“Christmas, we think, is supposed to be different – but in a sense it was always like this…The darkness need not overcome the light.”

As we prepare for Christmas, I’d like to share with you the profound homily preached by Archbishop Anthony Fisher, OP, of Sydney, Australia after this week’s terrible siege on the Lindt Cafe in Sydney. The truth and the hope contained in them is universal and beautiful. (Emboldened emphases are mine.)

We are not used to hearing words like ‘siege’, ‘terrorist’, ‘hostages’ and ‘security forces’ associated with our city. Yet for the past day and night we were subjected to pictures and sounds we tend to associate with alien lands. In a café only two blocks away from St Mary’s Cathedral, only one block away from the Supreme Court, even closer to the New South Wales Parliament, the Reserve Bank and the Channel 7 studio, hostages were pinned for hours against the windows and forced to hold up a flag which blasphemously used the name of God as a threat. The distress was visible on their faces, as was the relief of the first five to escape. We went to bed hoping to wake to good news. But despite patient efforts to maintain calm and negotiate there were, in the early hours of this morning, flashes of gunfire, intervention by our police to save lives, merciful escapes, but finally death. Hell had touched us.

Only history will tell how much 16 December 2014 will affect our attitudes, behaviour, life-style. But today the heart of our city is broken by the deaths of two innocent ‘hostages’ along with their tormentor, the injuries of four others and trauma to many more, the paralysis our city has experienced this day past. One of the deceased was Katrina Dawson, a mother of three young children and gifted barrister, presumably on her way to chambers for another day’s service of her clients. The other, Tori Johnson, was the young manager of the café, likewise intent on serving his customers. And the third was Sheik Man Haron Monis the perpetrator of this nightmare. Much is still unclear about him, his motivations and affiliations, and we must avoid too quickly jumping to conclusions and pointing fingers.

We are used to living in a peaceful, tolerant, secure society in which people may enter a café and order a hot chocolate without fear: I’ve been a customer at the Lindt Chocolat Café myself more than once. For such ease of living, such assumptions of safety, to be so radically challenged can be disorienting and harden our hearts. The risk is that we become cautious, cynical, suspicious of our neighbours, or worse, that we turn on them. In the process we undermine what we most love about our Australian way of life.

Christmas is around the corner and we have had a Christmas crib with well-lit Christmas trees, and a very beautiful laser light show projected upon the façade of the cathedral every night. But last night it was in darkness. That is true to reality, as it is often is, true to the Gospel. In the middle of all the romance of Christmas, the astonishing Good News of God-made-man for us, the angels, shepherds and wise men adoring, the Gospel report that all was not quite as it ought to be. There’s suspicion about the pregnancy; the husband considers divorcing his wife; a mother nearing labour is required to travel a great distance; there’s no room at the motel for them; the child is delivered in the squalor of a cowshed; in the Temple the proud parents are warned of trouble ahead; the family must flee as refugees to a strange land; meanwhile the King’s men kill the rest of the little children…

So the backdrop to the Light who will dawn for us at Christmas is in fact darkness. The Way, the Truth and the Life comes to people who often lose their way, to a civilisation sometimes more comfortable with lies than truth, to what is often a culture of death more than of life. The Christ is threatened from the moment of His birth until the violence of this world finally catches up with Him on the cross. And our world today is every bit as mixed up as it was at the first Christmas. There’s plenty of talk of human rights, the dignity of the person, equal respect and care. We are replete with resources, technology and know-how to help people through troubled times. Yet innocent people are threatened the world over and a little bit of what is commonplace in the region of Christ’s birth has even come to Martin Place. Christmas, we think, is supposed to be different – but in a sense it was always like this.

Yet we Christians believe that the Babe of Bethlehem is the Prince of Peace, God-with-us, God-one-of-us, God-saving-us. So why, if the Prince of Peace has come, do these terrible things keep happening? Perhaps the answer is in the first Christmas carol, when the angels sang “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to those of good will.” The God who saves still leaves men free. They choose whether to be of good will or not. The Christ-child proposes peace, again and again; He gives us the wherewithal to be reconciled and live peaceably with our neighbours; but in the end we choose whether to live in His kingdom, by His values.

