”

Her chin quivered first for a moment before she broke down into tears. She found out at the end of her school day that a classmate of hers had committed suicide. She was confused and hurting. “I don’t understand. He was happy and well liked, involved in school. I don’t get it.”

When young people lose a peer, it is uniquely devastating. They themselves realize they are mortal. And they don’t have much practice, yet, in grieving. I have found, in working with young people, that it can even be a divide. There are some who know death and others who just don’t yet. And it’s not the latter groups’ fault, but it can be isolating for the former.

All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day is an annual opportunity to remember, to light a candle, to say a prayer, to articulate a memory. It helps teach us how to grieve and continue living. We need these times and spaces created to validate our hurt and loss and offer tangible ways to invite us into active grieving. This liturgical celebration came at just the right time for the grieving tenth grader, but it made me think of other assistance to grief that we lean on throughout the year.

In her touching New York Times article, “Wild Messengers,” Jennifer Holland writes: “Many describe the experience of being ‘visited’ by a wild animal soon after a loved one’s death or on an important anniversary of that death.” She herself had been visited by nine bald eagles on a winter drive on the ninth of the month while her mother was dying from cancer. “I couldn’t help but think that those birds were nature’s messenger, sharing what was coming. Perhaps even telling me that final exhale was a good thing, powerful and beautiful in its lasting quiet.”

I lost a good friend to cancer when she was too young. On her first missed birthday, when she was supposed to be with us turning twenty-five, I was in Iguazu National Park in South America surrounded by the beauty of waterfalls. For two days, butterflies accompanied me, ticking my face. My friend loved butterflies and had one tattooed on her foot, so I chose to feel her presence in those butterflies, experiencing beauty with me and continuing our relationship. The gorgeous wild creatures offered me comfort and helped me grieve. In my mind and heart, they were wild messengers. As Holland says:

When we mourn, isn’t it not just for our relationship with a person, but also for the physical presence of her, her aliveness? The voice, smell, textures and warmth, the gestures we know intimately, all of these are replaced with their opposites in death. We are left with a hole that the energy that powered the person through life once filled. And so I think many of us seek signs of that energy at work somewhere else. A butterfly keeps circling you and perching on your arm. A deer raises its head from grazing, landing its gaze on you. A dog you’ve never seen before makes a beeline to you from nowhere, demands a little love, then moves on. I admit to taking an extra look at a particularly tame squirrel or a bird chirping right outside my back door, thinking, Mom, is that you? I feel a little silly, yes, but even a quick connection with that warm, energetic thing soothes me in that moment.

God offers us spaces of comfort in and outside of the church building and liturgical calendar, in All Saints’ Day and in the wild, to name two. We miss the energy of the ones we lost. We want to believe that some of the energy of our loved ones is conserved in the living around us. While we grieve, we are vulnerable and open. We are looking outside of ourselves for meaning. We live in this space between worlds. We are open and hungry to see things we do not normally see. In this way, the grieving are living in a state of holiness.



Gospel Reflection for November 9, 2014, Dedication of Lateran Basilica

3 Nov

“For 46 years this Temple has been being built, and you are going to raise it up in three days?”

John 2.20

In Sunday’s gospel Jesus cleanses the Temple.  The passage focuses on his prophetic actions, chasing out the animals for sacrifice, dumping the coins for paying Temple taxes, and overturning the money changers’ tables.  Jesus’ prophetic actions take place at Passover, the best time for business at the Temple.  What Jesus does is like throwing out the merchandise at Macy’s the last week before Christmas.

What prophetic action might Jesus do in our Church today?

Scripture Readings: Ezekiel 47, 1-2, 8-9, 12; 1 Corinthians 3.9c-11, 16-17; John 2.13-22

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31 Oct
via Flickr user Lars Hammar

via Flickr user Lars Hammar

I love communion. It is a mysterious ritual that always lives a bit beyond our human understanding. I love bread. I married a man who makes bread from scratch– baguettes, pizza dough, bagels and loaves of cracked wheat fill our kitchen with flour and the smell of goodness rising. I love sharing meals with people, the special thing that happens when we take the time to break bread together. When I take communion, I am often filled with memories of all the places around the world where I have shared in the meal. Partaking helps me feel connected to people in different times and places who were searching for the same thing– to be fed. I remember work over the years in shelters and kitchens where redistributing good food brings dignity to us and neighbor. I remember the loaves and fishes story- Jesus using ordinary elements to do extraordinary things. Communion is visible and tangible, and when it is done well, the welcoming and sustaining nature can be a true glimpse of the kingdom.

I just finished Take This Bread by Sara Miles. It is a stunning spiritual memoir about food and bodies and communion. Raised atheist, Sara unexpectedly stumbles into St. Gregory’s church to receive communion. “I’d understood the world first, and best, by putting it in my mouth.” She was hungry, she was welcomed and she kept coming back for more. Communion became, for her, opening food pantries at the church and all around the neighborhood.  Jesus told his followers, while gazing at the hungry crowd, to feed them. They did, and so do we. “Jesus invited notorious wrongdoers to his table, airily discarded all the religious rules of the day, and fed whoever showed up, by the thousands. In the end, he was murdered for eating with the wrong people…. I believe this God rose from the dead to have breakfast with his friends.”

