Thursday, August 30, 2012

My Labor of Love

" We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If one's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully."Romans 12: 6-8].

Labor Day, in the United States, is a day on which all who work have earned their rest. We are granted a day off, to relax, to enjoy good food, and to savor the waning days of summer.

Labor Day means a whole lot more to me, though.

I have worked since the time I was thirteen years old. I started a babysitting business at $1 per hour. In my crazy upside-down family, I figured out-- even at such a young age-- that I was going to have to take care of myself.  I used my earnings to buy things that I needed. Labor for me was survival.

If I spent my meager earnings all at once, though, I would have nothing left for tomorrow. You see, by the time I was thirteen, I had figured out that home was not my safe haven. I needed to plan for my eventual escape. My labor was my independence, my future.

By the time I was fifteen, my parents had my whole future mapped out. They told me what my talents were, they told me what college to go to, what to major in, what to study in graduate school, what kind of company to work for, which company to work for, what department to work in, what career clothes to wear, and so on.

If I showed a gift or talent completely different than what my parents dictated, I was told, "We never taught you that." I learned that what I recognized as my gifts, were no good.

I started to half believe that my gifts and talents came from my parents. And if they could give me my gifts, they could take them away. 

I came home one day in ninth grade, thrilled that the art teacher had noticed that I had talent. I said to my parents, "The art teacher says that I must continue in art." The response from my parents: "Absolutely not!"

So, I took my gifts underground. I was afraid that my parents could take my talent away. One day, when I was at a friend's house, I drew a picture of her cat. I was getting up to leave and my friend said, 'Hey! You forgot your drawing.' I told her to keep it; that it was her cat. My friend said, 'No, it is your drawing.Don't you want to keep it?' But, I did not even believe that I owned it. So I left the drawing behind.

I feared that it was my parents who could define me and tell me who I was and what I was to become. I did not know that my gifts and my purpose were all between me and my God. It did not occur to me that my mother and father were trying to play God with me.

Fast forward to my adult self. It was in Bible Study where I learned the truth. We ALL have gifts. These gifts come from God. We get to keep them. These talents are part of us. Humans cannot give us our inherent gifts. And no one can take our gifts away.

I labor for survival still. We all need to eat, to have clothing and shelter. I labor for my future, my child's future, my grand-childrens' futures.

But I also use my gifts in order to praise God, and to give testament to His generosity. God has given me many miraculous gifts and talents. To thank God for His generosity, I lift up to Him my labor, as a sacred offering.

This Labor Day, and every day, I want to remember my labor as a gift, a miracle, a blessing, a prayer of praise and thanksgiving to the One who created me.

[Related Posting: "Burying My Talents", November 13, 2011; and "Labor Day", September 6, 2011.]

(c) The Spiritual Devotional 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

In Battle For God

" Jesus said to His disciples: ' The one who feeds on me will live because of me. He who feeds on this bread shall live forever.' On hearing it, many of His disciples said, 'This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?' Aware that His disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, 'Does this offend you [to be eating from me]? The Spirit gives life, the flesh counts for nothing. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.' From this time, many of His disciples turned away and no longer followed Him. Jesus had know from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray Him. 'You do not want to leave us too, do you?', Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered Him, ' Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that You are the Holy One.' " [John 6: 60-69].

On the surface, this Reading is about the disciples' loyalty to Jesus. It is an historical story of how Jesus recruited His faithful disciples, to go forth and follow Him.

In some ways, Jesus sounds harsh here. Either you are FOR him, or you are against Him. Can this be so?

Consider the words of  Martin Luther King, Jr. in his teachings in "Strength To Love":  "Evil is stark, grim, and colossally real. . . .  In a sense, the history of man is the story of the struggle between good and evil. . . He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it."

All of us in this world, Christian or atheist or agnostic, face stark choices. We may not realize that we are in battle, but we are! We may not like it, but we are in battle.