Is the joy, love and peace of Christmas really possible? Or do we have to adopt a more ‘realistic’ posture, more cynical and self-protective? Do we have to buy into the endless cycles of violence and recrimination? Do we have to take our own hostages? Reports have emerged this morning of the heroism of the male victim of the siege. Apparently seeing an opportunity, Tori grabbed the gun. Tragically it went off killing him, but it triggered the response of the police and eventual freedom for most of the hostages. Reports have also emerged that Katrina Dawson was shielding her pregnant friend from gunfire. These heroes were willing to lay down their lives so others might live, imitating the sacrifice of Christ who said that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for each other (Jn 15:13). Now spontaneous tributes are appearing in Martin Place and on the internet. Leaders of all religious, political and ethnic backgrounds are calling for calm, for prayer, for support for each other. Services are being offered for the victims, their families and friends. The darkness need not overcome the light. Indeed, the Christmas-Easter-Christian message is: it cannot! There is something greater than hatred and violence. There is Love, that humble, self-donative Love that comes in the shape of the Christmas Babe, the Prince of Peace. He can soften the hardest hearts. He can convert the most hardened sinner.

Come Prince of Peace. Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

Delivered at St, Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney on December 16, 2014

Land of Confusion, part II

It makes sense, right?

The confusion about the family, about the Church, about the Pope himself.

The Church is the only institution in the western world that is consistently standing to defend marriage.  Christ said the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against His Church, and I’ve never seen a gate attack anyone. Which means the Gates of Hell are on the defensive, so why wouldn’t Hell bring all its fury against the Church?

“Confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was one of confusion.” That was Archbishop Charles Chaput’s response on October 21, 2014, to a question from a member of the media in regards to the Synod on the Family. The more confusion there is about the Church and it’s “stance” on marriage and the family, the more seeds of unbelief are sewn.  We live in a culture that places an emphasis on politics so we have the terms of “left” and “right,” “conservative” and “liberal,” “traditional” and “progressive.”  None of these approaches are constructive and simply serve to cut out a “faction” from the church.

Amid confusion and division, some people have taken to even further name-calling, even puling our the h-word: Heretic. Bishops, even the Pope. Heretics.  An old professor of mine (a Dominican) once said that the Franciscans and Jesuits have both, at times, flirted with heresy, but on opposite sides. Today we have a Jesuit pope whose taken the name, Francis… maybe he’s just teasing us.

On Wednesday this week, Pope Francis began a new catecheses on the family following this fall’s Synod on the same and preceding next year’s assembly of the Synod. However before starting the catecheses, Pope Francis felt the need to clear the air surrounding the Synod and, while thanking the media for its coverage of the synod, pointed out the Church is not a parliament with “liberals” and “conservatives”, rather “the Synod is a protected space so that the Holy Spirit can operate; there was no clash between factions, as in a Parliament where this is licit.”  This followed an interview which the Holy Father granted to an Argentine daily last weekend where he divulged a little more on the inner workings of the synod (bonus quote from Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI in that one).

While the bishops prepare for the next assembly of the synod and Pope Francis prepares his catecheses on the family, let us prepare ourselves. First by prayer, and making space for the Christ-child who we remember came to us in history only two weeks from now; let us prepare for his second coming, fostering hope (and not despair) for when we will see Him in the fullness of His Glory; let us pray for our Pope and our bishops. And, if you have time, I’d highly encourage you to check out the 68-page booklet, Getting the Marriage Conversation Right. It offers a clear, concise defense of the Church’s teaching on marriage and in doing so reaffirms what a marriage is… and it’d make a great stocking stuffer…

Happy Advent.

Thanksgiving and Gratitude

Today is Thanksgiving Day in the United States of America.

Earlier this month I had an opportunity to experience the beauty and wonder of our created world and that of our nation when my family and I headed west to Billings, Montana for work. I had a two-day conference to be part of and when it was done we had decided we would drive 3 hours south to the East Entrance of Yellowstone National Park to visit a high school friend of Maggie’s who works as a park ranger in Yellowstone.

