Whole Hearted

Wednesday of the First Week in Lent
Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart for I am gracious and merciful. – Joel 2:12-13  

More than two weeks ago, our daughter Clare came home from preschool with a shoebox full of “kindness notes” (also known as Valentines). For two weeks, she has been carrying the box around, taking all the cards out to study over and over again. “This one is from Ella. She is my friend.” “Whose name is on this one? Who drew this?” She has relived memories and recounted stories that we have never heard about school and her friends. I keep expecting her interest to wane. But these little scraps of paper have brought her hours of enjoyment.  

St. Ignatius tells us to return to Scripture passages and experiences of prayer that are fruitful, so that we might gain even more wisdom from them. Particularly in times of desolation, he instructs us to relive those moments where we felt God’s nearness most profoundly. Over the past few weeks, I have continued to be struck by this image of Clare carefully examining her Valentines as if they are precious gifts. In her own intuitive child-like way, she is doing exactly what St. Ignatius has instructed.  

But now we are in Lent and today’s readings are a harsh wake up call to the Ninevites as well as the crowd gathered around Jesus. They are being warned of the consequences of ignoring the commandment, but also of the unimaginable mercy of God. Sometimes we feel as lost as the Ninevites and as clueless at deciphering the Gospel as the early disciples. I question what my small Lenten sacrifices really mean. Will eating less chocolate really return my heart to God? Will my resolve to react less and speak kinder really make any difference? Today I feel like the same old me, with the same old flaws.    

I hold the image of Clare’s sacred Valentines in contrast with the seemingly distant God in the readings. Instead of imagining God somewhere off in the distance, judging my worth, I imagine God sitting beside me at the kitchen table. Together, we open the treasure chest of my prayers and good intentions. We relive the highlights and key moments. The things in need of further healing, we put aside to look at another time. The ones that bring deep peace and joy, we return to the box to enjoy over and over again. We tend to think about redemption as a linear process. Our prayer and our faithfulness hopefully improve over time; but in reality our relationship with God goes through highs and lows, more fruitful times as well as dryer times.  

No matter where I am today, the invitation from God remains: return to me with your whole heart. The whole heart that is bruised and broken; the whole heart that has complex reactions to people. Any Lenten commitment to prayer, fasting, or giving is simply a help on this journey of return. I am comforted that God does not care whether our last “Valentines Day” together was two weeks, two years, or two decades ago. If I genuinely desire a deeper relationship with God, I trust that He will accept my humble offering fully. 

Suggestion for prayer:  
1. Take out crayons, colored pencils or markers.  
2. Imagine what note God might leave in your treasure box.   
3. What note might you write Jesus in return? 

Rewind, Fast Forward, Pause

“Tell God to rewind the day. I want to try again.” My four-year-old daughter sobbed uncontrollably in the parking lot of her preschool. After a mishap in the lining up for COVID-safe dismissal, she could not calm down enough to walk out with everyone else. After 20-minutes, one of the Sisters carried her to my car as she continued to cry. We talked about the pajama day and hot cocoa party they had, the special treats for the last day, and finally the incident that had upset her so much. The whole time we were sitting in the now-emptied parking lot, she kept saying she wanted God to rewind her day so she could start over. She wanted her friends (who are now long gone) to come back to school; she wanted to rewind and change the course of the day.

How often have we also wanted to rewind our day? I wish it were that easy. I judged a situation without having all the facts. I reacted angrily instead of listening longer to better understand.  I snapped at my husband and kids because I am tired and stressed. I wish I had been more productive over the weekend. I regret the things I put off in January and February of 2020 that were no longer possible come March. Rewind, start over, try again. 

At other times I just want to fast-forward to when things will be possible again. I want to fast-forward to the end of this never-ending pandemic, the drudgery of working from home with three energetic kids. I look at the mountain of laundry to fold and put away. The same sippy cup seems to be on the counter no matter how many times I wash it. The two hours of remote learning for first grade seems to take five. I can’t tackle this same ToDo list one more time. I want to fast-forward through the constant interruptions, fear, discomfort, and anxiety that made up 2020. Fast-forward to when I can volunteer at the Valentine’s Day parties in my kids’ classrooms, to the long-delayed celebration of my sister’s marriage, to waiting in a long line at Disneyland for my son to see the new Star Wars land (which we were supposed to do for his March 2020 birthday).

