Smiling Hearts, Frozen Iguanas, and Viral Monkeys

Reality can be absurd.

During an unusual cold snap in South Florida, there were news stories cautioning people to watch out for frozen iguanas falling from trees.  Days later those stories were replaced by articles about people selling iguana meat – to eat.  I live in North Florida so when the temperature dipped, I only had to worry about covering my plants and wearing closed-toe shoes.  Still, I followed the stories about the non-native iguanas and the people who eat them.

More recently, I have been reading about sightings of non-native wild monkeys in the area and other parts of the state. Apparently, some of these monkeys are infected with a deadly strain of Herpes B.  These herpes positive primates have been known to attack when their territory feels threatened.  So, now not only do Floridians have to worry about being bonked in the head by a comatose iguana, or whether it’s actually chicken in our Brunswick stew or reptile meat, we also have to worry about diseased monkeys charging us.

And people think life here is just sandy beaches and lulling surf.

I often contemplate the absurdity of life. There is so much truth that reads like fiction.  So many realities that seem fantastical.  One of the biggest of which is that there exists a God who so madly loves us that he died for us.  Of all the ways he could have mesmerized, awed, and astonished us to show his love, he chose death.  I can’t say that would have been my pick.  On the surface, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that he willingly gave his life out of love for us.  When you contemplate the suffering that preceded his death, it feels as absurd as free-falling iguanas. “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us,” (Romans 5:8).  Much to the hindrance of my relationship with God, I have struggled with the reality of this truth.  How could he possibly know me so completely and still love me unconditionally?  How could he identify all my weaknesses and still want me?  How could he acknowledge all my failings and forgive me?   And my favorite wondering of all, how could he allow me to suffer when in a breath he could remove the entirety of the world’s suffering?

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Brave: Beyond Rollercoasters and Roaches

My son was on one of those whirling amusement park rides that circled the clouds like a frenzied dog chasing its tail.  Somewhere vertical in the sky he spun so fast that the metal contraption that contained him angled sideways – much like my stomach felt down below.  I could barely stand to watch him, and I fervently prayed he wouldn’t end up with whiplash or vertigo or otherwise be thrust into outer space.  I’ve always been the girl at the park who held the drinks, the jackets, and whatever else the “fun” people couldn’t take on the thrill rides.  I am okay being this girl. I don’t feel even the slightest pang of regret for my union with solid ground.  I hang out with squirmy toddlers in their strollers and watch pigeons as their heads bobble in search of food.

So, I don’t typically think of myself as brave.  That’s a word I associate with the kind of courage it takes to ride a rollercoaster or kill a roach without screaming and spastically throwing shoes. I am not that girl either. I yell for my husband, sons, and even the cats (who look at me in disdain as if I’ve just equated them with some kind of animal).   If no one is nearby, I resort to evacuating.  I figure shelter is overrated and the roach can have my residence.

This year, I aim to be brave.  This doesn’t have anything to do with rollercoasters or roaches, but instead, my relationship with God.  For the last several years, I have focused on surrender. Surrender is one of those words that is easily confused with defeat.  Yet in the battleground for our souls, Read more

Hearing: It’s Not 400 Children and a Crop in the Field

I was in mass listening to the cantor sing the responsorial hymn, “These are the people the Lord has chosen, chosen to be his own.” I thought, “Seriously? Really, God, these are the people you chose to be your own?  Was no one else around? It must have been some seriously slim pickings.”

I know this sounds rather cynical, but truly, we can be scary people:  mass shootings, human trafficking, abortion, sexual predators, greed, self-glorification…. well, just pick any day and read the headlines.

And I do believe people are good.  I do believe they mean well. I even think when someone claims they don’t believe in God that they really do – it’s just a little deeper inside – right beyond where they have looked.  And I always have hope that they will look a little farther someday and come to know what they believe.

Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone deliberately choosing our hot mess of a people that makes up humanity.

I peeked over to look at my husband’s missal wanting to read the words for myself. That’s when I realized, I misheard the lyrics.  It’s like when Kenny Rogers sings “Lucille.”  You may think he’s singing, “You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille, with 400 children and a crop in the field.”  But it’s really not 400 children because that would be excessive, even by Catholic standards.  It’s four HUNGRY children! (Although, by either account, that was harsh of Lucille.)

What the cantor was singing was not “These are the people,” but “Blessed are the people that the Lord has chosen to be his own.”  Reading this, I felt the kind of relief that Kenny would have, had Lucille shown back up with a bucket of fried chicken, some biscuits, and a heap of cousins to harvest the crop.