The two days in the hotel with 5 people, three of whom were aged 6 and under, in one room were rough. But thankfully, Billings has plenty of city parks for the kids to enjoy while I was “at work.” On the morning of the last day of the conference, my boss told me to leave as soon as my presentation was done around 10am and “get your kids out into the mountains!” We were grateful for the permission to leave early, and burned more of the kids’ pent-up energy at Billings’ spacious zoo before the road trip to East Entrance.  We got to East Entrance late on Thursday afternoon, in time to witness the night settling over the mountains and our accommodations.

Our hosts weren’t in due to vehicle troubles, so we had all of Halloween Day to enjoy and explore the park. Thankfully, the weather was absolutely beautiful. Though a little bit of snow was on the ground, the sun was plentiful, the wind soft and air just right…And we had the park practically to ourselves.

yellowstone lake

We hung out behind the Fishing Bridge Visitor Center at Lake Yellowstone for an hour. We drove to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and hiked to the Lower Falls and back, meeting only half a dozen people. We made it to Old Faithful and counted over 50 Bison along the way (we quit counting at 85 on our way back to our apartment). Thankfully, we got a front row spot and watched Old Faithful erupt within minutes of showing up. We walked the geyser area, accompanied by a lone wolf who trotted about the boardwalk and tourists like the stray neighborhood dog. We watched Old Faithful erupt again before heading to Upper Geyser Basin, Gibbon Falls and back “home” for the night

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Our friends had returned home and we enjoyed fresh elk steak and bison burgers and, of course, rekindling friendship and conversation.  The kids enjoyed buckets of Halloween candy courtesy of our hosts and the neighbor, a bachelor park ranger, specially requested our kids knock and “trick or treat” at his apartment, which made their night, and his too.

On Saturday we all enjoyed a low-key morning in the sun on the shore of the Lake again, shedding coats and sweatshirts and requiring sunscreen to avoid being sunburned..on All Saint’s Day. We built a snowman at Sylvan Pass and  took an afternoon hike along the old East Entrance road. That night the weather turned back to November in the Rockies and we woke up to snow and slippery roads, just to remind us of what we needed to be thankful for the past few days: a job with flexibility that allowed us to enjoy the last few days of October, friends who welcomed us and gave us a place to stay, the beauty of the created world, perfect weather for a relaxing trip to this unique place, and a healthy family to enjoy creation in all its splendor.

Of course, we didn’t need to go all the way to Yellowstone to be thankful for what God has given us. Nor do we need Thanksgiving to remind us of what we ought to be thankful for. But it helps to take a step back and look upon the blessings we take for granted.

grand canyon yellowstone

The Yellowstone trip seems like eons ago already and even before that – way back in September – I attended a men’s conference in Bismarck. One of the speakers, a diocesan priest from Williston, encouraged us to do something I’d never heard of: Pray a Rosary of Gratitude, to foster a spirit of thanksgiving within ourselves. This isn’t 50 Hail Marys in thanksgiving for your blessings. Beginning with the crucifix, and moving on to each bead, Father said to think of a blessing you have been given and thank the Lord for it. Its funny because, you start quick enough – 5 blessings are easy to find: family, friends, health, job, home. But then it gets hard: weather…good food…siblings, parents… talents… but  can you come up with ten more? How about ten more than that? Father Kovash pointed out how blessed we are in our lives, but how hard it is to recognize it. “When was the last time you thanked God for oppose-able thumbs,” he asked. The crowd laughed, but he quickly pointed to a very well known, well-liked and well-respected priest in our diocese and said, “Monsignor Tom Richter would probably thank God every day if he was able to get his left thumb back.” The laughter died quickly. Msgr. Richter often jokes about his “hi-fours” and lack of a left thumb, but it dawned on us we all know  someone who goes through life every day without a thumb. “Do you thank God for your hands, your arms, your legs? It seems like a crazy thing to be thankful for. But imagine living without it.”

This Thanksgiving, maybe try and take time to work your way around every bead on your rosary, naming something you are thankful for. Shoot for ten or twenty blessings, maybe more. But don’t take the blessings around you for granted. Just as the weather did on our last night in Yellowstone, life changes and quickly sometimes.

