Monday, September 26, 2011

Changing Our Minds

"A man had two sons. He went to the first son and said, 'Son, go and work today in the vineyard.' 'I will not', he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, 'I will, sir,' but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?" [Matthew 28- 31]

It is said that "It is a woman's perogative to change her mind." I actually resent this saying. It makes it sound like all women are fickle, that they are too feeble to know their own minds. It also hints at a certain level of manipulativeness on the part of women. All very unflattering views of women. And very negative connotations to the notion of changing our minds.

Or, what do we say about a politician who changes his mind on hot-button issues? We say that he is "waffling". That he is flip flopping. The latter sounds like he is a fish out of water, out of his element, even on his way to certain death. It is surely the death knell to a politician's popularity if he dares to change his mind. A politician changing his mind makes him seem weak, untrustworthy, even opportunistic.

My young son thinks that adults are fully formed and that we always know-- and do-- the right thing. Then he becomes infuriated if he sees adults parking in a No Parking Zone. Or being mean to their kids. I remind him that just because I am as tall as I will ever be, I am still growing and changing on the inside. I also tell him that when you make a mistake, it is more praiseworthy to fix it than to keep repeating the mistake.

This parable in Matthew presumes that we need to change our minds! Why?! Because we are human and sometimes, it takes a few tries to get it right. I feel blessed that God is that patient with me!

Several years ago, I changed my mind in a deep and profound way. You see, I was the victim of a violent crime. I was so beaten, my own mother did not recognize me. When I fought the attacker and he did not get his way with me, he started to strangle me.  I was beginning to pass out. After the attacker mercifully left me alive but wounded, I called 911. When the police came, the officer told me that I had been within 30 seconds to a minute from death.

In the ensuing days, I was understandably in shock. But gradually over the following weeks, I realized this the attacker needed serious help. He did not need to be put to death by the state. That would be only more violence. I had almost died, I did not need to witness more death. I was in law school then and as I hung around the law school Legal Aid clinic, I came to see how shockingly often that mistakes were made in court. It was then that I changed my mind on the death penalty.  If I had been asked to testify against my attacker in a penalty phase, I would have advocated against the death penalty.

Another very impressive man who changed his mind was Robert Curley. His ten year old son Jeffrey was abducted and sexually assaulted in MA in 1997.  I have heard Robert Curley speak, and it is inspiring to hear him talk about how he fell into rage and despair after the death of his son; but how gradually, he realized that his anger and desire for revenge would not bring his son back. He went from advocating for the death penalty, to speaking out strongly against capital punishment.

How weak is it of us to find out the truth and to change our minds? Consider St. Paul, who called himself the unlikeliest of saints, who went from zealous persecutor to one of the most dedicated --and most persecuted--apostles for Christ. Or, consider John Newton. He began his young working life as the captain of a slave ship, witnessing and perpetuating the most vicious humiliation of his "cargo". He ended up a minister --and  the author of the hymn Amazing Grace!

By what amazing grace can YOU change your mind? With what courage can YOU seek the truth and dare to speak it?

(c) The Spiritual Devotional 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Coming to Believe

" What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work today in the vineyard.'   'I will not', he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, 'I will, sir', but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?" [Matthew 21: 28-31].

I have one son, but sometimes, I think I have two sons, he so often acts like two opposite creatures,with two minds.

Recently, I asked my son to go out and water my flowers, while I went to the market to pick up some milk for him. His answer? "No!" I was angry with him for being so disrespectful. I said, "I hope to see a better attitude when I get home!" I went to the market. When I came home, the flowers were watered.

I asked my husband, "Did YOU water the flowers for me?" My husband said, "No, our son did."

Needless to say, although I did not care for our son's initially poor attitude, I was thrilled that he came around. I praised him for his obedience.

But sometimes, I tell my son that he has played his computer games long enough and he needs to turn off the game and do his homework. What I get is, "Yess, Momm!" His tone is absent-minded. His voice is faint, not very convincing. I can tell that he is "yes-yessing" me. He has no intention of turning off the computer game. Anytime soon.

He is telling me yes, but he means no. This infuriates me. He is patronizing me, treating me like he knows better; giving me false hopes; even failing to tell the truth.

