Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Hope is the thing with Feathers

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul . . .”
Emily Dickinson

Lent brings with it an opportunity to bear one another’s burdens and sacrifice in some measure to walk in the path of Christ. In the past week I have had this stark comparison of how two women chose to carry their crosses.
Maggie is a lovely woman. She is kind and generous and strives to love others – except her husband. We enjoy similar hobbies and spending an afternoon together now and then. I have become a sounding board for her marital discontent, which troubles me because I feel I should be able to encourage her to have hope that things could improve. Her response has grown increasingly adamant, No, I have decided I need to accept it. I married a man who will always criticize me and never see the good in me. Even if I am widowed I am too old to find someone else. To make it worse, my sister married the most wonderful Christian man in the world, who would never be rude or say an unkind word to anyone. So I know I could have chosen someone better. That is my curse. I made a bad decision and that is all I will ever get out of life for my punishment.”
Maggie even went on to say that when she was a teenager; she was sometimes unkind to her mother when she was asked to help with chores, so this is what deserved in return. I have no idea what Christian denomination my friend Maggie was raised in or where she attends church. I do know this; she is hurt and angry and has been for a significant portion of her sixty plus years, and is convinced Jesus isn’t going to help her out until she makes it to heaven.
So I was listening to my friend  - trying to find some way to witness to her - and came up blank. She didn’t want to hear it. She was bound and determined she had “won” the tragic life story contest, and there was no way I was bursting that bubble. I wish I could say that I walked away compassionately shaking my head, completely unable to relate to her sentiments. Unfortunately I’ve had my share of self-righteous pity parties and her declarations were familiar and disconcerting. I felt her anger, discouragement and pain. I also felt my nose rubbed firmly against that wall of stubborn self-righteousness. I know that wall; I’ve spent many years constructing one for myself.
Earlier this week I had the distinct honor and privilege of attending the wake and funeral of a young man named Connor McCullough. Connor was seventeen years old when he died last week. Connor and his family fought a courageous eight month battle against an aggressive brain tumor. They were gracious enough to invite our community to walk with them on that physical and spiritual journey to heaven. His family was such a pillar of faith and dignity: his wake lasted almost seven hours and his entire family greeted every person that went through the receiving line, which at times had over a two hour wait. Entire basketball teams attended, stopping to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet and the Rosary with our catholic community.
Leslie McCullough and her family understood the purpose of our Christian walk here on earth, to lead others to heaven. And that they did - with hearts full of grace. Their loss is tender and sorrow filled. No mother buries her son without the deepest heartbreak. I understand my friend Maggie on one level, we are to carry our crosses, we get what we get and sometimes life is just hard. Some people won’t or are unable to change. But I watched Leslie McCullough receive hundreds and hundreds of mourners at her son’s wake with tireless kindness and I know there has to be more. Christ wants us to have life, and have it abundantly. Not when our circumstances are all perfect, not just when we make it to heaven, but right now.
I am not completely sure how this all relates to my Lenten sacrifice. I know that I often err on the side of self-righteousness and discouragement – not being able to see that God can and will use my trial to bring about His holy will AND that while He’s accomplishing His goal, my life will be abundantly full of joy. Not happiness in circumstance, but joy in the peace that surpasses understanding. The joy I saw on Leslie’s face as she beheld the witness her son’s life was for Christ. That is the  joy, the communion with Christ that is worth sacrificing for, -- even if it means tearing down a wall I spent a long time constructing.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday

If we try to escape sadness by seeking our consolation in sleep,
we will fail to find what we are seeking,
for we will lose in sleep the consolation
 we might have received from God
 if we had stayed awake and prayed.”
St. Thomas Moore

Today is Ash Wednesday. I used to look forward to the season of Lent. I enjoyed practicing Lenten Devotions with my children. We always had a huge Easter Egg Hunt to celebrate on Easter weekend. I felt the fruits of change in my spirit and the prospect of the journey of Lenten Devotion brought me renewed enthusiasm for my spiritual growth.

For the past few years this prospect of Lenten joy and renewal has been ebbing away. My children are nearly all grown. We no longer have an Easter Egg Hunt. For the most part my family doesn’t consistently participate In Lenten devotions above attending Mass and giving up meat on Fridays. But this year I am determined to make a good effort at the spiritual journey of Lent whether my family participates or not. That expectation may be the most difficult thing for me to give up for Lent. It’s 8:00 am on Ash Wednesday, and so far, so good.