It made more sense to me to contemplate the blessings of him choosing us.  “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light,” (1 Peter 2:9).  Yet, he didn’t just choose us as an entirety of humanity but as individuals who he loves and longs for intimacy with.  “Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me,” (Isaiah 49:16). Read more

Vanity: I Look Like a Basset Hound

Lately, when I catch a glimpse of my face it appears to be melting like candle wax or colorful taffy in the hot Florida sun.  It evokes the hollow horror of Edvard Munch’s painting, “The Scream.” Since I haven’t taken any LSD, I figure this droop must be part of aging.  I spoke with my doctor about the way my origami shaped eyelids are folding in on themselves, and she said that she thinks I could qualify for the medically-necessary surgery to put them back in their proper place so my vision isn’t impaired.  I didn’t know whether to feel validated by her comment or virtually hopeless.

Earlier that day I was speaking with a friend who is teaching a class on the Book of Ecclesiastes and he mentioned its humanistic view of vanity which goes beyond society’s obsession with appearances.  The only thing I knew offhand about the chapter is the passage that begins “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens,” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).

It reads like beautiful poetry, a cadence of simplicity making sense of a senseless world: “a time to be born and time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build,” (Ecclesiastes 3: 2-3).    A time to be young and cute with body parts in their proper spot and a time to have your eyelids tied up with thread so you can see every new crevice of decay.  Somehow that line must have been edited out.  I suppose for the sake of brevity, not lack of validity. Read more

Waiting at Red Lights

The other day I was rushing to get somewhere when I was stopped by a red light — a very long red light. Heart-pumping, brain-whizzing, grip on the steering wheel clenching, I felt certain the world would end if the stoplight didn’t turn green that instant.  I watched enviously as cars whizzed by wondering when it would be my turn, wondering if the light was broken, wondering how much longer I could possibly wait as all of humankind seemingly passed by at an unimpressive 40 miles per hour.

That’s what it feels like with God sometimes – an agonizing, monotonous wait. “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8).  Certainly, God’s timing is not my own.  I have known this for some time and while I try not to begrudge it, there are moments in my prayer life where I feel the same urgency I did that day at the stoplight.

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you,” (Matthew 7:7).  Stop at a red light and it will turn green.  Presto.  Prayer answered.  I feel like that scripture should come with a bible-sized addendum outlining exceptions, exclusions, and caveats to explain the time gap between asking and receiving.

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Easter: the Rising

Sometimes I feel like a tiny bird with an injured leg from an encounter with the claws of a crazed cat.  I know how lucky I am to be here and how much worse things could be; yet, still, I carry a limp from my wounds that sometimes keeps me tethered to the ground.  (I might start telling people that when they ask me how I am doing.)

Life is so darn messy and most of us try terribly hard to tidy what we can.  In its constancy, it can feel like a marathon, and like the tiny bird, we merely hop along.  One of my favorite quotes is from Saint John Paul II who said: “We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.”  It conveys such unparallel joy – a skyward ascent of heavenly praise.  It hardly makes me think of hopping.

Indeed, we are the Easter people and we are meant to rise.  Lent is a time to unload the burden of sin we carry.  It’s a time to shed the miscellaneous and the excess.  It is a time to reconnect to God by disconnecting from our distractions.  Sometimes the Lenten experience feels empowering like a strenuous workout or the purging of an overstuffed closet.  Other times, it just feels hard.  All the emptying, sacrificing, and sustaining from a 40-day reflection can feel too austere for a hallelujah song.  No sweet little bird chirps that indicate winter’s hibernation is over.  Just a hop, hop.  Yet Easter is coming – not just at the end of this Lenten season.  Also, at the end of our lives.  In between, in the thicket of life’s doing and undoing, we rise.  Amidst the momentary affliction of life’s messiness, we remain upright.  “Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it,” (Ezra 10:4).  Even when it’s hard or feels impossible — when there is not enough money, not enough time, not enough of your poor tired soul to go around — be strong and rise. Read more

Prayer: What a Catch

Last year, a friend of mine was taken to the emergency room.  She had the flu and was in critical condition.  Before I rushed to the hospital, I prayed a rosary for her.  The memory is like a blur.  My head was racing, my rosary beads were twisting, my stomach was clenching, my hands were shaking, and my heart was aching.  Even though I sat in a chair in my living room, every part of me seemed to be in motion.  I was anxious to get to the emergency room, but from somewhere inside a voice repeated.  Pray.  Pray.  Pray.

When I finished the rosary, I went on Facebook and begged others to pray for her.  I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, but I know it included “even if you don’t pray – pray anyway.”  I’m not usually that bossy in Facebook posts so I hoped people would get the seriousness of the situation.  Even if it wasn’t their friend or their situation, even if they were estranged from God, I needed them to pray.  I needed help for my friend.  I figured if someone didn’t have their own faith, they could borrow their neighbors and throw something up to God.  He’s a great catcher.  That’s what he does over and over again – he catches us.  He doesn’t get caught up in who knows who, or the grudges someone is holding against him.  He isn’t keeping score.  He just catches.

