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Next Saturday, we celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a holy day of observation. I’ve written about this day before, emphasizing that — despite its common use in pop culture — the day has nothing to do with Christ’s conception, but His mother Mary’s. She was conceived without sin, lacking the stain of Adam and Eve, pure.

We know Mary primarily as a woman of “yes.” It’s what she’s known for: Saying yes to bringing the Son of God into the world. We read about her from time to time in the New Testament, mostly in the early parts of the story, Jesus’ birth and formative years. She appears again at the foot of the cross. She is present after the Resurrection. Most of the time, she doesn’t speak. She chides her son only twice, once for running away, once to goad Him into action. The most telling line about her speaks to her introspection: “Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)

It’s not a very complete picture. There’s quite a bit of information missing. This makes it difficult to know Mary better, something that women, especially, aspire to do, as she is one of the few role models we have in the Church. What I like about Mary is that she has the best qualities of any heroine: She is assertive and accepting. She says yes to God — a bold expression of unfathomable faith — and accepts that the road ahead will be difficult. Because how could it not be? She had to know, or at least to guess, that life for her beloved son would not be easy. She had to see the end coming.

I also like the use of the word “grace” when it comes to Mary. We speak of this grace in the “Hail Mary,” taken from Elizabeth’s greeting to her cousin in Luke Chapter 1. Grace can mean “elegance” or “beauty.” It can also mean “kindness” or “mercy.” I prefer to think of Mary as having the kind of grace referred to in the phrase “grace under pressure.” Her road was no walk in the park, either. Imagine explaining your pregnancy to your parents, to your fiancé. Imagine watching your child die a painful and ignominious death. These things require grace, along with a spine of steel and a faith that can not only move mountains, but make them dance. I long for this kind of grace.

Advent is a good time to think about Mary, to ponder her strength and sacrifice. God, capable of anything, instead of sending down His son fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, decides to go the old-fashioned route, the humble route: His son comes as a baby, just like the rest of us. He is born of woman. And what a woman she must have been! I can only aspire to be like her, to ask her to shower a little of her grace on me. So that whatever God asks of me, I can answer as Mary did — yes. Always yes.

Heavenly Lord,
Remind me that my attitude
should be gratitude
for all that I have.
I could loose everything just as Job did.
Job’s losses were not his fault.
Remind me to look around
and have compassion for those who have nothing.
For their fate could be mine.
Instead of contempt, Lord,
remind me to look deep into their eyes
and see You.
Amen

Last week, Pastor Carol quoted the Reverend Christopher Keating in her sermon. “Entitlement keeps us from living as thankful people.”

When she said this, a murmur rippled across the congregation. Later that day several people posted about it on Facebook.

That comment has echoed through my soul all week long.

When we believe that we deserve something, we cannot be truly grateful. After all, why should we feel grateful. Its ours. We earned it. Having it is our right.

How then do we justify that we have so much when others have so very little? Honey, we don’t have to justify it. Haven’t you been listening? We DESERVE it. What’s to justify?

I’ll tell you what we have to justify. Our attitude.

It’s bad enough that we feel entitled for having so much, but we tend to extend this attitude to the less fortunate. We have what we deserve, and so do they. If they would only apply themselves, get off the dole and work, they could turn their lives around. We deserve what we have and they have what they deserve.

Not only does an attitude of entitlement block gratitude, it also blocks compassion. With so little compassion, how can we love each other as He told us to do? Isn’t that something that they are entitled to? It is, after all, in the Bible.

–SueBE

“My dad doesn’t believe in God,” my friend whispered.

“What?”

“He thinks that after you die, there’s nothing. No heaven, no hell. Just nothing.”

I had been invited over to my junior high best friend’s house for dinner when she sprang this news on me. It had never occurred to me prior to this that belief in God was optional. During the meal, I stared at my friend’s father, wondering if his nonbelief would show up in his everyday habits. Did he seem particularly sad? Joyless at the prospect of the lack of an afterlife? I couldn’t honestly tell. He looked like a man eating his dinner.

Since then, of course, I’ve met dozens of nonbelievers, of various ages and character. Most are nice people, generally optimistic, altruistic even. A number of them are kinder and more thoughtful than some of the so-called believers I know. They just don’t believe in God. Or religion. I get the sense that a few of them think I’m something of a soft-headed goon for being a believer. That’s okay with me. And I feel no need to proselytize to them. I don’t necessarily think they’re having a bad life without faith. Faith is necessary to me, but perhaps it isn’t for everyone.

However, I do know one thing: Not believing in God isn’t God’s fault. Oh sure, you can look around at the world, at bombs dropping and children starving and the worst sorts of inhumanities, often done in the name of God, and claim that God must not exist. The world is too spiritually polluted. And if indeed He is all-powerful, why does He let such atrocities occur?

We could argue about that point (free will and so on), but ultimately, God’s work is beyond our understanding. I tend to agree with the great Thomas Merton who, having himself been an atheist for many years, understood why some people choose this route. It is not God’s fault; it is religions’. Those who do not believe do so because no church has spoken to them of God in a way they can relate to. The God of most religious people isn’t good enough for them to believe in.

I get that. I often wonder at religions who claim their God wants war or who thinks their particular religious sect is superior to all others. The gods of these religions aren’t good enough for me. I even think God is kinder, larger and more expansive than my chosen religion, Catholicism, although for me Catholicism comes closest to my beliefs.

It all comes down to this: God is bigger and better than human beings can express. If you haven’t found God yet, it’s because nobody has given you reason to. We have failed. But please believe that God has not. He’s there, and He’s greater than you can imagine, and better than you could ever hope for. All I can do is pray that if someone truly wants to find Him, He will be found. And for the rest of the nonbelievers? I’ll let you eat your dinner in peace.

