Can I Royally Screw Up God's Plan?

Saturday, November 25, 2017

I was playing a magazine scavenger hunt with my after-schoolers when my cell phone began to ring. I was using it as a timer for the competition, so the cell phone was right there in my hand.
And it was  LOUD.

I muted the phone quickly and looked down – it was the organization that just a few days earlier had offered me a job (and I eagerly accepted). Why were they calling? Did something go wrong? There was no way I could answer – not with four loud elementary schoolers alone in a classroom – so I cringed as I watched the organization leave a voicemail.

My voice of anxiety went in a million different directions:
- did I eat or drink something that made my drug test come up as a false positive?
- was there some mistake in my background check?
- were they rescinding the offer because they found someone better?

Once the kids left and in the small window of time I had before my adult education class came in, I called the organization's office. The woman who called was already gone and her voicemail stated that she wouldn't be free until the afternoon tomorrow. My heart sank as I thought of all the waiting.

The next morning, as I drove to work, I kept thinking about the phone call the day before (because, of course, I am who I am. Anxiety is probably one of my most annoying attributes). I was excited about this job. The job was with a very reputable non-profit that does great work and the position would be interesting and challenging. And to think that all that excitement might be gone in the blink of an eye...

As I agonized over it, I started thinking about God's plan. If God's plan for me was to work for this organization, He would make it happen, right? But yet, I seem to subconsciously believe I have the power to royally screw it up somehow.

God is writing a story in me. I like to imagine He's at a typewriter in a study surrounded by leather books, maybe with a comfortable red chair. I imagine some kind of wonderful mix of Belle's library in Beauty and the Beast, the Hogwarts library, and Sherlock's office.

Maybe those leather books are other people's stories that He pulls out so our stories can intertwine. Maybe the books are there just because He knows I love the smell of books and the sound of a typewriter.

Why is it I think that I can rush into the study like a little child who doesn’t know any better and scribble with crayon over all those future chapters God has already written, causing Him to be frazzled and re-write those chapters, never as good as the first time? (Interestingly enough, that’s exactly what I had to do with this blog post because Blogger lost it the first time. God has a sense of humor.)

But faith tells me that the truth is, even if I do scribble over those pages, God has some magical crayon eraser. And the chapters are fine with no need for a re-write or even editing. (Because, as you know, God has perfect spelling and grammar.)

And it may turn out that the chapters don't go the way I predict anyway, for the best or worst. After all, that's what makes a good story, right? Who would have predicted that Harry Potter was being protected and cared for all that time by...oh wait, maybe some people haven't read the books/seen the movies? All right, I won't give it away, but you get the point.

It may turn out that there was a "yes" to one of those anxious questions I asked myself when I received that call. But that doesn't mean I went over God's head and screwed up some marvelous future for myself. It means I dust off my feet, find out and fix what went wrong for next time (if necessary), and move on. Because God has something else in store. 

So, I waited to make that phone call. And repeated to myself that the God has already typed out those pages, whatever they are, and there was nothing I could do personally to screw it up.Instead of scribbling or even worrying about my scribbles, maybe I should just lean back in the red chair, listen to the keystrokes, and enjoy the book smell.

Yup, that sounds good to me.

(Update: As I tried to relax in that red chair some two weeks ago, my phone rang again...before 12pm even. Everything was fine. They were officially offering me the job. I start on Monday. 
Hearing about the job - and even getting it - is another example of God writing my story. If you were part of that story, regardless of your role, I hope you know how grateful I am.)

Dear Ita....

Sunday, November 19, 2017

(If you don't know who Ita Ford is, I suggest reading this first - "Not Left Forgotten: Guided by the Spirit of Ita Ford")

Dear Ita,
As I sit here reading your letters, I feel compelled to write you. I write to you as a friend because, although we've never met, I've known you for years. I've read and re-read your letters and writings since I was in college. Your words have been with me in my studies, in the mission field, and in religious formation.

After leaving religious life a year ago, I wondered if your words would still resonate with me. They had meant so much to me all those years. So, tentatively, I started re-reading, wondering if it would result in the loss of a spiritual guide and heroine (I know, you'd be nauseated by those titles)

But years ago, you wrote to your niece, praying that she would find what gives life a deep meaning for her - "something worth living for, maybe even worth dying for...something that energizes you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead" (read the whole letter here) And I breathed a sigh of relief. You got it, you understood journeys, no matter what they were.

That's where I am right now - on the path for that which gives me my life deep meaning.
I thought I had found it with religious life, but no, it wasn't what God intended.
I'm not sure what my vocation is, what these next years will hold, but I'm okay with going with God's flow...for now, anyway...I think.

Despite the question marks, since I left the Sisters, to echo your own words:
"What seems to be slowly happening is an acceptance of the truth of who I am: coming to know it, see it in relation to the whole - and accepting the knowledge of who I am and where I am...coming to be comfortable with who I am, how I have been gifted for others." (retreat notes, Aug 1978-1979, p124)

Even though I'm unsure where my life is leading me and I've lost that title of "Sister", I do believe we still have a lot in common. It's incredibly obvious that you loved writing, as I do. You were witty and, truthfully, a bit nerdy. You were faithful, yet full of questions. You struggled with comprehending God's love for you in your imperfections, just as I do.