I read this Scripture and I think, how modern the Bible is. Every parent who has received a patronizing, 'Yes, mom', knows the despair at hearing this delaying tactic.  How do you think God feels when we tell Him yes, but we have no intention of being obedient? Or somehow we never get around to doing it?

Which son would you rather be? As terrible as it is to say no to God, I would rather be the first son.

In fact, I have been like the first son for most of the years of my faith formation. When I was young, I buried my faith because I did not dare stand up to my family, who did not believe in church or religion.

After awhile, I had ceased attending church for so long, I almost started to believe my family's rhetoric that there was no God and that church was a waste of time, and was only for sinners.

Then I married a Christian and a Catholic. I dutifully went to church with him but never seemed to get around to converting. I was an official fence-sitter when it came to actually choosing a church and a religion.

I was a faithful church-goer without a religion  for literally decades. I don't know what I was thinking, that God would just go away and leave me alone? Even my  young son had conversations with me about choosing a church so I could receive the Eucharist. My sweet young son was worried about my soul, my relationship to God!

Finally, finally, after the sudden death of my father, after facing the death of my best friend and the terminal illness of my mother--- FINALLY, I went to the pastor and complained that I could no longer see God! And this is the process that brought me from the depths of despair, to conversion.

God is so generous, that He will take your no's for a very long time. He will wait for you as long as it takes; and He will accept you with joyous and loving arms when you are finally ready to say yes -- even if you are the worst sinner, even if you try to ignore Him for most of your life, even if  you have serious doubts about your faith for decades.

The point is, that God loves you for making the right decision in the end. He expects us to be imperfect in our love for Him, we are human. He also expects us to change and grow over time. He ardently wishes for us to turn to Him, despite our doubts, despite our fears, despite our inability to sometimes even see that He is there. Or maybe, He desires us to turn to Him because of all these challenges!

God, I thank you for your generous love for me, even if I may doubt You, or fear becoming closer to You, or fail to appreciate Your constant devotion. Thank You for the powerful opportunity to change my mind!

(c) The Spiritual Devotional 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Family Day

"Man does not live by bread alone." [Deuteronomy 8].

In my parish, September 26 is "Family Day: A Day to Eat Dinner With Your Children."  Family Day is sponsored by Columbia University's National Center On Addiction and Substance Abuse.

You think, what does eating dinner with your children have to do with substance abuse? It turns out, a lot. Families who regularly eat dinner with their children tend to raise children who do not abuse drugs, alcohol or smoke cigarettes. The simple act of a shared meal, gentle conversation, laughter and sharing of stories binds families together.

A generation ago, it was unthinkable not to have family dinnertime every night of the week. I still cook dinner every night, and my family and I eat together around the kitchen table. When people find out about that, some say to me, "You COOK?! Every night?!"  I find that sad. It makes me feel like some sort of bizarre anomaly.

A generation ago, the family and the church were at the center of everyday life. Not so any longer-- and we are not necessarily the better for that.

What has become the norm today is a far different picture. Maybe the kids have too many athletic practices and games after school. "Dinner" becomes grabbing some fast food in the car on the way to the sports field. Maybe mom or dad work late most nights. Maybe the kids eat dinner in front of the TV, then retire to the computer or to electronic games, while mom and dad eat dinner separately.

Growing up, we ate dinner every night in the dining room- and no TV was allowed! If the phone rang during dinner, my mother would gripe, WHO is THAT calling during the dinner hour?!

One of the fondest memories I have is of going to my grandmother's house every week for Sunday dinner. My whole family would be there, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins.  Grandma would serve a big dinner in the middle of the day-- a roast of some sort, some potatoes roasted with the meat, and two kinds of vegetables, plus a home made dessert.  We celebrated every holiday, every anniversary, every birthday.

These were the ties that would bind us as a family. I have for the most part lost those ties. My grandparents and my parents are all gone. The rest of us have all moved far away from each other, moved on. But I miss those Sundays!

Think of that warm, happy feeling you get from Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, with all the relatives together for the day. I would posit that it is much more than the fancy meal and extravagant desserts fueling that happy feeling. A family dinner is about much more than a full belly. No, it is about the connection that we get from being with our "clan", a feeling of being part of something, of belonging to someone.

When I got married, I vowed that we would always sit down to a meal together at the end of the day. There were times early in our marriage that all we could afford were rice and beans, or canned tunafish for dinner. But every night, we would light a candle, count our blessings and break bread together.