I faced such stark choices, even as a child. In my upside down house, I was called ugly every day and sometimes hit. I could have grown up believing that I am inherently hideous and worthless. Then, when I was 13, I found out that I almost died, even as I was being born. I looked up to the sky and said to myself, God meant for me to be here and He has a purpose for me! He knows the beauty in my heart.

My family had horrible names for every ethnic group. A trip in the car with my father at the wheel meant a journey through hate, as he assumed that every driver in his way was a member of some despised ethnic group. I cringed every time I went out in the car. I learned not to judge.

My family proudly announced that they worshipped "The Almighty Dollar".  They used their money to manipulate and control my choices, and to force upon me decisions that were not good ones. I learned that too much money, when coupled with power, can become abusive. When they praised The Almight Dollar, I whispered to myself, 'You mean, Almighty God.'

I could have chosen a life of anger and despair. Instead, once I learned at age 13 that my life was a total gift, I got busy. I chose to live in Love, not anger. Love became a verb for me. I knitted a sweater for the one who hit me. I tended the garden for the one who did not feed me. I did chores for the one who took his anger at life out on me. When I could not do for the ones who seemed to hate me, I sat in my room and sang.

I left home as soon as I could, as you can imagine. Then, I met the man who would become my husband. My parents were furious. He is Catholic. My beloved and I insisted on a church wedding. My parents refused to stand in the receiving line at my wedding.  My new husband and I acted like we did not care. 

A few years ago, my father died abruptly. That left my mother, at an advanced age, physically and emotionally frail. I was the best suited in the family to care for her. I lived near her, I did not work insane hours or travel internationally. Still, when it dawned on me that I was being called to care for the one who had been such a contentious force in my life, I asked,"Why, God, WHY?!' I took care of my mother anyway.

Suddenly, she was in my home most days of the week, sitting at my table, eating my food-- and still  judging others with her ignorant bias, blaspheming Catholics in general and my husband in particular. I had taken her back, after all those years of her neglect and rejection. I found myself, Why does God up the ante on me, time and time again?

I decided that I could not stay strong with my mother in my home, unless I received some spiritual reinforcements. I needed to be closer to God. After a long time of reflection-- and yes, inner battle-- I converted. This is one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. You see, I wanted it both ways. I wanted my mother to accept me, but I wanted and desperately needed God. During conversion, I hid my Bible and the Catechism upstairs in my home, where my mother did not go; and I tucked my gold cross under my shirt. I converted in secret. 

Then, disaster struck-- after my First Communion, my young son innocently blurted out to my mother: "Mommy goes up for Communion now!" God had upped the ante again.

I fled in panic to my mentor. I asked him, "Do I have to go to Mass at 6:00 a.m., in the dark, when there are only a handful of people there? Do I have to lie to my mother?" I wanted to quit, I wanted to simply hold the Truths that I had learned, silently in my heart. Instead of telling my mother, 'Too bad', I wanted to be a child again and hide who I really was.

He said, "This is NOT about your mother and what she wants. You know what is in your heart. This is what you want. It is what you need." Then, my cousin told me, "You know who you really are." I cried at this. It was the shock of self-recognition.

I returned to church, but I was too afraid to go up for the Eucharist. A few weeks later, the homily was about what divides us from Jesus. The question was asked, 'Do you turn away from Jesus out of fear? Out of pride, because you do not believe that you really need Him? Or, do you turn away from Him in bitterness, because you did not get everything you thought you deserved while growing up?' Ouch! I needed to hear that.

I was faced with the choice between my family and my God, during my whole life-- even as a tiny girl. By grace, I had consistently chosen Jesus' Way. At this point in my life, I was at a crossroads. I needed to ask myself, as Simon Peter did, " To whom [else] should I go?"

I realized that, after all that I had been through, after all the stark choices that I had made, why would my answer be any different?  Would I really want to choose my family's sadly mistaken and tragic ways? Would I really want to choose to go backwards? Or-- despite my fears and resentment at God's challenge, would I stand for Him?