This week, the Catholic liturgical calendar moved out of the Christmas season and officially into “Ordinary Time.” We resume the rhythm of our pandemic survival: school, work, virtual Cub Scouts, Zoom ballet classes. From Sunday to Sunday, we put one foot in front of the other. I wake up hopeful and often find myself discouraged throughout the day: one more dish, one more load of laundry, one more email, one more Zoom. I wish I could rewind and do better, fast-forward to the quiet (maybe?) waiting at the end of the day. Both instincts come from the same root: the desire to escape. I want to flee the uncomfortable feelings and the disappointment, in myself and others. Maybe you are feeling this way, too?

Christmas has reminded us that God was born into messiness, fear, and discomfort. God lives not just in the Church buildings and pilgrimage sites, but also in the school parking lot and my laundry room. God joins me as I do the dishes, practice counting to 100, and reminds me that I can’t rewind or fast-forward. When I discover my daughter coloring all over her shoes, I can try to imagine the child Jesus playing alongside her. I am trying to live that call to discipleship, to be guided by Christ, in my own house and in my daily life. 

Discipleship is not just about tending to my own interior world (no matter how important that personal work is). I seek peace and centeredness so I can see beyond my own four walls. God’s people are crying out for hope and healing. Trusting in God’s goodness and provident care does not mean I turn a blind eye to that reality. Rather, it compels me to look more deeply into it and see this moment as an integral chapter in the paschal mystery. 

God is inviting me to do something as a disciple. At the very least, God is softening my heart and purifying my own self-preoccupation. I find myself angry at how willing some are to separate our communities into those deserving and those undeserving of compassion and care. When I see the long lines of cars awaiting meal distribution at our local Churches, I imagine the Holy Family, tired and worn out from their own journey. When I read about massive COVID outbreaks in California jails, I imagine Christ imprisoned alongside these men and women. I am challenged to greater solidarity. To be a disciple of Christ is to allow myself to be shaped by Christ’s dying and rising in my daily life and in the lives of those around me.

Go Deeper:

Puzzling: Baptism of the Lord

In this way we know that we love the children of God

when we love God and obey his commandments.

For the love of God is this,

that we keep his commandments.

And his commandments are not burdensome,

for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world.  – 1Jn 5:2-4

When I dump out the 500 pieces of a new puzzle, the colors and shapes all jumbled together. Gradually, as I work, the nuances of color, perspective, and texture become more distinct. I enjoy the thrill of seeing chaos take shape. Once I start a puzzle, I cannot rest until I finish it. Unfortunately I don’t get much time to puzzle these days; inevitably pieces get lost or chewed up (by the dog or baby). 

On our Baptism, God does not just give us the first piece of sacramental grace. In Baptism, we receive the entire gift of salvation. Our original sin is cleansed and we are united completely with the community of faith. All the pieces are given to us, but the picture those pieces will form is still fragmented. Whether we are baptized as children or through the RCIA process, God comes more than halfway to meet us and journey with us through the rest of our lives. Baptism is not the first marker in a game of BINGO; we don’t need to move across the board collecting the markers in a row. 

God has already gifted us everything we need. Yet, I exert unnecessary energy trying to make all the pieces of my life’s puzzle fit together perfectly. I cram a piece that is too big in where it does not belong (and then later find myself undoing that whole section in order to start over). I despair as I look at the large gaps. I focus on that one weird misshapen piece that does not seem to fit anywhere. 

I forget that salvation has already been offered fully and completely. So many of us are filled with anxiety about our shortcomings and failures. We grow frustrated at the “Groundhog Day” feel to our confessions, as we struggle with the same vices over and over again.  I know I spend a lot of time questioning how God plans to fit all these pieces of my life and who I am together into anything meaningful.