Sometimes, my young son asks, Why do we have to eat together, at the same time? I tell him, Only wolves eat alone. He asks, Why do we have to sit at the table to eat? I tell him, Only horses eat standing up. Sharing a daily meal together is what makes us human.

It also encourages family conversation. I have been noticing lately that parents talk AT kids, not with them: "Sit down! Be quiet! Eat! Sit up straight! Stop that!" Of course, a parent's job is to teach their children by giving instruction. But addressing one's children as people in their own right, with a story to tell, or maybe even an opinion on world hunger, is extremely valuable too.  

So, it turns out that this mealtime ritual does not just bring on good feelings. It is powerful medicine for the soul.

God, I do not live by bread alone. Bring me together, with those I love, for my daily meal. Give me my daily bread of food to eat, and of love from my family to feed my soul.

(c) The Spiritual Devotional 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Last Shall Be First

" Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last, the same as I gave you. . . .Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first and the first will be last." [Matthew 20: 14-16]

In this parable, Jesus tells the story of a vineyard owner who pays hired laborers, who worked for only an hour or so, the same amount as laborers who worked all day. In the business world, this would not only be unfair, it would be an outrage! Why should a man who worked only an hour be paid the same amount as a man who struggled in the heat to work all day? If a business owner really did run his business this way, there would be a riot.

But in this parable, Jesus is not speaking of the ways of this world. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways." [Isaiah 55: 8].

This is a story of God's kingdom; and in His realm, even if you show up "a day late and a dollar short", as the saying goes, you are still welcome. I am someone who showed up at God's table after a lifetime of confusion; doubt in my faith; fear over declaring myself a Christian because I came from a house without faith; periods of ignoring God completely and hoping He would go away; and ultimately, decades of sitting on the fence over the issue of my faith.

Yet --God did NOT "go away"! He waited for me for most of my life. Even when I turned to Him again, only because my life had turned upside down and backwards, when I was overwhelmed and afraid and heartbroken, He welcomed me with open arms. You see, I am the laborer who arrived at the end of the day, still hoping to get paid by God's generosity, even though I was so very late. I thank God every day that He welcomed me-- despite my doubt, my fear, my considerable tardiness! He gives me the same amount of love and generosity as those who have believed in Him their whole lives.

Have you ever been last? Last in a very long line, and furious at those who are being served first? You just want them all to go away so you can sail to the head of the line. You are envious, aren't you? Have you ever been cut off  in traffic by someone with a bigger, faster, fancier car than yours? Infuriating. Have you ever been picked last for the soccer team? Humiliating.

So you know how it feels to be last. I was last my whole life-- the baby, the daughter. I was like the "hood ornament" on the car. Maybe sort of cute, but essentially irrelevant. I was basically along for the ride. If I made a suggestion, I was cut off in mid-sentence, mocked, ignored. I had no say whatsoever in the family plans, what I proposed had no credence. I was the classic baby in the family; there are not even very many photos of me in the family album.

All that changed 3-4 years ago when my father died abruptly. It was a late spring day and I was in the kitchen when the phone rang. My father had collapsed that morning. No one was able to bring him back to life. My brother said to me: "You better come over here, we have some decisions to make."

The whole drive to my parents' home, the place where I grew up, honestly, I thought, "Why is he asking ME what to do ?"

I got to the village where I grew up and I went home. I suddenly found myself in charge! My mother wanted ME to call the family attorney, her relatives, the neighbors. She and my brother looked to ME to make decisions regarding the funeral arrangements, the readings for the service, the flowers, the food to be arranged. Relatives from the old country, where my father grew up, called and wanted to know if I would still be coming home that summer to host the annual family reunion, as my father had done before me.

Clearly my father's mantle had passed --to ME! I was overwhelmed by all this attention and respect that I was suddenly receiving. I was not used to getting this much credence when I spoke. Over the years of being forgotten and neglected, I had gone quiet. I had convinced myself that I was invisible. Sometimes I wondered-- if no one seemed to notice me, did I even exist?  Why was I here?

This sudden status did not go away even after my father's funeral. I was tapped to take care of my father's estate, to devise a plan for our mother's care, to sell her house, to manage her finances. The reality of my new role started to get to me. I began to realize that I had power. This was an honor, a privilege. More than that, it was a responsibility.