God bless you all on Thanksgiving.

Radical Availability

A few years back, I remember talking to a Focus missionary friend of mine about her call to “radical availability” in her ministry. It was essential to her work to leave her door open as much as possible, take those late-night phone calls, eat at the cafeteria even when the food was disgusting. When she said it, it sounded glamorous in that mission-work-sounds-glamorous-from-afar kind of way. Radical availability, what a cool concept. What a powerful way to explain your missionary duties!

I filed it away until, just recently, it occurred to me again in the context of motherhood. Not nearly so glamorous in the trenches, I have four children trying to fit on my lap at once, four children in the bathroom with me, and four children climbing into my bed in the morning. Personal space, gone. And I’m a person who needs my space. I have often struggled with resentment in the day-to-day tasks of motherhood, wishing for more quiet, less kids piled on my lap, hot (instead of lukewarm) coffee, a solo trip to the bathroom. I start resenting my kids for wanting to be with me every waking moment… and every waking moment times four often feels like more than I can give.

It took me awhile to accept it, but radical availability is exactly what I’m called to as a mother. I’m not ministering to college students, but I am ministering to vulnerable young people who need to know I’m there. They need to know they can always find me (whether I want them to or not) and get what they need.  They are the souls that have been entrusted to my care. My mission field is my living room, my kitchen, my bathroom. My mission is to lead these little souls to Heaven, and it takes every second that I have to give!

 

A Land of Confusion

Now did you read the news today
They say the danger’s gone away
But I can see the fire’s still alight
There burning into the night.

– From the classic 80’s band, Genesis

Have you been reading the news? What a few weeks its been.

Most recently there was Cardinal Burke’s exile removal from the Vatican’s Supreme Court Apostolic Signatura and Roman Curia. The secular press is reporting this as demotion – Burke’s second demotion under Francis (having been removed late last year from the body which selects bishops). Of course those same outlets reported Burke’s ascension to Prefect of the Signatura waaaaay back in 2008 as a demotion too. Remember, then-Archbishop Burke of St. Louis in 2004 publicly denounced Catholic Presidential Candidate John Kerry’s pro-abortion stance and famously announced he’d refuse to give Kerry communion in his diocese.  In 2008 as a major election was nearing in this country, with the most pro-abortion candidate in American history about to choose another Catholic politician as his vice presidential running mate, Burke left St. Louis. Secular media and certain partisan Catholic outlets pointed to this as the liberal political operative Pope Benedict XVI removing Burke to Rome so as to not interfere with progress on the American front.  As if.

Back to now. Depending on who you read in Catholic Media, Burke’s transfer is a sign that Francis has moved the Catholic Church into the 21st century and Burke’s purging is sign of victory over the “conservatives.”  A glorious age will dawn and Man will achieve new heights, all because Burke is gone.

Or… This is a sign that Francis has declared war on the Traditionalists in the Church. The Barque of Peter is sinking, we need to not just bail water, but jump ship. Cling to what’s left floating until we gather enough flotsam and driftwood to build not just a new boat, but a freaking battleship. All because Burke is gone.

I’m confused as to how Burke had that much influence on the Rock upon which the Church was built. I’m confused, is this a good thing or bad thing for the Church?

Confused. As many of my fellow North Dakotans were confused regarding a proposed Constitutional Amendment on Election Day a week and a half ago. The language was simple, “the inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.” Somehow this was confused a definition of life-beginning-at-conception, a ban on IVF and contraception, a threat of gulags for women who miscarry, a ban on all advance health care directives… I read a legal analysis offered by the opponents of the measure that said the measure would ban oil and gas production in North Dakota; another article that said it would ban kittens in North Dakota. Seriously.  The proponents’ offense turned to defense and the message got confused and, in the wake of confusion, 66% percent of North Dakotans voted against recognizing and protecting the right to life.

Confused. Like Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer who, on All Saints Day,  decided the best course of action for her and her family was to take a lethal (and legal in Oregon) prescription to end her life. She didn’t want to lose control of her body, so she took her life.