I did choose God, again. I resumed going up the aisle for Communion. When my mother told me not to go to church, I told her, 'I cannot do what I do, without it.'

I find that Communion strengthens my resolve in battle. Yes, I am still in battle. Every day. We are all called to stand up for the right way, in big ways and small, every day. We are all called to make stark choices. We are all called to Battle For God.

(c) The Spiritual Devotional 2012. All Rights Reserved.



Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Hunger For Grace

" Be very careful, then, how you live -- not as foolish persons, but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore, do not continue in ignorance, but try to understand what the Lord's will is. Do not get drunk on wine, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and to God the Father." [Ephesians 5: 15-20].

When I was growing up, I could not trust the adults in my life to take care of me. I really raised myself. At age two, I was teaching myself to use the washroom as a grown-up would. By age four, I was trying to teach myself to read. By age five, I was putting myself down for naps and looking for alternative sources of food, for the days when I was not fed.

By age thirteen, I had made a plan for my future. I knew that my days in that house were dangerous and filled with crisis.  I knew that I had to get out.  I started a baby-sitting business and began to set money aside. I was very careful how I lived. I did not squander my resources on fashionable dresses or on things I did not need. I made the most of every opportunity, taking paying jobs as much as I could, without sacrificing time spent on my studies. I would eat more in the school cafeteria for lunch, or readily accept the offer of lunch at neighbors' houses, so I could be certain to get enough energy for the busy days ahead.

I knew that my education was critical to my independence. I would turn down offers to go out and play, in favor of doing my homework. I knew that I needed to get all A's; even in fifth grade, I knew this.

When I was done with my homework, I would read library books. When I had no more library books to read, I read the dictionary.

When the books got too boring, I would sit in my room and sing songs. By the time I was in grammar school, I was in the childrens' choir at church. In my room, alone, I sang hymns, I sang popular songs, I just sang. Singing made my heart glad.

In the years before my confirmation, my family took me to church. Sitting in my pew, I tried-- often in vain-- to understand what the Reverend was saying. He used such big words, like "redemption" and "salvation." I knew that Salvation meant to be saved, but I was too young to understand what that meant. What was I being saved from, anyway?

During all those years, it never occurred to me to pray for a kinder family, or to pray that their abuse and cruelty would stop. I was simply grateful, whenever any needs which I had, were somehow met.

I do not attribute any of this to my own ingenuity or genius. I believe today, that my behavior, as is described in Ephesians 5, came directly from the Grace of God. I could not have known, as a mere child, how to emulate Jesus.

This is a perfect example of how "God is close to the broken-hearted; those who are crushed in spirit, He saves." [Psalm 34: 18].

For most of my life, I thought I had it all together. I got through college and graduate school. I married. I became a mother.

Then, things began to fall apart for me. My best friend became ill with cancer. My father died abruptly. I had to move my mother near me, to care for her. My best friend died. My mother-in-law died. Then, my mother died.

I did not know which end was up. I could no longer educate myself; I was so hopelessly confused, I did not even know what the Truth was any longer. I was supposed to rely on the Spirit-- that I still knew-- but I could not even see God. God's Grace had always taken care of me, but, suddenly, I felt like He was gone! I was so down, I could not sing during those long days, not even in church when I was surrounded by music. I lost the ability to give thanks for what I did have, because I was in total darkness, and felt blind and helpless.

I knew that I could not continue to rescue myself, all alone, as I had for my whole life. I needed Something more; Someone stronger.  Somehow, I had to get closer to God. I spoke to a priest and he told me to go to chapel everyday and talk to God. What came out of that was a desire to convert.

During this process, I kept "hearing" the Scripture: "Only say the word, and I shall be healed." That is the call to Communion.

Christians believe that the Eucharist commemorates the body and blood of Christ, who sacrificed Himself for us. Catholics believe that, in the Eucharist, we receive Christ Himself, and through this sacrament, become more Christ-like and more open to God.