I had never been first before, not in my whole life. I prayed to be able to use my power wisely, gently, humbly. I even consulted with my spiritual director. I asked, 'Is this a case of "The Last shall be First?" Can God DO that?!' The answer came. Yes, God can turn your life around completely in an instant. You can be first!

I had waited a very long time to have a place at my family's table. In the same way, I began to see that God had waited a very long time for me. And I had waited a very long time for Him. I came to my conversion fearing that God was gone. But that was not so. It's just that for so many years, I was too confused and fearful and doubtful to see that He had been there all along, waiting for me to come to His vineyard!

If you are Last, you can be first. God can see to that. If you are First, you can also be Last, sometime. Either way, it is humbling. Either way, you need God!

God, You waited patiently for me, though I strayed far.  Even if I am late in coming to your table, to your vineyard,  You lift me into your arms, You welcome me into your Kingdom.

(c) The Spiritual Devotional 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Holy Cross

Exaltation of the Holy Cross, September 14

"If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." [Matthew 16: 24]

September 14 is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The story is told that St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, found what was supposed to be Christ's tomb under the Temple of Aphrodite. During construction of a Basilica at that site, three crosses were found. When a dying woman touched one of the crosses, she was healed. It was then believed that Christ's cross had been found.This date celebrates the dedication of that Basilica.

According to American,  the cross was not necessarily a revered object in the early church. For early Christians, the cross was actually an object to be feared. The cross represented the ultimate punishment for being a Christian, in defiance of Rome -- it represented crucifixion.

I remember this fear somewhat myself. You see, it was unacceptable to be Catholic in my home. Never mind that my Irish Nana had been Catholic -- before she married my Protestant grandfather. In my home, to be Catholic was to be a recent immigrant. It meant blindly following the Catholic commandments; this was considered gullible, even dangerous, because it represented a lack of independent thought. Or so my family believed.

When I was 14, after my grandparents died, I was no longer taken to church. I wanted to go to church and I tried to ask, but I was told, No.

Many years later, I met the man who would be my husband. I think I fell for him first and then, I found out that he was Catholic. To talk to my family, they thought I was being defiant. I was not, I simply fell in love with this man who happened to be Catholic.

On one occasion, for a beautiful gift, he gave me a gold cross pendant. I still have it and I still wear it. The cross is tiny and delicate. It looks ethereal because it is perforated through, so that it appears to float.

I used to wear this cross all the time to gatherings at my family's home. But in their presence, I would hide the cross under my shirt. The cross then, became my secret symbol of faith.   You could say it was the defiance of my faith. A hidden rebellion. They could take away church, they could object to my Catholic husband, but they could not take away my faith!

This business of the hidden cross is really nothing new. It reminds me of my Scottish ancestors in the 1700's after the Battle of Culloden. It was a rout, with the British decimating a vast majority of the Scots in battle. Scotland's overt bid for independence from the English crown came to a violent end. After Culloden, the British even banned the Scottish clans from wearing their "colors", i.e., their tartans. It was thought that the wearing of the tartans would give the clans too much continued solidarity. The British wanted to break up the clans, to dilute or eliminate their power.

So the tartans simply went underground. The clans wore their colors as a sash, which got them in trouble. Then they wore their colors as a tassel, which got them in trouble. Finally they wore their colors as a tiny fringe on their belts.  You could ban the tartans, but you could not keep the Scots down.

Throughout history, Christians have been mocked, banned, persecuted, crucified. But the cross remains a symbol of our enduring faith.

To what extent would you, as a Christian under duress, protect your faith? Would you hide your Bible in a secret place? I did. Would you wear your cross under your clothes? I did. Would you sneak off to church and tell others simply that you were "out"? I did. Would you listen to bad advice that it is better to think of yourself over others, to keep as much money for yourself as you can, to distrust people of faith -- then go out and strive as hard as you might to be a better person. To be a Christian? I did.

God, may my faith burn brightly from within. May I wear my cross boldly and proudly as a symbol of that faith.

(c) The Spiritual Devotional 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

September 11

" In the last days, nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more. Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid. All the nations may walk in the name of their gods." [Micah 4: 3]

Where were YOU on September 11, 2001? This is the question on everyone's lips lately.

In a previous generation, people would ask each other, "Where were you when President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed?"  In the generation before that, people would ask each other, "Where were you when Pearl Harbor was bombed?"