I don’t know how many people prayed for her that day but it seemed like an awful lot.  At the hospital, I prayed with her children.  Friends texted that they were praying.  I called our church and asked them to send a priest to pray too.  He came and administered the sacrament of anointing of the sick.  The doctors were doing everything they could, her friends and family were covering her in prayer, and she was fighting like the warrior she was. Read more

Mardi Gras and Happy Tuesdays

I used to live in New Orleans where the celebration of Mardi Gras is as huge as one of those oversized floats wobbling down St. Charles Avenue skimming the canopy of oak trees as krewes throw plastic beads at enthusiastic revelers.  Mardi Gras, also known as Shrove Tuesday, is when Christians are encouraged to reflect on repentance before the solemn season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.  I never had the impression that the people smushed together on Bourbon Street reflected anything other than how alcohol really, really lowers inhibitions. Still, I love a parade and feeling like Mr. T from the 1980s television series, The A-Team with 40 pounds of shine dangling from my neck.

Shrove Tuesday is like New Year’s Eve in the secular world.  You celebrate, indulge, imbibe.  The next day you wake up pop some aspirin, chug water, and begin your resolutions.  Lent isn’t as much about resolutions as it is a time to make restitution for ways we have failed God.  Maybe that sounds like a buzz kill compared to the revelry of Mardi Gras or even the zeal of New Year’s resolutions, but I love the sobriety of Ash Wednesday.  I love going to mass and seeing the community of believers line up to face mortality with the meekness of remorse and hope that is mercy.  It’s not just lining up for ashes, it’s realigning ourselves with God.  It’s committing to taking off the weight of sin, to stripping away anything that separates us from our Savior and preparing ourselves for the joy that resurrection brings.

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Eternal Life and Disposable Society

My washing machine broke.  This had me spinning because it was less than three years old.  In fact, that was the problem.  The machine would fill, suds, rinse, and then, instead of spinning, it would make a few demonic sounds, stop abruptly, and flash an error signal with an incessant ping that required me to stop whatever I was doing and unplug the machine.

Of course, it wasn’t the only thing that became unplugged because I was left to deal with 50 pounds of soaking wet clothes and piles of unwashed laundry. Worse, was the feeling that I had been betrayed by this costly machine which promised to turn shmuck into shine.

Long story longer, I spent 60 bucks for a repairman to tell me that it was a computer malfunction and I should just buy a new washing machine because none of them work for more than a few years and repairs are too expensive to justify.  By this time, I was fantasizing about checking myself into a mental health facility.  I figured they could do the laundry and make my meals while I take a long nap. Then maybe if I am up to it, I would play a game of Parcheesi with another guest.

My husband suggested a simpler (although less satisfying) solution and off we went to buy another washing machine.  When I told the appliance salesperson about my trauma — figuring he was the next best thing to a trained mental health professional — he shrugged and said, “we live in a disposable society.” Read more

Marie Kondo Craze and Life-Changing Joy of God

Oh the craze of Marie Kondo, the Japanese organizing consultant and author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  She has the country folding their clothes like origami and looking for sparks of joy in the mess of a categorical closet clean-out.  Her method, known as KonMari, has followers purging closets and piling clothes.  If the big, fat mess you make doesn’t give you a panic attack, then you proceed to touch each article of clothing.  If the sparks don’t fly, the item does, but not until you thank it for its service (and people think I am weird for talking to my cats).

I was looking at my closet and thinking how insane it would be to pull everything out.  I mean, I hung it up already.  It’s already clean and ironed.  It seems kind of sadistic to pile it like a heap of dead leaves.  After all, how much joy am I going to have from wrinkling perfectly ironed clothes and then rehanging them?  Then, I worried I wouldn’t find any sparks in my pile.  I would be like a homely girl that doesn’t get a Valentine.  No spark for you.  How sad would that be?  (It’s very sad.  I’ve been that girl).  I could be inspired to donate my entire closet, and end up joyless with no origami in my dresser.

Pondering her method, I wondered what it would be like to take a mental inventory of our lives and discover what sparked joy?  Would we start a fire?  Saint Catherine of Sienna said, “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”  But that wasn’t about deciphering joy, it was about discerning who God created you to be.  Sometimes that seems even harder than cleaning out closets and organizing tchotchkes.  Whenever I examine my life, trying to answer the weighty question of purpose, I feel a spark of panic, not joy.  Maybe Kondo would have me thank that question for its dubious service, and send it on its way.   Perhaps that works with the material, but when it comes to setting the world on fire for God, we don’t want to dismiss the unique purpose he created for us.  “And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose,” (Romans 8:28). Read more