Confused. Like the public response to Brittany Maynard’s death. “God gave her the tumor to punish her.” “No, but she should have suffered courageously because we all have to suffer, instead of being such a coward.” “No, no one should suffer, and we need to allow people to take their lives in these situations.” “Agreed, and she was so courageous in taking her own life.”

Confused. Like the North Dakota Supreme Court who, half a week before Brittany Maynard’s suicide, opined in a 3-2 decision that there exists a fundamental right for a woman to abort her child…up to viability (not sure how a fundamental right can be conditional, but it can be in North Dakota). One of those justices is a Catholic woman. However, due to a technicality in the North Dakota constitution, even though a majority of justices found a (conditional) fundamental right to abortion, our abortion regulations all  still stand because only three justices agreed whereas four were needed to agree in order for our abortion laws to have been overturned. Thank Heaven for small mercies.

Confused?

How about the Synod on the Family? I am still trying to figure out what happened there. The Secular media is no help and doesn’t really care. And the Catholic media is so split along partisan divides, I don’t know if I’m reading opinions or facts and if facts are reported through the hermeneutic of liberalism, conservatism or continuity… Or of confusion.

Its enough to make one wonder if the end is near.

Early last month I was lamenting an episcopal appointment to a prominent post in the American Catholic hierarchy. My friend Aaron agreed with my pessimism, but quickly pointed out that the appointment which I disapproved of had no impact on his or my daily lives nor on our obligations as husbands and fathers. We have enough to worry about in governing our domestic churches, why should we care who Pope Francis appoints to lead the Archdiocese of Wherever?

Last night a different friend sent me Simcha Fisher’s blog post from Tuesday on the latest about Cardinal Burke. Its great. And heavy with sarcasm and, like my buddy Aaron did over a month ago, it puts the hysteria back in perspective. I wasn’t that worked up about Burke, we all knew it was coming,  so I have been following the hysteria with detachment and a sense of humor. And it really has no impact on my daily life or my vocation.

But the Right-to-Life defeat, the Supreme Court, my friends and coworkers jumping on the “death with dignity” train, the confusion about the Church’s teaching on marriage??? Then I read today’s Gospel, and the moral of the story: Don’t worry. God’s in control and He’s here already. In the Eucharist, in the Church, in our families.  We can look around at signs and worry and fret, but why? “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,” says the Psalmist. Is my help in Cardinal Burke, the electorate, judges, the media, or bishops? Or is it the Lord? Am I making my own problems where they don’t in fact exist? By doing so, do I neglect my own vocation? Or am I getting my hands dirty in tending to my family and work?

Genesis (the band, not the book) captured the paranoia, but also had the prescription:

There’s too many men
Too many people
Making too many problems
And not much love to go round
Can’t you see
This is a land of confusion.

This is the world we live in
And these are the hands we’re given
Use them and let’s start trying
To make it a place worth living in.

 

Prayers for Ali

I’m back, for now…

Ali is “just a worker,” stocking the big freezers in Sam’s Club here in Bismarck. One day this spring or early summer, my kids “discovered” him stocking the freezers and were fascinated by the “man in the freezer.” Ali came out and humored my kids by introducing himself to them. Since that day, my kids love to go to Sam’s and search the coolers for Ali, and Ali loves it too.  I have never met Ali, but whenever I come home from work on a “Sam’s Club Day,” all I hear about for the first few minutes is the kids’ interaction with Ali. Seeing Ali is the highlight of my kids’ trips to Sam’s…and remember, this is a store that routinely has free samples.

What became more obvious over the past few months as my children, my wife and Ali all warmed to each other was how my kids have become the highlight of Ali’s days at work as well. He has told the kids numerous times he missed them, was waiting for them and how happy they make him. For my oldest son’s 4th birthday, Ali presented him with a hand-painted canvas picture.

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This kindness surprised my wife and Ali disclosed to her the fact that he is a widower and a single father of an eleven-year-old son; an Iraqi immigrant from southern Iraq whose wife died a few years ago. Ali was educated at the University of Colorado and left Iraq with his wife and son for a better life. He said that he was an artist, but since his wife has died he doesn’t paint much anymore. He only paints when he sees things that bring him joy and make him happy – like my children.  This revelation touched my wife and I.