On that now infamous day of 9/11/01, I was at home with my young son, who was a baby then. I had just brought him upstairs after breakfast. It was what I call a "blue and gold day", the sunshine radiating brightly, permeating the clear air, the sky as brilliant as a precious blue jewel. It was the kind of day, as my grandfather would have said, that made you glad to be alive.

It was only a few minutes before nine a.m. I was in my bedroom with the baby. The house was silent.
Suddenly the phone rang, piercing the stillness. I picked it up. It was my husband. He did not even say hello, just, "Are you watching this?" I asked what did he mean? He said, "You better turn on the TV!"

My husband and I had met in New York. We had worked in Manhattan and lived there for a few years. New York City had become our home town. I turned on the television in time to see the first plane hit the tower. The plane looked tiny compared to the massive size of the twin towers. I made a joke about King Kong and small planes flying into the Empire State Building. It turns out, a very bad joke.

In fact, many years earlier, I had flown into New York at night and the plane was so close to The World Trade Center, I thought, How easy it would be for a plane to hit the towers. No matter all the lights on top of the towers, why did we have to build such tall skyscrapers? Wasn't that dangerous?

Just at that moment, the baby tumbled off the bed onto the soft carpet. I gasped. As I picked him up, he started to cry. I comforted him. He was alright. The real crisis was on the television screen.

Then the second plane hit. I did not know what to think. we saw footage of the Pentagon on fire and the thirs plane crashing in Shanksville, PA.

All sorts of things went through my mind-- this cannot be an accident if a second plane-- and then a third plane-- has hit so close in time to the first. Then, my God, I could have been in or near those towers; I used to commute  through the World Trade Center stations when I lived in NYC! I would have been on the lower level at exactly 8:45 a.m.!

I could not watch, but I also could not turn my attention away from what was unfolding. I saw firefighters running into the building, fully loaded with gear. I thought frantically, "NO! Don't do it! Don't go in there! You will be trapped!"

I had to shut off the television. I wanted to escape the violent images. I dressed the baby and took him outside into that beautiful day. The weather was surreally beautiful. I thought, ironically, "This is the day that the Lord has made.!' I thought that being outside would comfort me. I love nature and I love how all of the natural world manifests God's majesty and glory. That day, the glory and majesty of my surroundings seemed a dreadful mockery. Worse yet, there was absolutely no one out and about. I would receive no comfort in going outside into the world. There was no one there.

There were no cars on the road. No people walking their dogs, jogging, gardening in their yards. All was deathly still. It was as if someone had declared a solemn national holiday but I was the only one going about the day-- or trying to.

It did not matter where I was, inside or outside. Anywhere I went, I felt a sick knot in the pit of my stomach. This was how I had felt when I came home at age 14 and no one was home and I realized something had gone awfully wrong; when my mother came in and told me that her mother had died suddenly. It is that sick feeling you get when your world is abruptly and violently turned upside down.

Must each generation ask itself such gut wrenching questions: Where were you on this infamous date?

My young son is becoming more and more aware of the world, especially in this global era of ours. He asks, 'Why do the English and Irish have to hate each other? Why do the Japanese and the Chinese not get along? Why are the Turks and the Greeks not friends?'

These questions break my heart. I do not have any answers. I can only tell him,'I think it is because they do not understand each other.' My son replies, 'I am going to grow up to be an ambassador and teach these people about each other. Then they will not hate each other any longer, and there will be peace.'

In the aftermath of the attacks, my young nephew asked his mother, "Mom, why do they hate us?!"

So now my heart breaks AND I am also ashamed. A child is teaching us what it takes to bring nations together, so that "nation will not take up sword against nation nor will they train for war anymore." In the aftermath of 9/11, we  have had only more war, the war that is now the longest in our nation's history. From my son's perspective, we have been at war as long as he can remember.

What does it take for there to be peace in the world? The antidotes to war and fear are not just peace and courage. No, the antidotes to war and fear are love and knowledge.

Where was the love that awful day of September 11, 2001? Certainly not in the multiple attacks on our nation.