In the wisdom of the Church, we have a practice of renewing our baptismal promises at various points throughout the liturgical year. (In normal times) we bless ourselves with the water of our Baptism as we enter and leave Church buildings. Like my love of puzzles was passed on to me and my siblings by our mom and aunt, the Church passes these rituals on to us because we realize that we need these reinforcements. The false spirit that pursued Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism tempts us that our pieces can’t be found, or that the baby-chewed piece has ruined it, rather than made it more human and lovely.

Each morning when we wake up, God offers the chance to live into the promises of our baptism in completely new ways: in our work, in our family life, and in the community around us.  The pieces shift, the colors become more distinct, the image reveals itself. 

Can I trust that whatever God is building in me, will be beautiful?

Rationing Love

Tuesday After Epiphany, January 5, 2021

I think the stuffed animals are reproducing; every time I turn around, there are more of them. They stare at me from under the couch. They hide under the blankets on the beds. They lurk inside every backpack and tote bag. Even before I get out of bed in the morning, they are waiting for me. I am being haunted, not by ghosts but by “stuffies.” 

Unfortunately my loathing of the stuffies is inversely proportional to my children’s love of them. Each stuffy has an elaborate origin story: “Cottonball” the penguin that lives inside a plastic snowball, “Alora” who migrated here from outer space; or the magical Easter bunny that has made it past Christmas and into January. A short drive to Grandma’s involves a backpack and a doll stroller stuffed with “pets”. I once asked, “Do you think we need all this for such a short drive?” To which I got the response: “Grandma would miss them if they did not come.” Fair point. 

Writing this post, I have been interrupted with urgent requests to wrap a baby leopard in a swaddle blanket and tie it up with a pink ribbon. I don’t comply out of concern that the baby leopard is catching a chill, but because caring for this “pet” is a way that my daughter practices giving and receiving love. She thinks about its comfort and imagines its life. I would like her to have one special stuffed animal that she keeps on her bed and then get rid of all the rest. So far she has vehemently rejected my idea. 

At 4-years-old, I already know her mind does not work like mine. What energizes her and gives her life is unique. She is not my “mini me,” but her own person. She comes up a lot in my prayer (and these reflections) because she challenges me to love better. She comes up with responses, suggestions, and ideas that I never could have imagined. She rattles whatever small sense of control I feel over my life. Objectively speaking, I don’t want dozens of stuffed animals crammed in every nook and cranny of my house. They have not been evicted because I see how much joy caring for them brings her. (Down the road, I will probably regret allowing her to hoard them for this long.) The stuffies are one visible reminder of the expansive nature of love. Her loving expands my loving. 

In today’s Gospel, the Apostles look around and see the people hungry and tired. They cannot imagine being able to feed and care for these masses. They feel powerless to solve this problem. Jesus challenges them to look beyond the obvious solutions, to make space for love to enter in and multiply what is already there. Whether it was a miracle of matter or a miracle of heart, somehow there was enough food for all. God’s love is like this: abundant, overflowing, and gratuitous. 

Like the Apostles, I lose my way, wandering around in my overly analytical brain. I question my own decisions. I doubt that the voice I hear comes from God. I struggle to take a step forward in forgiveness. I allow love to be small, to be rationed, so that there is enough leftover for me. 

Sometimes my daughter piles all these dozens of stuffed animals on her bed at once and snuggles into them. Bunnies, dogs, pandas, cats: all of God’s creatures jumbled together. They cover her limbs and she pokes her face out just enough. What if I just dove into God’s love with such reckless abandon? 

Where Does God Live?

“My God! What a wonderful title and what a beautiful description… Servants of the Poor! It is the same as saying Servants of Jesus Christ, for He regards as done to Himself what is done to them. What did he do on earth but serve the poor?”

–St. Vincent de Paul

Does God live in _____? Our three year old has become fascinated with all the places that God lives. Each day we go through a litany of places where God might live. God lives in our hearts? Yes. Does God live in our mouths? Yes. Does God live in the big trees? Yes. Does God live in the little trees? Also, yes. Does God in the mountains? Yes. Does God live on the streets? Yes. In today’s Gospel, upon recognizing Jesus, the disciples ask him where he is staying so that they might go there and meet him there. Each time my daughter asks if Jesus lives somewhere, my answer is always yes. She takes delight in asking me ridiculous places that God might live– in the street, inside her mouth– she laughs and then tries to think of even more places. 