Neither of us had a journey we expected. You joined the Maryknoll Sisters and left right before vows, joined again seven years later, lost your best friend in a car accident that almost killed you too, and then died just a few months after moving to El Salvador. I, well, I have been all over the place, in and out of community.

Is all this what's meant in Jeremiah 18:5-6, one of your favorites:
"Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel"? 

In a 1977 article, you mention living in the mission field of Chile as "on the front lines of Christianity" (quoting a letter you had received using that phrase). Things are a bit different here. I called living my faith in Bolivia 'barefoot Christianity' because it was Christianity at its core, stripped to simplicity.
So, how is it that I live out my faith here in San Antonio, beyond church, beyond prayer? I work for persons who are poor and, like you, like all of us, I have no answers for them. I can only walk with them and let myself be evangelized. But the noise of God's work in others and myself isn't quite as loud as it was back then or maybe there's a lot of static my ears are foolishly focusing on instead. But I know He's here and very much alive in these people.

All this is to ask for your prayers, Ita (and readers).
Your friend is a jar of clay but she's not broken yet. God still has me in His hand.


Texas, God Cries With You

Sunday, November 12, 2017

For my birthday, a friend gifted me a charm - it was the shape of Texas with a heart carved out in the

It made me smile because, after leaving the Sisters a year ago, I decided to stay here in Texas, where I had been sent on mission. The fact that I didn't move back home to Maryland was a hard decision for some Sisters to understand, but the truth is this city had started to feel like home. And it has ever since.
And I've noticed that in the little ways I never expected to assimilate - when I pulled out my boots when the temperatures dropped below 75, when I told my afterschoolers it was too cold to go outside when it was only in the 50s, etc.

I never expected, though, to be a "beyond-winter Texan" through so many tragedies.

The human smuggling tragedy here in San Antonio.
Hurricane Harvey.
Sutherland Springs.

And, with each tragedy, I saw the heart of San Antonio ache, even if the last two didn't affect the city itself. I was in Maryland visiting during the human trafficking tragedy, so I can't speak to the response, but I was in Texas for the last two.
After the fear of Harvey hitting San Antonio passed, I saw the city burst into action to help its victims - nonprofits of all kinds used their resources to help the refugees, churches and schools opened their doors, groups rushed to cities to help rebuild, etc. Even the news spoke of "our brothers and sisters in Port Aransas/Houston/fill-in-the-blank".
As we spoke of Sutherland Springs today in church, I heard sniffles in the church as people held back their tears (or didn't). (Granted, Sutherland Springs does hit a little closer to home. Someone in my Bible study does know someone in the town.)

The truth is Texas has been through a lot this past year. And let's call it what is - trauma and suffering.

For Catholics, November is a time to remember the souls of the departed. And Texas certainly has plenty of those from this past year. All Souls Day is a Catholic tradition, yes, but why not make it a tradition for everyone of the Christian faith?

In a sweep of tragedies, it is so tempting to believe that our God is one of vengeance or even one of apathy. It's part of being human. We're wounded and vulnerable...and where is God? But if we reflect on who we believe our God to be, we know He didn't send the tragedy out of something we did or didn't do nor does He sit back in apathy. Rather, He sits and cries with us.
"The Lord said....‘My eyes pour out tears. Day and night, the tears never quit. My dear, dear people are battered and bruised, hopelessly and cruelly wounded."
- Jeremiah 14:17 (The Message)

He is here. 
He is here in every victim.

When I was in Seminary (novitiate), I had several health problems. Because I'm human, I attributed it to God punishing me for my sinful behavior. Once I finally let go of that erroneous belief, I then wondered why He would let this happen in the first place. Those health problems cost me so much. I lost the little independence I had. I felt like I was the center of attention...and in a very bad way. I was very angry with God. I stopped talking to Him at one point, even. (See, even Sisters got spiritual issues.) But, one day, in the chapel alone, I started talking to Him. Angrily, but still. And suddenly, like a flash, I could feel His presence. Not just in that moment, but I could see it in little moments from the very beginning of my health problems. I could feel Him on the floor with me when I fell, stroking my hair, making sure I was okay. I could feel Him next to me all those times afterwards I whimpered alone in my room, thinking of all that had to be taken away, of all the doctor's visits, of all the unwanted attention. And I could feel Him embracing me in that moment in the chapel, saying "I'm here. I feel your pain".

He is here in every tear shed.