More recently, Ali hadn’t been at work – which left some disappointed kids on Sam’s Club days. Earlier this month, Ali returned to work and we learned that Ali’s wife had died of kidney failure and Ali too has a cancerous kidney that will need to be removed – whether in part or entirely – next week. My wife has asked him if there’s anything we can do for him and he said he doesn’t think there is, but we assured him of our prayers, which he said was the best thing we could do.

Ali also remarked to my wife how he’s “just a worker” to so many people, but how our kids make him feel special. Our kids, most kids really, have a unique ability to do that. Gone are shrouds of suspicion, prejudice and pretense.   Yesterday’s saint of the day, Pope John Paul the Great, once said, “the ‘little ones,’ according to the gospel, are those know they are God’s creatures and shun all presumption.”  The way my kids have treated Ali reminded me of Pope Francis’ condemnation of the “throwaway culture” where “often human beings themselves…are discarded as ‘unnecessary.'”  Though a foreigner and a follower of a different faith,  Ali is not “just a worker,” and my kids “shun all presumption” and see the person himself. I can’t take any credit for that, but it has expanded my horizons and reminded me that it is important how you treat those in your own community.

I don’ t know when, or even if, Ali will return to work after his surgery. Maybe he’s unnecessary to Sam’s Club but I hope not, because there are three little kids in Mandan who can’t wait to see their special friend, the man in the freezer every week. And the love they show him is more valuable than the food he stocks.

If you think of it, please say a prayer for the success of Ali’s surgery and his recovery.  And when your kids want to slow you down and say hi to the guy stocking the shelves, let them.

UPDATE 2:15pm:

I accompanied the kids and Maggie to Sam’s today, the kids bearing homemade get well soon cards for Ali, singing his name through the store and skipping past every aisle to see their friend.  They found him and presented him with their cards and he presented my daughter with a birthday present:

AliMara

He said it will take 6-8 weeks to recover from Tuesday’s surgery and he plans on being back to work in 6 weeks.  Pray all goes well!

UPDATE 12/16/14:

Thanks to all who said a prayer for Ali, he has returned to work and is well. He has decisions to make regarding future care and treatment for his kidney, which will eventually need to be removed entirely (they only took the cancerous part for now). But its good to know he is well.

 

He Can

I am finally back from a very long hiatus which began with the preparation for, and arrival of, our fourth child. We are so blessed to have dear Edith Clare in our lives, and her siblings are overflowing with love for her! They literally cannot control themselves at times; they just want to shower her with affection, kiss her, hug her, smoosh her cheeks (which I totally understand), poke her, rub her head… the list goes on and on. It is a beautiful thing.

But these last few months have not been a breeze. I have come inches from deciding to give up homeschooling, I have lost my temper with my children in a way that I never had before, I have felt like a failure as a homemaker. I know what you are thinking: “Your baby is less than three months old! Cut yourself some slack!” But somewhere deep inside I had the feeling that since I’ve done this so many times before, I should be pretty good at it by now. Fourth time’s a charm. Easy peasy.

Honestly, some things were easier this time. I planned ahead and made freezer meals, and I have children who are old enough to help a little bit. My two-year-old’s favorite things in life right now are fetching diapers and throwing them away. Seriously, there are temper tantrums if someone else performs these tasks for her. Plus my sons have jobs to do, they love to help me out in the kitchen, and they play together for hours!

But it has still been hard.

As I finally come up for air long enough to reflect on the last few months, I’ve realized that God has three definite things he is trying to teach me right now.

1. You can’t do it all. I am lucky if I can fit in twenty minutes of school time with my first grader between baby’s naps and constant snack requests from the toddler. And if everything aligns for a good hour or two of school, there’s no way I’ve even touched the laundry. Dinner? Forget about it. When I finally collapse on the couch during rest time, I usually start mentally listing off the things that need to get done.

And then today I stopped. I realized that it is physically impossible to get everything done right now. God gave me peace when I looked at the mound of unfolded clothing in the middle of the living room as He reminded me that I am currently raising little souls up for him. Laundry’s not at the top of His list.