Today we commemorate St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, a woman religious who founded the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul and provided the framework for Catholic education in the United States. In a particular way, she and the Vincentian fathers  recognized Jesus in the poor. To care for and educate the poor (through schools, parishes, Meals on Wheels, social services, etc) is to care for Jesus in the poor, the migrant, the homeless. Does Jesus live on the street? Yes, Jesus lives on the street. 

My cousin (who is a Daughter of Charity) recently shared with me that one of their parishes in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district welcomes the homeless to sleep in the Church during the day. Oftentimes when the school Masses are happening, the homeless are asleep in the pews. “The Eucharist is present on the altar and in the pews,” she says.Just as John the Baptist proclaimed “Behold, the Lamb of God” in the person of Jesus, the Daughters of Charity proclaim “Behold, the Lamb of God” in the lives of the poor they serve. 

When we ask Jesus, “Where are you staying? Where do you live?” what response do we hear? Do I hear Jesus saying to me personally, “I want to live with you”? Do I hear Jesus saying, “Come and meet me in the streets, among the poor, with the forgotten”? 

Where is Jesus inviting me to meet him today?

For a great laugh and a fantastic image of joyful presence among the poor, watch local Daughters of Charity perform “Happy”. 

Unexpected Epiphany

“Do not love the world or the things of the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  Yet the world and its enticement are passing away.  But whoever does the will of God remains forever.”
1 JN 2:15, 17

My house is filled with the things of this world… overflowing in fact.  Our kids especially were recipients of the generosity of aunts, uncles, godparents, grandparents and friends. Due to the massively delayed mail, it seems like each day of the Christmas season has brought even more surprises. Since December 24 we have been putting LEGO sets together, riding scooters, and cuddling the multitude of new stuffed animals. 

But today the kids went to tend the grave of a dear family friend who died in February. We had promised the family we would remove a little Christmas tree before the groundskeepers would come to clear the flowers and decorations this week. Our six year old, Paul, had been asking to visit the grave and took his job today very seriously. The sight when we got out of the car was almost overwhelming. Nearly every grave was covered in Christmas decorations: tinsel trees, nativities, poinsettias. One arrangement even included the Grinch.   

Our four-year-old daughter Clare remarked, “it’s like a giant birthday party for all these people in heaven.”

After clearing the grave and replacing the tree with fresh flowers, we prepared to leave. But Paul wanted to stay longer “visiting” our beloved neighbor. Meanwhile, Clare noticed that the recent rain and wind had blown over a lot of the decorations on other graves. Ornaments had scattered into the grass and some had been crushed. She gently straightened and redecorated the trees. The kids imagined the people: who were they, how did they die? Did they have the coronavirus? 

These other families will never know a small child visited their loved one’s grave. Just being there drew out their own sense of compassion and kindness. I’ve already promised them a visit to the Sisters’ plot at another Catholic cemetery. They can’t wait to visit the graves of the Sisters they knew, but also the Sisters they never knew.  I didn’t set out to include a cemetery tour in the Octave of Christmas, but it turned out to be a wonderful gift. 

The wise men brought symbols of both life and death: gold, frankincense and myrrh. We watched other families bury their loved ones today. We looked around at the unique decorations and offerings on the tombs: tangible outpourings of love, grief, and healing. Our offering is small compared to the gifts the wise men carried to present to the newborn king. 

As I journey with the wise men towards the manger, what gift might I already be carrying with me? With whom might God be inviting me to share that gift? 

Is It You Who Will Build a House for Me?

Fourth Sunday of Advent
“Here I am living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God dwells in a tent!”  – 2 Samuel 7

The jangle of keys, the click of the lock on the front door, the rustle of the laundry basket. Small sounds like these have trained our one-year-old Matthew, “something is happening.” He comes running down the hall, slipping and sliding in his hurry to be involved. “Mama? Maaamaaa?!” Most of his life has been in quarantine. Outings are to the garage to load the washing machine, to the car to do a drive-up order at Target, and sometimes to grandma’s to be babysat while I work. There have been no baby music or tumbling classes. Unlike his older siblings, who had taken flights, gone to Disneyland, visited extended family on the opposite end of the state, Matthew’s life has been moving between the bedroom, the kitchen, the living room, and the most exciting part of the house: the garage. 