Yet --I saw the love in the brave firefighters entering the towers to try to save as many people as possible. I saw the love in the passengers of Flight 93 that came down in a field in PA, choosing to sacrifice their own lives rather than seeing their plane being used as a weapon. I saw the love in the French newspaper Le Monde headline: "Nous sommes tous Americains" [We are all Americans].  I saw the love in the response of the people of Halifax, Canada, where most North American flights were diverted that day; the Nova Scotians opened their schools, their churches, even their homes to stranded passengers. I saw the love in the experience of a friend staying in Europe at the time; everywhere she went, Europeans came up to express their  condolescences.
"May all nations walk in the name of their gods and may no one make them afraid." May we all be one people and love one another deeply.

(c) The Spiritual Devotional 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


" Peter came to Jesus and asked, 'Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?' Jesus answered 'I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.. . . The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. . . .A man who owed him a huge sum was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. The servant fell to his knees before him. 'Be patient with me', he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a tiny sum. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!', he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.' But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could repay the debt. Then the master called his servant in, 'You wicked servant', he said,'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' [Matthew 18: 21-32]

This parable reminds me of the time several years ago, when a young mother came to my mother for advice. The young mother asked, "How many times must I teach my child the right way, must I remind him of what to do, must I forgive him his mistakes, must I correct him and send him on his way again? Five times? Five hundred times?" Clearly this young mother was very frustrated with repeating herself to her son, so many times a day. It seemed like she was getting nowhere with him. She was irritated and even a bit angry at her child for all his young mistakes. How many times was she going to have to forgive him for his errors and start all over again with the same advice?

My mother replied, "Five hundred times. Then five hundred times again. As many times as it takes."

Forgiveness is patience. It is compassion.. the ability to see things from the other person's perspective. It is the discernment of our frailty as humans, our imperfections, our very human-ness.  In the end, it is love!

None of us is perfect. How many times have I gotten myself overtired and overwhelmed, and I have spoken angrily, to my mother, to my husband, to my son? Even to God? How many times have I begun to slip into gossip, erroneously believing that, by their sins, the other person "deserved" to be talked about? How many times have I made mistakes but begun to fall into the trap of blaming others? I think of times that I stopped speaking to good friends for some time, just because I did not like their advice. I think of times that I felt I was so overburdened that I lost myself in my work, when truly, it was more important to give my husband and son the attention they needed? How many times have I complained bitterly to God about what I do not have, rather than being deeply grateful for what I do have?

I hate myself when I sin. I want to be perfect! Maybe I need to start by forgiving myself, then picking myself up and trying again. Because, the truth is, a central part of the human condition is to make mistakes, to hurt others, whether intentionally or untentionally. If I begin by acknowledging my errors and allowing myself the humility of my mistakes, I can seek forgiveness and begin again.

For those mistakes, we all desire to be forgiven. We want to be given another chance to do better next time, without having to bear harsh consequences, without having to lose friends or be put to shame.

Recently, I went to the market to buy food for the week. In my market, there is a special line at the cashier for customers who have only a few items. I had well over the allowed 12-15 items in my cart. By mistake, I got into the express line at the market.

I was not paying attention to the sign. I was in a mental fog. My father had died a couple of years earlier, followed by my best friend, then my mother-in-law, then my mother. After so many deaths over a 2 year period, I was reeling. To make matters worse, many traumatic memories were coming back from my past. Then, my physical health had begun to suffer. Some days, I barely knew what day it was. I was a mess. I was just trying to get through each day, one day at a time.

While I was in this line, I heard another customer grumbling about how, 'Some people do not know what line they belong in.' The cashier was also making disparaging remarks about me. Once I realized my error, I flushed bright red and slunk to another line, muttering that I was having a bad day.

Where was the forgiveness? Where was the benefit of the doubt, that what line I had chosen was an error, not an intentional move to cut in front of others? I wondered, couldn't people have the empathy to realize that sometimes, those who make mistakes are undergoing a difficult time; they need compassion, not excoriation.

I get angry and in despair when others sin against me. Don't we all truly desire the mercy of others? We all want the chance to ask for patience, and to receive forgiveness. This experience made me more determined than ever to show compassion to others. I need to keep working on forgiving others, if I want a more loving world.

This Scripture says that to receive forgiveness, one must grant forgiveness. This is not some quid pro quo formula, where I will grant forgiveness only if I receive it. It is a recognition of reality: we are all frail, we all make mistakes. The only way for this  crazy world to survive is for us to show each other the compassion to forgive.