28 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Reorient me, Lord.  I feel lost after the storm.
Oddly, during the storm itself, I was sure of life and leaned on You.
Then in the aftermath, I felt bereft and beside myself.
Remind me, it is You beside me.
And there is none besides You.
Restore me.  Resurrect my faltering faith.
Forgive my doubt and resuscitate my spirit.
The road is rubble now.
Walk with me down this dirt path till I find the way.

With only a battery-powered radio to keep me in touch with the outside world, I heard staggering stories of loss and devastation. I heard about the Boardwalk being washed away, houses sitting in the middle of the highway, and commentators referring to “what was formerly known as the Jersey Shore,” but assumed that they had to have been exaggerating. When I finally got the cable back and watched the storm coverage on television, it was far worse than I could ever have imagined.

It was hard to absorb it all. How did this storm uproot trees on my block and tear down my fence? I mean, it was incredibly loud all night long, like furious freight trains surrounding us, but the house wasn’t shaking or anything. How was this kind of damage possible? My neighbor’s pool was crushed by an enormous hundred-year-old oak. Wires were down, traffic lights weren’t working, power was out.

The first day back to a local grocery store was chaotic. The power was out and all the frozen goods freezers were cordoned off with yellow tape as if it was a crime scene. It was all spoiled, unsellable. The lights were out in the store and the few shoppers there looked at each other in the dark, shell-shocked. The skeleton crew of staff kept saying, “No refrigerated items. No debit or credit. No batteries. No bottled water.”

By the time I left the store, I knew it like a mantra. This was the case everywhere, so there was nowhere else to go to shop for food, and nowhere to put it at home if we did find it. We had no power for our refrigerator either.

Driving on Jersey roads after Sandy was treacherous; traffic lights weren’t working and cross-streets were blocked, so you had to drive a mile out of your way to turn around. Trees were down everywhere and debris had to be avoided. Gas stations were closed so you had to be judicious about expending the little gas you had left in your car. The situation seemed to bring out the worst in the few drivers on the road and it seemed best not to venture out unless absolutely necessary.

I kept reminding myself that we still had a house while many down the shore had lost everything. I tried to keep it all in perspective, but something just got stuck in my craw and I felt far – very far – from the Source of my strength.

Finally, I was able to pray openly and honestly. With all due respect – I began – why would You put us through these life-altering storms? It became a metaphor for the ongoing struggles in my personal life that seem to have no solution. How could I reconcile my belief that God is in charge and God is good with the chaos and pain in the world and in my life?

So I’ve had to learn to just hold on until I make it through. I tried to encourage others by updating my blog with information about the power outage in Central Jersey, just trying to find a way to be useful. As for me, I want to know what tomorrow will bring, but for now, I have no clue. I have to start right where I am, and get to work on re-building the foundation of my faith.

My spiritual house may have been renovated by the storms of life, but the load-bearing beam is hope. Even if today was surreal and soul-squashing, tomorrow comes, and brings with it promise and possibility. Sometimes it’s just a matter of making it through the night.

This is the anthem that our choir sang today, the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

–SueBE

Who have you invited to share in your Blessings?

Heavenly Lord,
We thank You.
We thank You for the world around us.
You gave us this, our first home,
and asked only that we care for it well.
Thank You for giving us so much.

We thank You.
We thank You for the people around us.
You gave us each other,
Family, friends and strangers,
and asked only that we share Your love.
Thank You for giving us so much.

We thank You.
We thank You for showing us the way.
You walked among us and
showed us how to love,
and asked only that we cross boundaries as You did.
Thank You for showing us how.

We thank You.
We thank You, Lord,
For this our greatest home,
For the people you put in our path,
And for the examples of Love You put before us.
Thank You for giving us so much.

We ask only that you give us
the heart
the courage
and the compassion to do Your will
and share what You have freely given.

For this,
And so much more,
We thank You.

Amen

 

I open “Rolling Stone” magazine, and there she is. Someone I know. She’s no rock star, though she and her comrades have been treated as such in some locales — though in others, they’ve faced anger and hatred. She’s a Sister of Providence, a Catholic nun. She is among a group of nuns who are traveling the country to protest the Republican budget proposal put forth by Paul Ryan. They are the so-called “Nuns on the Bus.” They say Ryan’s budget would hurt low-income families while coddling the wealthy. It is both unjust and in opposition to the Christian ideals of equality, compassion and love. They are right. They are also righteous, in the very best sense.

I’ve been saying for a while that the Catholic Church needs to focus on issues of social justice, rather than sticking its righteous-in-the-wrong-way nose into issues like gay marriage and reproductive rights. The powers-that-be would not agree with me. These are the same powers-that-be that have been wagging their fingers at nuns like the ones on the bus for not toeing the line, for not being quiet, obedient little ladies and letting the menfolk decide what’s important. They’ve been called radical feminists, which is apparently an insult these days. I guess I never got the memo that explains why being a strong woman is such a bad thing. My mother claims I’ve been a feminist from birth. I never saw any reason not to be. Neither have these women, it seems.

I stand with the Sisters. This statement is more than a political catchphrase, more than a motto on a button or bumper sticker. I mean it. This past weekend, I became a Providence Associate, a layperson who has chosen to further the charism and mission of the Sisters of Providence. Call us the civilian auxiliary, if you wish. (My husband does.) I am not on the front lines, but I support those who are. I do my bit, with my blog and my radio show. I cheer them on. I align and ally myself with them. Because what they believe is what I believe.

Change is coming. I know it; I believe it. It is my most fervent hope. It is what keeps me part of a Church I sometimes find myself in dissent with. So “Rolling Stone” or no “Rolling Stone,” press or no press, I have made my choice. I stand with the Sisters. How about you?

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