In March, I never could have imagined how small our world would shrink and for how long. My little shadow could barely roll over when this started, and now his footsteps thunder around the hallways. Our house doesn’t feel big enough for school, work, Zoom ballet class, and active kids.  The walls begin to feel like they are closing in on us. My world feels small, my house feels small, I feel small. I lament all the things that feel wrong with my house, beyond the endless ToDo lists and constant cleaning. 

In the first reading today, King David is horrified that the ark of the covenant is residing in a tent, while he lives in luxury. Through the Prophet Nathan, God tells David, “Is it you who will build a house for me?” I hear that query and wonder how I could answer.  All I have to offer Jesus is a couch with a sagging cushion and slightly chipped frame, a floor covered in Barbies, and bookshelves filled edge to edge with LEGOs.

What I have to offer Jesus seems so small: kitchen, family room, garage. The sacred space I have is the world that Matthew sees through his little eyes. This year, these four walls (and the people who dwell in them) are the only manger I have for the Holy Family.  It may be crowded, chaotic, and slightly sticky, but I trust it is a place that Jesus will want to come, to visit, to make a home. 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

“Yes, and” or “Yes, but”

“She hears no voice, accepts no correction; In the LORD she has not trusted, to her God she has not drawn near… You need not be ashamed  of all your deeds, your rebellious actions against me.” ZEP 3:2,11

In Improv training, actors are taught the “yes, and” principle: to accept what is happening as reality and build off of that new information. This creativity and receptiveness is part of what makes improv spontaneous and fun. My daughter, on the other hand, takes the “yes, but” approach to any direction, correction, or vain pleading.

Me: “It’s time to clean up the toys.”
Her: “Oh, but the [imaginary] cat is still eating those legos for a snack.” 

Also me: “It’s time for a bath.”

Also her: “Yes, but, I’m Clare the Cat. Clare the kid is on vacation.”

Still me: “Okay, there is no more dessert today. I keep catching you eating chocolate chips out of the baking supplies.”
Still her: “Oh, that was Clare the Cat. I am Clare the Kid again and I have not had any dessert today.”

From an Improv sketch, this might be hilarious. In real life, the whole ordeal is infuriating, pull your hair out, crazy-making, frustration. She is relentless. When St. Ignatius talks about the false spirit wearing you down like a petulant child, this is the scenario he is referring to. It is not overtly evil, blatantly disregarding authority. She looks at me so sweetly, with a hopeful look in her eye, as if to say, “I bet you never thought of that?!” I resign myself to the fact that a four-year-old has already outsmarted me. I give in to her far more than I should because I am just so tired. Her “Yes, but…” closing off listening, cooperation, and co-creation. 

“Yes, and…” she is four. “Yes, and…” she is not an Improv actor. She is learning her ability to imagine, to impact the world around her. It is all necessary and – ultimately – good; but it is hard for the parent calling a daughter to listening, cooperation, and co-creation.

And then in all humility, I realize that I am no better in my conversations with God.  He just doesn’t give in to me the way I relent and give in to her. God is not wearied in the same way I am.

God: “You’ve been coasting along and not really allowing yourself to grow.”

Me: “Yes, but next year.”

Also God: “I know you are frustrated and discouraged right now. What is it that you are needing right now?”

Also me: “Yes but, let me moan and lament all the hard things a little longer. I am not really willing to fix them.”

Still God: “I love you just as you are. There is no need to change. I just want you to enjoy deeper peace, greater life, and gentle hope.”

Still me: “Yes but, that is scary and hard.”

The further we push God away, the more adrift we feel, and the harder it can be to realign ourselves. In the season of Advent, the readings invite us to make greater room to listen and hear God’s voice. When I read the line “She hears no voice, accepts no correction; In the LORD she has not trusted, to her God she has not drawn near…” I felt like I was hearing myself complain about my daughter. But more importantly, a few verses later, the prophet Zephaniah reminds us,  “You need not be ashamed  of all your deeds, your rebellious actions against me.” 