For the past ten years or so, in different parts of the world, I've worked with people who live in poverty - whether it be as a caregiver, teacher, or caseworker. In each instance, I've found 'helpers' in those I'm supposed to be 'helping'. It's taken different forms.
It's been the girls from the orphanage in Bolivia, having gone through incredible poverty, child abuse/neglect, malnutrition and occasionally homelessness, longing to do something for starving children in Africa.
It's been my Girl Scouts here in San Antonio, whose families can barely afford childcare much less anything else, who wanted to use money from their cookie sales for NICU babies.
It's been parents who have turned down my help for the childcare tuition assistance fund for families in crisis because "please, save the money for another family. I'll figure out a way. There may be someone else who won't be able to"
It's been my afterschooler at my current job in section 8 housing who wants to sell chocolate bars and "give the money away to those who really need it".

He is here in every person lending out a shoulder to cry on or a helping hand.

So, this month, whether we're Catholic or not, let us remember each one of the departed, even the unnamed. And while we do so, let us remember God's presence next to them in their suffering...and next to us in our sorrow and path to healing.

That charm now, for me, symbolizes more than just Texas, my second home.
It is a constant reminder that God is tragedy, in transition, in sorrow, in healing.
"The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit." 
- Psalm 34:18

Being 'the Other': Owning a Different Kind of Story

Friday, November 3, 2017

I often feel like ‘the other’ – part of a group of people that no one knows how to deal with or react to.
There’s married people, parents (who may or may not be married), widowed, divorced, singles, religious…and then there’s me.

Yes, I am single, but I don’t identify at all with the single life, or at least those that are single and around my age (32).
Why? Because singles that are in their 30s have usually spent the past decade or so dating, perhaps having at least one long-term partner along the line, exploring different careers maybe.
Me, on the other hand? Not so much. I voluntarily lived a life of celibacy. I explored different careers, yes, but not really through my own choice (not that I minded). I moved around the whole country, but again not through my own choice (again, not that I minded). My long-term partner was God.

Except for my work, the rest of my life feels stagnant. Since leaving the Sisters, I haven’t gained many other friends, though I kept those I already had. I did join an all-female Bible study group at church, which helped a little, though I tend to only see them on Sunday nights. Almost all the women (just by happenstance) are divorced, a stage of life that I can relate to the most, and, as you can guess, they are almost all older. [Truthfully, I think this tendency to form friendships with older generations stem from the average age of those I lived with when I was a Sister.]
Because I mostly only see that group on Sunday nights and because the rest of my friends have families, I lack friends to do spontaneous things with…like go to festivals or try out a new restaurant or just hang out.

So, I do many things alone. Having an introvert side, I don’t mind this too much. But doing so, I realized how much society assumes we do everything in groups.
I even had someone try to skip ahead of me in an ice cream shop once because he assumed I was waiting for a friend.  I wasn’t – just getting some pistachio gelato on a nice night. And there was one time in church that they squeezed so many in the pew that I wondered if I was going to be asked to move to a different part of the church because it was obvious I was the only one in the pew by myself.
And pretty much everywhere, I’ve rarely had anyone talk to me when I’m alone.

Oftentimes, if I share my story, many (regardless of age, religion, or vocation in life) don’t know how to react to my story of being a Sister, leaving, and then the grief of transition – that is, if I even feel vulnerable enough to share that last part. Usually I get a shocked face, a “wow, that’s interesting!”, and the conversation ends. When I was deeply sharing with someone once, I was told “I can’t relate to your story at all”, which I’ll admit made me feel sad. That comment truly did make me feel like ‘the other’ – like saying ‘you’re different than the rest of us and I just can’t understand that’.

Brené Brown once wrote
Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.

The truth is all that – my vocational discernment, being a Sister for five years, leaving, and the transition to lay life – is all part of my story. I can’t erase nor would I want to, really. The key is to embrace who I am, who I was, and what happened. I can’t pretend I’m anyone else. It may seem like it makes me more acceptable but, really, it just makes me more fragmented.

Being ‘the other’ – at least for now – is part of that story. On some days, when being alone is difficult or when I hear comments that emphasize my “different-ness”, it’s easy to give up. It’s easy to believe this is the way it’ll always be. But maybe it’s realizing I’m different, maybe it’s reflecting on the murk of my story, that allows me to pick up the shards left of my brokenness.

And hopefully, one day, I’ll find people, like most of the friends I have right now, who understand my story or at least feel comfortable with its uniqueness.

If I think about it, if there’s one thing I’ve been this past year, it’s brave. I’ve stepped into the unknown by becoming a lay woman. I’ve wrestled with grief, having lost my lifestyle, my community, and even some friends. I’ve chosen to remain in a city with no family and only a handful of friends. I changed jobs in September, leaving the ministry I knew for three years. Does that mean I haven’t been fearful? Or depressed? Or lonely? Oh God, no. Ask any of my friends. They can share those times they’ve had to calm me down. Yet, I feel that bravery doesn’t exclude those emotions but it means choosing to wade through it all anyway.

Sometimes bravery is in the small things, in trudging through life when it feels like it’s not going forward, in going out of your comfort zone, in sharing your story anyway, in believing God has a bigger plan.

I may be ‘the other’ for a long time. But screw that. I don’t have to be anyone else. My story is mine. And everyone’s story is worthy of being told and listened to.

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