Where once I was a child, and I was unaware of how much I needed God's Grace to protect and guide me; now, I have become an adult and I need to actively seek the strength of the Lord.

In receiving the Eucharist, we purposely seek and find all that Jesus has to offer: His strength, His peace, His comfort and compassion, His healing. The Eucharist is balm for the soul, medicine for the heart.

We are human, we cannot rescue ourselves forever. We NEED Jesus and we need to seek Him. We need the Grace that God gives us, both through Himself, and through His Son.

I have spoken in past weeks about the Bread Of Life. I have written about what the Bread of Life is NOT: it is not anger, it is not wealth, it is not ego, it is not the high of wine or illicit substances, it is not fame or high position or unbridled power.

What we hunger for is far beyond what earthly food can satisfy. Our earthly longings are only temporary. When we feel dissatisfied inside, what we are longing for, really, are eternal gifts such as Love, peace, Truth, healing. What we hunger for is. . . .God Himself! The only source of eternal nourishment is Jesus Himself, His Body and Blood. He gives us the grace and the strength that we need, not only to get through this life, but to wait in hope for the next life.

[Related Postings: "Bread of Life", August 4, 2012; "Taught By God", August 13, 2012"; " Holy Body and Blood of Christ", June 7, 2012].

(c) The Spiritual Devotional, 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Taught By God

" Brothers and sisters:  All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another, as God has forgiven you. . . So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us." [Ephesians 4: 30 - 5:2].

It is very hard, almost impossible, for us humans to completely give up on anger. Anger is hard-wired into us.  I say this because we are wired as mammals to react to a threat or conflict, with a "fight or flight" response. The flight response is fear. The fight response is prompted by fear, but ends up becoming anger, and presents as a heated battle.

Martin Luther King, Jr., in his critical book, "Strength To Love", [Fortress Press, (c) 1963], writes that "Fear is the elemental alarm system of the human organism that warns of approaching danger and without which man could not have survived. So in a sense, fear is normal, necessary and creative." Later in the same chapter, King writes that fear can become anger, even hatred-- "Close scrutiny reveals this sequence: first fear, then hate, then war, and finally, deeper hatred."

I say that anger is innate, because one of my earliest memories is of anger.  When I was about age two, I had awoken from my nap in my crib. My mother came into my room to free me, and my brother followed her into my room.  My brother was taking so much of her attention, that I was ignored. I was pre-verbal, so I threw my silver baby rattle across the room to get my mother's attention.

Then, when I was about age three, I was at my grandparents' house on a Sunday afternoon. My older brother had been teasing me for what seemed all day long. I had had enough, so I threw a wooden  bowl of nuts at his head. All of the grown-ups in the room gasped.

Life seemed to be ugly for me. At age four, I almost drowned in a neighbor's pool. At age five, I was putting myself down for naps. I was also looking for alternate sources of food when I was not fed. At age six, I came home and my mother had given the family dog away. At age seven, I was diagnosed with a chronic lung disease. I was getting hit, and called ugly every day. I had black eyes several times. By age ten, I had stopped speaking.

You would think that I would have adopted anger as a mode of existence. Early on, though, as the baby in the family and the only daughter, I realized that I had no power. Anger would only make me more conspicuous, and more in danger of further abuse.

Anger dissipates one's energy as well. I needed my energy in order to take care of myself. In short, anger is not a very wise survival skill.

I think of anger as a huge truck that is stuck in the mud, spinning its wheels. The engine revs impressively, the tires squeal, you feel tremendous power, but in fact, one is wasting valuable energy, and only digging deeper into the mud.

No one ever hugged me or said, 'I love you' to me, when I was growing up. I decided: If I was ever going to enjoy peace in that house, or feel any kind of love, I was going to have to be the one to make peace and give love. I started tending to my mother's gardening, doing all the mending and sewing in the house, taking on some painting projects for my father. I did this, even as my family continued to treat me cruelly.