Yes, things need to get done, and they will get done. But for now I’m at peace with the mess.

2. You can’t do it alone. I am not very good at asking for help, especially when it comes to new babies. It’s as if somewhere deep inside I’m afraid people are thinking, “She got herself into this, and now she wants my help?” It’s a symptom of our culture’s view of children and families- I worry that since we have had more than our “two”, that I am somehow required to show the world that I can go it alone. I can’t, and I shouldn’t have to. So I have asked for help when needed, and I have graciously accepted meals from many, many wonderful people. I have also relied heavily on my husband; he recently stayed home for an hour with a crying baby so I could grocery shop by myself. He’s that kind of man.

We are not meant to raise our children in solitude! Especially in this intense infant stage, help is necessary. I am learning to put my guard down, show my weakness and accept help, even if that help is just a kind word given in a time of difficulty.

3. You can’t do it without Me. Prayer is very difficult for me during pregnancy and post-partum. I fall asleep easily, I get out of my routines, and my desire for prayer greatly decreases. It becomes an act of the will, and since my will is weak my prayer life suffers. When my prayer life suffers, so does every other aspect of my life. I have recently worked my way back into some semblance of a prayer routine and God is so good! My tiny little steps toward him have been met with an outpouring of peace and grace. I have a long way to go, but I finally have my eyes on the prize again.

It would be so easy to wish away all of the ups and downs that come with pregnancy and childbearing, infancy and child-rearing. I sometimes daydream of the time when my life will be consistent, constant, quiet. But in the craziness that is young motherhood, God keeps reminding me that I am weak but He is strong. I am small but He is so big. I can’t do it but He can.

 

Running the Race

Last Saturday I accomplished something I had long thought I could do: running a half marathon. My wife has been a runner as long as I’ve known her, and her family events including her and her sister running half and full marathons, running 5ks, 10ks, triathlons and halves with her dad… and an occasional 5k with me.

Watching her in the races I had always thought I could do a 10k (approximately 6 miles) or a half marathon (13.1 miles), and I’d get around to it someday. Yet the last time I ran any sort of a race was 6 years ago when I ran the anchor, both literally and figuratively, leg of the Fargo marathon… and I’m certainly not getting any younger…

Kids came and life happened. And on a routine doctor’s checkup in spring of 2012 I was astounded at my high weight and with way-too-high blood pressure, especially for a 28-year-old. I wasn’t running and hadn’t ran in a long time and could barely make it a couple miles. Half marathons were way out of the picture, but I knew I needed to change my lifestyle and needed to set a goal to work toward.

Last summer and fall I would go to the gym and use the elliptical because running with so much weight and a bad knee was still too painful. Looking back now, I’d set my pace on the elliptical at essentially a brisk walk, but at least I was moving toward something…

The goal became a 10K and I began working toward that last winter. Beginning with small steps forward, I was moving in the right direction and the first time I ran 6 miles this spring was a great personal victory for me. We were unable to run the 10k in May that we had signed up for due to a family funeral, but my wife and I ran 6 miles that morning  anyway. So, probably floating on an endorphin high, I signed us up for a half marathon in Bismarck.

What was I thinking?

I knew I could run 6 miles, now I needed to double that… and then some. I had a couple really bad long runs in the process of training, like really bad. I got down on myself and at times was convinced I’d never make 13.1 and was wasting time and money. The temptation was to give up all together. When you tell coworkers you’re running 13.1 miles they call you an overacheiver and there are the typical jokes about running only when necessary, like to save your life. When you tell friends they laugh and there are the jokes about running only when necessary, like to get more beer. Maybe they were right. Maybe its enough just to run 6 miles and finish with a 7 mile walk and call it “good enough.”  Be satisfied, don’t push yourself too hard, you have a bad knee. All reasons to do something other than run a half marathon.