I want the world to be perfect, without sin. But, in my best moments, I can see that this, perhaps unrealistic, desire for perfection is really a deep longing for God!  If we forgive, God loves us for helping to create a loving world. And He forgives US!

God, I pray that in my human frailty, You will forgive me. Please shower Your mercy on me, even as I seek to forgive and to love others.

(c) The Spiritual Devotional 2011. All Rights Reserved.

This is patience. This is forgiveness.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Labor Day

"Come to me all you who labor and are weary and I will give you rest." [Matthew 11: 28]

Labor Day in the United States was established in 1884, as the first Monday in September. It is a day to celebrate our work, the labors that have made the country what it is.

I began working at the age of 13. I started a babysitting business in my neighborhood. My husband, when he was a boy, began working at age 14. He delivered  newspapers in his neighborhood.

I tell my young son these stories and he is astonished. He is getting closer to the age when my husband and I began working, and he wonders, will we put him to work too? And his young mind cannot fathom that anyone would want to "celebrate" work. No, our young son would rather spend as much time as he can relaxing.

Since when did work become a dirty word? Have you ever put in a good day's work, perhaps planting a garden, or painting a room, or helping someone to move? At the end of the day, did you feel tired, and sore, but you said that it was a "good tired'?

That good feeling, for me, comes from doing something useful, something that betters my environment.

This is how God wants us to see our work. Our labor betters our world. Our work is even a calling, a vocation.

When I became a mother and I quit my full time job in an office, to stay home with my son, I began describing myself as "only a mother". I felt that I was on the sidelines, not contributing to anyone or anything. I was not earning any money, I was not contributing to the workings of society.

I used to complain to a good friend that I wondered what my purpose was? As if God had some miraculous master plan for me-- only He was not telling me. Why was God keeping me at home, "doing nothing"?

Then my friend replied, Maybe it is your purpose, God's calling, to raise your child well.

I got angry with her for awhile. That's not good enough!, I protested silently.

Over time, I realized that there is no more satisfying, nor more important job than being a mother. It is one of the hardest jobs I have ever done, but it is an essential job. In fact, I hold my son's future in my hands. If all of us mothers raised our children well, what a wonderful world we could have!

I had been resenting my role, getting irritated at my husband and my son for all the work I had to do. I had been complaining about all the chores that I had to accomplish, how overworked I was, how I never got to sit down for a moment's rest, how no one appreciated what I did, how I was not even getting paid for my work.. blah,blah, blah!

Then, gradually, my friend's words began to sink in. Motherhood was not drudgery, not useless labor. It is a calling, a vocation. I began to try to see what I do every day as a holy and sacred ministry.

Over time, my attitude began to change. Now, as I wash the clothes, run to the market, make meals, clean the house, make sure my son's homework is done and get my son to school on time, I think THIS is important. My vocation of being a mother is offered up to God as a sort of prayer. I am more in the moment and I no longer resent what I was called to do. My labors have become like a sacrament.

And then I got to thinking, if mothers are often sacrificing all for their children, but all too often invisible, how many other workers are invisible? How many more of us think that our work does not matter?

So here is another radical concept from God. Not only is our work to be celebrated; everyone's work is important!

This means that the janitor who cleans the office building is as important as the President of the company. It means that the clerk in the store is as important as the man who owns the store.

Why? Because we are all sons and daughters of God and we all have gifts to offer to our world. I make it a point, wherever I go, to really see the invisible people in our society: the store clerk, the doorman, the delivery man, the office receptionist. These all are human beings, not human resources! When these hard working folks help me, I am grateful for what they have done, I smile, I say thank you, I make friendly conversation. I think, isn't this what we all want? To really be seen?

God, this Labor Day, I celebrate in thanksgiving the gifts and the work that you have given me. I offer my talents and my labor up to the world-- and to You!

(c) The Spiritual Devotional 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Confronting Sin

" If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector." [Matthew 18: 15-17]

I hate sin. Sometimes I wonder, if everyone had a bumper sticker on their vehicle, or a sign by their front door saying, "I hate sin", would it banish sin forever? Somehow I do not think this would work, but I sure wish it would!

I hate sinfulness in myself. I hate it when I get angry, impatient, selfish etc. I actually get mad at myself for these errors. But I work hard to forgive myself. I do not think that God made us to condemn ourselves. He only wants us to learn and grow, not fall into depair.