So many ask me, how could I possibly have survived in that environment? I would say that, as a child, I simply chose Love over anger. I decided to "live in love".  I was only a child; I cannot take all the credit for myself. I credit this desire for Love as God's grace.

Oddly, I never prayed for different circumstances, or better parents.  I simply determined that even if no one else in my life knew how to love, then I could show love, no matter what my circumstances, no matter what the response.

Anger hardens your heart. It is NOT the Bread of Life. Anger closes you to God.

Love opened me to God. With my heart longing for Love, I was, in essence, longing for God. With my heart open to Love, I was able to be taught by God.  From God, from Love, I learned generosity, patience, gentleness, humility, peace, compassion, charity, mercy, justice, forgiveness.

 I take great comfort from the words in John 6: 41-51-- Jesus says, " It is written in the prophets: 'They shall all be taught by God.'  Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from Him comes to me."

So many think that following Christ means that we have to be perfect. Not true! Being a Christian means listening to God, desiring Love and believing in the capacity of Love to change one's world!

[Related Postings: " Bread of Life", and "Anger in the Temple".]

(c) The Spiritual Devotional, 2012. All Rights Reserved. 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Bread Of Life

" Jesus said, 'Amen, amen, I say to you. . . do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. . . I am the Bread of Life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.' " [John 6: 24-35].

For years, I never understood what this "Bread Of Life" was? After all, plenty of people in this world consistently go hungry and have no clean water to drink - - and yet they believe in God and in His Son!

What kind of hunger and thirst are these, that "endure for eternal life"?

It is only in recent years that I have begun to understand that this hunger and thirst pertain,  not to physical symptoms, but to a spiritual hunger and thirst.

In my dysfunctional family, growing up, if I did not eat what was provided for dinner, I was made to go hungry, even though there was plenty of other food in the house. By the time I was five, I was asking each morning what was for dinner? If it was something I found totally distasteful, I knew that I would go to bed hungry. After awhile, I began to plan how to find more food for myself, at school lunch, or at a neighbor's house. Before long, I was hoarding holiday candy in my room.

As I grew a bit older, I began to see that my physical hunger was really about a lack of Love. No one loved me enough to ensure that I received enough to eat.

By the time I was ten, I was so deprived of affection, that I stopped speaking. I was spiritually starving, so much so that I gave up on humanity. I gave up hope that any human being could love me and care for me. I stopped trusting humans.

 I wanted to be invisible. Not only did I give up on any form of ego, I decided that it would be better if I pretended that I did not exist. I became as Nothing, so no one could find anything about me that could be a subject of persecution.

When I was 14, my family stopped taking me for treatments for my chronic lung condition. I did not place any faith in science to cure me.  No one cared enough about me, for medicine and science to be of any use for me. It was the humans, whom I did not trust, who had to take me to the doctor  -- and they did not bother to take me.

When I was in my early twenties, and at university, I had ready access to alcohol and drugs.  But I noticed that, after a night of partying, my deep sadness remained. I was left only with a headache, and the same deep longing in  my heart.

When I was in my late twenties, I got my first job. I worked long hours. My family had always taught me to worship the "Almighty Dollar." I began to earn enough for my own apartment. I had nice clothes and enough to eat. But whether I had money, or I had no money, my heart still ached.

I have learned that the hunger I feel is not about having enough earthly food to eat. I have learned that my ego will not save me. I have learned that Science, coming from humans, can be denied or misused. I began to see that even if science cures my physical condition, that is not enough to make my heart spiritually whole. I have learned that drugs and alcohol are tonics that are of illusory and temporal benefit. I have learned that no amount of money or material possessions in the world can cure the deep hole in my heart.

I have learned that only God is big enough to even begin to fill that awful hole inside me. Only Jesus can be my Bread of Life.

I am learning to try to trust humans again, because at their best, human beings are the embodiment of God's Love, carried around the world.

[Related Posting: " Not of This World", May 23, 2012.]

(c) The Spiritual Devotional 2012. All Rights Reserved.