God takes all of Clare’s (and my) excuses, faults, and shortcomings and continues to reply, “Yes, and I still love you.” 

Beautiful Things

Friday of the First Week of Advent

“One thing I ask of the LORD… That I may gaze on the loveliness of the LORD and contemplate his temple.” – Psalm 27

“I am looking for things that are beautiful.” The eye rolls, the snarky replies, the know-it-all smirks. I get this kind of teenager attitude a lot from my four-year-old daughter. So many of the outfits I suggest for school or pajamas I offer that are seasonally appropriate are considered “not beautiful enough” for her. She even makes up words to reject my suggestions. “That is too harbor-saucy.” I still do not know what that means.  Recently, I discovered her painstakingly coloring her school shoes in with Crayola crayons. “They were too beige.” After a moment of frustration, I found myself gazing on loveliness. I took pictures of the formerly beige shoes to remember this moment in time.  Each day she has proudly worn them, I have smiled at her whimsy and appreciated her unique personality. 

Like her school shoes, I have felt beige, tired, and shabby. I am constantly lacking: at spending quality time with my husband and kids, at keeping the housework under control, at getting Christmas gifts purchased and mailed, and staying on top of important deadlines. Each day is filled with distractions and reminders of my own failures. As 2020 reaches a crescendo, I am tired and worn. I feel just a little too beige.

When I am discouraged by the current state of affairs or tempted to judge other people’s actions, the words of today’s Psalm shift my perspective. “That I may gaze on the loveliness of the LORD and contemplate his temple.” This world around us, even right now, is the place where God is in-dwelling in humankind. It is the world the Christ-child enters into.

I imagine God is looking into humanity: with all its fighting, suffering, illness, and loneliness. I imagine God seeing beyond those challenges to the dignity within each person, to the care between neighbors, to the willingness to go (far) beyond our individual and collective comfort zones for the sake of one another. 

Like my artist of a daughter, God sees the potential waiting to be unleashed- even within me. God looks into my beige heart and sees a myriad of color. “I am looking for something beautiful.” 

What if that something beautiful God is seeking, is me?

A Stolen Advent

Second Sunday of Advent, December 6, 2020

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief,

and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar

and the elements will be dissolved by fire,

and the earth and everything done on it will be found out. – Peter 3:10

The tracking numbers, the phone calls with the post office, emails with the seller. It did not seem possible, but it is official now. Someone has stolen our Advent. 

More precisely, someone stole the awesome, now sold-out Advent kit I ordered.  This kit was going to make our Advent…. So we could really immerse ourselves in the activities, prepare our children for the season when little else they expect is happening.  But instead, Advent was stolen.

Our long standing traditions are cancelled. My preparation for Christmas won’t involve gatherings with my closest friends and family members. There will be no lengthy meals or cross-country flights; no sitting on Santa’s lap or Nutcracker Ballet. I have not even entered a mall to purchase Christmas gifts. Instead I have bought most things online and ended up with fraud on my credit card too… My craft kit, my credit card, and many things I hold dear…. All of them stolen. 

I feel uneasy. If these things can so easily be stolen, if I can be taken advantage of like this, where else is my safety in jeopardy? In today’s  second reading, the false prophets instill doubt in the people. Maybe God isn’t even in control anymore? This is all no longer a part of salvation history.

But like a thief, God has snuck in where I least expected Him.  God has been stealing moments, forcing my eyes to see and my ears to hear. My eyes cannot ignore the long lines of cars backed up on city streets, awaiting the contactless distribution from the food pantry. My ears cannot forget the little boy on my son’s Zoom who casually mentions not having enough to eat. My heart aches for dear friends whose lives are crumbling like a house of cards right now. I feel the loneliness in being helpless. 

Like John the Baptist prepares the way for the Lord, the people around me are directing my attention towards what is still to come. A vaccine, a cure, peace. When tempted to despair, I am reminded  there is hope. 

My Advent was stolen, but not by porch pirates or cyber criminals. What I thought I needed for Advent was taken from me, and I’ve been invited by Jesus to something new. I was captured by the One who opens locked doors and barricaded hearts.