I hate to see sin in others. I do not judge others for their sins, so much as I wish that the sin and suffering had never happened at all!

A young man is in emotional pain or perhaps he merely suffers the recklessness of youth. He goes out drinking, and in the darkness of night, he falls, in his incoherence, into the road. A speeding car or truck hits him and he suffers trauma. I cannot even get to the point of blaming the young man for his drinking or judging the driver of the vehicle for proceeding recklessly. I am sick at  heart that this has occurred at all.

A young father cannot get steady work. His wife is pregnant with yet another baby. The father becomes ashamed that he cannot support his family, and extremely anxious about their financial future. Will they have food to eat and a place to live? He begins to yell at his family and even hit his wife and children. I am sick at heart that this has occurred at all.

I believe that when we sin, and we suffer for our sin, God cries. He mourns for us because He hates to see any of His children hurt.

When I was a child, others sinned against me. If I was cold, I was denied a sweater; I was told I was just trying to get attention. When I was hungry, I was not given something to eat; this was not out of poverty, it was out of spite. I was told I was a failure, I was called names and I was physically hit.

As a child, I could not confront sin. I was tiny and dependent. If I confronted the abuse, the backlash would have been much worse. I was also afraid to tell anyone, for the same reason. And so I "hid". I hid in my room, I stopped speaking. I became invisible. I would leave the house, but the neighborhood kids would torment me with name calling as well. There was nowhere to hide.

I learned that sin is inescapable. This is a sad lesson for a young child to learn.

Currently, I am reading a book called The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything/ A Spirituality for Real Life by James Martin, SJ. In his book, Fr. Martin describes three approaches to sin and suffering that do NOT work: Accommodation, Annihilation and Abandonment.

When I was very young, I saw and felt the suffering that sin brings. I could not accommodate it. That is, I could not excuse it, or justify it or even attempt a watered down version of sin myself. I saw sin as the Enemy even then. I could discern even at such a young age that accommodation easily leads to becoming sinful in one's own right.

Neither could I annihilate the sin. I was the baby in the family, the daughter. I had no power. If I rejected the sinners in my life by brutally attacking them, I would be injured further by them. And would I be any less a sinner myself if I lashed out?

For some reason, even as I became an adult, neither could I abandon my family. I did not have to like their sins ( accommodate), I did not have to decimate my family with vitriolic hate (annihilate). But when my mother became elderly and bereft after the death of my father, I did not have it in my heart to abandon her. In fact, I brought her to live near me, and I cared for her until the end of her days.

In the Scripture in Matthew 18, we are asked as adult Christians, in the company of two or three companions, to confront sin in others. I see this as an act of love, not as an act of rejection or condemnation.  We all need some good advice, some redirection, some clearer perspective from time to time. In essence, we all need to be rescued, to be saved.  In other words, as Christians, out of Love, we are responsible for each other!

If our loving advice does not work, we are asked to bring the sinner to church. This could be as simple as quoting Scripture, or lending a book, or saying a prayer over the person.

And if the sinner in our life does not listen? Then we are counseled to walk away. This saves us from an ugly confrontation (annihilation). It also saves us from becoming so involved that we begin to accommodate the sin, to take it on. I did walk away as a child. I escaped to save myself. I hid, I left the house. I did not accommodate sin and let myself slide into sinful ways. I left my father and my mother, and I got married and moved away.

For me, the most uplifting part of this week's Scripture is in Matthew 18:30-- Jesus says: "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them!" This means that, even if we hate sin, or if we nervously confront sin, or despair that sin even exists, as Christians, we are never alone. We have each other and in that communion, we have Jesus. Fighting sin-- in ourselves, in others-- is not a lonely battle, like it was when I was a child. It is a collaborative effort, it is a collective prayer.

In 1 Corinthians 13, St. Paul says, "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.  When I became an adult, I put childish ways behind me."  As an adult today, I can not -- and must not-- hide from evil any longer. St. Paul also says, in Ephesians 5:11, "Have nothing to do with fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them." In other words, as a Christian, I must remain silent no longer about evil and sin. I must speak of evil and expose it, or it will continue to flourish in the darkness.

God, may I accept hardship as the pathway to peace. May I take, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it. And may I always shine my light against the evil.
(c) The Spiritual Devotional 2011. All Rights Reserved.