Last Sunday, I helped distribute communion to a full house at our church. Fifty youth who I had worked with over the last year were getting confirmed, so we had family and friends coming in from all over to share in the worship. Some people, not used to dipping bread into wine or having a grape juice compartment as an option in the chalice or maybe taking communion at all, whispered questions about how to proceed. I helped them move through as comfortably as possible. Partaking in ritual can take courage. One woman who asked, “Which side do I use?” I answered, “Either. This is wine, this is grape juice, but it all works.” I smiled. God’s saving love is bigger than the rules, our choices, and our actions.

“This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.”

“This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.”

“This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.”

Over and over again, I looked each person in the eye and repeated the audacious claim. It is one thing to receive communion and hear the words once. It’s another to be part of the blessing for everyone who shows up. The words became meditative as I worked to not go through the motions, but engage with each person. About half way through serving the wine, I got a little emotional. The particularity of it all– shed for you, and for you, and for you– within the community of it all set in. We are all hungry, we were all welcomed, we are all saved. Young and old, committed to church and not, we all came forward and received the same gift. Communion is powerful.

I’m with Sara: “There’s a hunger beyond food that’s expressed in food,” she writes, “and that’s why feeding is always kind of a miracle.”

Gospel Reflection for November 2, 2014, All Souls Day

28 Oct

“All that the Father gives me will come to me; no one who comes to me will I ever reject.”

John 6.37

Death calls for faith. It is the ultimate threshold of human life beyond which we cannot see. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the heart of Christian faith.

The God who raised Jesus from the dead is the God of creation. The God of our first day is the God of the last day. The God in whom all that is originates and evolves is the God at the heart of all that the cosmos will become. All creation testifies to God’s life-giving power. All creation calls us to faith in the giver of life, the giver of our days. All that lives is a sign of who God is.

What does creation testify about your God?

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You Matter

24 Oct
via Flickr user Charamelody

via Flickr user Charamelody

The Hebrew Scripture is tough. It’s long and old. It requires studying it year in and year out, so much more than just reading it like a devotional or a novel. Translating the stories to our own lives is daunting to say the least. And I think it’s easy for Christians to oversimplify the whole Bible into law and Gospel– the Hebrew Scripture is law and the Christian Scripture is Gospel. The Hebrew Scripture God is wrathful and angry and the Christian Scripture God is loving and approachable. So let’s skim the tough stuff and get to the good news. This dichotomy is not helpful or true. It limits God. It limits us.

If we do commit, if we do read the Hebrew Scripture year in and year out, we find a wealth of beauty in its stories. We find human characters and moments to relate to. And maybe most importantly, we learn about the complex nature of our God.

In his fantastic reflection of the God of Noah and Abraham, Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels points out an important difference in the two human characters. In both stories, God is angry and wants to cause destruction:

Noah is obedient, he walks with God, but he makes no attempt to intervene; he simply saves himself from destruction. Abraham, on the other hand, acts to transform the situation. Though humble, Abraham is not content to merely be led. He confronts God, challenges the decree and insists on involvement. Indeed, Abraham is active and involved from the beginning, converting the citizens of Haran to the one God. While Noah provides rescue and disaster relief, Abraham is involved in the long hard work of reconstruction and transformation. And we identify ourselves, of course, as the descendants of Abraham, not of Noah. It is Abraham who is our model and aspiration.

We see a difference in maturity between Noah and Abraham, but also between the God of Noah and the God of Abraham. The God of Abraham includes Abraham in the decision-making. Unlike with the flood, God has seemingly learned that God needs to involve humanity in the process. The Abraham story shows us that God needs us. God uses us. God wants our engagement and realizes “perhaps the limits of divine omniscience.”

What is so exciting to me about the progression shown from Noah to Abraham is that our relationship with God is dynamic. It moves and grows. As difficult as it is to believe, God needs our intervention, our courage, our articulated longing. God needs us to fight for humanity. We are in process with God. God is willing to grow and change if we are.

And this brings me back to God being limited by our over-simplification of God’s nature in the Hebrew Scripture. We see God’s anger, yes, but we also see God’s intimacy. God gets angry because God loves creation. God’s willingness to compromise omnipotence for relationship is stunning. The stories remind us of God’s fierce love and commitment to us. In order to engage and intercede, we have to believe that we matter to God. These ancient stories bring us back to that truth.

Gospel Reflection for October 26, 2014, 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time

21 Oct

“Teacher, which commandment is greatest?”  

Matthew 22.36

Gospel love is not an idea or an emotion but an imperative–a call to act.  The two great commandments–to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves–recognize that acts of love weave us into community, just as selfish and violent acts fray the social fabric.  The commandments are more than rules to keep and thereby gain heaven.  The actions to which they call us are the hammer and nails of Christians community.”

Who that you once treated as an alien or no-good have you treated as a neighbor?  With what result?

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