Tonight I will attend the wake of a young man named Connor McCullough who died last Saturday night. He had been fighting a brain tumor since July. He was a sophomore in High School, a classmate of my youngest son. His older brother Clint is a friend of my son Andrew. I watched my boys get in the car today to drive to school, and realized the blessing of that small moment -- backpack laden Andrew carrying his guitar to the car, singing an impromptu version of “Mary did you know, your son would not drink fish oil” in response to a new supplement I had unsuccessfully tried to introduce at breakfast. Peter laughing. The boys waving goodbye from the car. Leslie McCullough will not ever again experience a moment like that with her sons Connor and Clint, and next year her youngest son Clay will go to high school alone.

My instinct tells me to sleep, these past few days have been heavy with the broken hearts of a community mourning their son. In my heart I know St. Thomas Moore was speaking the truth. – it is time to stay awake and pray. It is time to really walk through the devotions of the season with a heart for change, not sleepwalk through the motions. My heart feels weary, but I am off to Mass to pray for the discipline to stay awake and pray.  

Night Song

The chorus flowed from the palm of my son’s hand
Rhythmic text illuminating the lament:

Rest in Peace, Connor
Rest in Peace
Rest in Peace

No audible words exchanged
at the passing of a friend.
As one by one they joined the voiceless choir:

Rest in peace, Connor
Rest in peace
Rest in peace

A Silent symphony of sorrow

His mother, our own Mary –
blessed among women, sorrowing
full of grace.

Faith substantial enough to carry the burden
of her suffering sons,

Petitions to the Father for healing
their family mantra.
“Be it done unto us according to Your will”
their family crest,

Wednesday - a good night, family
gratitude, faith and hope – the last supper.
A mother’s instinct to savor
- to hold the treasure in her heart

The way of their cross not a dust covered road.
Linoleum clad hallways,
Scourged with cancer, chemotherapy, surgery, last chances,
911, ICU, a ventilator

Friday – she is a voice for a generation
who has not learned to speak.
Paul writing epistles from prison
encouraging those who might become weak in faith
in light of such loss

Saturday the Night Song swells in communal chorus
A mother holds her son for the last time

Rest in peace, Connor
Rest in peace
Rest in peace

Saturday, February 18, 2012

This blog has become one of my many projects left untouched in the past year. Turning 50 wasn't as upsetting as the passing of the previous decade, but a discouraging reminder that there are so many things in life I haven't accomplished. It isn't that I haven't had any good intentions or interesting inspirations, but my enthusiasm has waned. I am once again in a creative writing critque class and have dusted off a few old manuscripts for editing and submission. Hopefully the next decade will be more productive.

I owe a deep expression of gratitude to wise author who recently sent me on a mission when I related my list of "woes" relating to pursuing a career in creative writing. She sent me out into the publishing world in pursuit of rejection. She advised me to "get back in the saddle" and submit, submit, submit. Initially, my pursuit has been successful and I have a new rejection letter to add to my small collection. I was surprised that even though I knew the publication was probably out of my league as an unpublished author, the rejection email still sent me into the emotional dumpster. However, I have made progress. I only wasted one afternoon indulging in lethargic self pity: two episodes of Crimminal Minds and few Snickers were all the wallowing I needed. I think that's progress. I will most likely submit again.

Rejection, failure, lost dreams -- all of them are tough to take. We spent the last two days at the State High School Swim Meet. My son made it to the preliminary round, which is an achievement, but was sick the entire week before, and although he swam his best time ever in backstroke, he did not qualify to swim in the finals. He was the first alternate, and his preliminary time would have been the 14th best in the final round. But "would haves" don't count in sports, or publishing or anything of importance.

Even though I know these set backs are an important part of the learning process for both of us, watching Peter struggle through the disappointment is difficult for me. No one said the journey to achievement would be easy. This semester in our scripture study group we are studying the Book of Revelation. Not to be disrespectful to the sacred scripture, but it isn't my favorite. I find the imagery hard to digest. The author of the study stated that the book reveals our final exodus to the Promised Land. I like that concept and find it easier to relate to the text when I think of it that way.

Plagues, hardships, repentence are all part of the journey.Small disappointments like rejection letters and poor qualifying times seem insignificant in comparison, but the manner in which we view and regard these small losses will prepare us for the larger ones in the future.

Ash Wednesday approaches and contemplating what I should sacrifice for the journey leads me to self examination. Do I believe that all these obstacles are in God's hands, and that He has a greater good in store for me? Am I consistently grateful for my blessings, even when my hopes aren't met? Do my circumstances determine how I feel about God, or do I strive to love Him with all my heart, all my mind, all my soul and all my strength no matter what?

I am truly blest to have some many good examples of people who exemply faithfulness in their everyday lives. I hope as part of my lenten journery to share them through the blog. And yes, I may give up watching Crimminal Minds and eating Snickers as well.