Race day came and I was truly nervous. I’d never run this far before. Would I make a fool of myself? Would I have to tell everyone that my poor time was because my knee was acting up, or just because I simply couldn’t make it?  It took us a couple minutes to get to cross the starting line after the horn sounded, but my wife and I were off. The companionship was nice, we visited and talked and pretty soon we’d passed the six mile mark, in under an hour. After fighting our way through the crowded, slow 11-minute first mile, we were now besting 10 minute miles – we were on pace to finish in less than 2:10. Apart from an ill-advised sip of water at mile 11, which I paid for the last two miles of the race, the run went well. I ran the whole race, and finished with an official time of 2:09:40, a pace of 9:54/mile.

Ryan half finish

Looking back on it this week, I realize it’s been a long road from practically unable to run to finishing a half marathon – but I set a goal and I achieved it. Even in the midst of a two-mile-long stomach ache that kept telling me “you’ve done enough, walk it in from here.”  Throughout the entire process of going from thinking I could run a half marathon, to committing to running, to actually running and completing the half marathon, I had St. Paul’s imagery in 1 Corinthians 9:25 and 2 Timothy 4:7 in mind. There is a correlation between the physical and spiritual disciplines.

I underwent temptation, to quit, to walk, to be satisfied with “good enough” on my runs, just like we all undergo the temptation to be satisfied with where we are in our spiritual race. We pass others in the race and say to ourselves, “at least I’m not like them.” But we can do better. We can push ourselves to do great things. I had my wife beside me in the half marathon, but we all have Christ beside us in our spiritual race.  Running a half marathon is nothing great – my medal will end up in the toy chest and the shirt will one day wear out – but from where I began, it was a long way away. I chose to run to become more active and healthier, but also to win the battle within myself – to push myself farther when tempted to quit and to walk. and when it was over I could truly say, “I have finished the race.”  (2 Tim 4:7).

It took two years for me to finish my first half marathon. Ultimately the real race we all run- to spiritual victory – takes a lifetime. Having found within myself the strength, perseverance and will to run a half marathon, I’m actually looking forward to the next race – try for a better time; maybe a longer run. But I also have a new confidence in myself that I can accomplish things that I only thought possible. With God all things are possible (Matt 19:26, Philippians 4:13) and with him beside me I can conquer the things that try to drag me down in my own spiritual race.  So, I hope in some small way, my long road to a half marathon inspires others to run the race which truly matters and to run it well. Run so as to win.

“Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly… No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

 

“Checking In”

A little over a month ago some of my friends from the seminary gathered in Winona, MN at Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary. I was unable to attend the “reunion” but was able to visit one night on the phone with the guys and one mentioned to me how its good, on occasion, to return to the places that formed us. Its like “checking in,” he said. “A good reminder of where we’ve been and how we’ve grown since then.”

One of the reasons I didn’t go to Winona, was because I was due in the Twin Cities at a baptism on August 17th, and it was less than practical to make two trips to southern and central Minnesota in consecutive weeks.

At that baptism, the four authors of this blog gathered around a baptismal font in St. Paul and renewed our own baptismal vows as the Rogerses and Yanteses welcomed their new children into the Church. Since Maggie and I were godparents to Taryn and Paul’s daughter, we had the privilege to gather around the Altar at the end of ceremony. I was standing at the end of the line behind the priest and the Altar. I looked to my right around the Altar and then out at the crowd of friends and family who had gathered celebrate this occasion.

What struck me was though I routinely cite my 18 months as a minor seminarian as very formative in my life, I rarely describe the four months that I spent as a counselor at Catholic Youth Camp in McGregor, MN in the summers of 2003 and 2004 in the same way. Yet there I was on August 17, almost ten years to the day that I left camp for the last time, surrounded by the friends I made at camp, at the baptism of their children.

Of course, there was my wife Maggie, who’s touched my life more than anyone else from the seminary or camp. There were Paul and Aaron – granted I met those two in the seminary, yet I never would have returned to camp in 2004 to work if Paul and Aaron didn’t go. Paul and I would become roommates in our post-seminary life, the three of us would stand up in each other’s weddings and become godparents to each other’s kids. There was John – who I’d worked with the year before and who, like both me and Maggie, had a job lined up that fell through that  summer and camp in 2004 was a last-resort; we’d go on to become roommates too.  There was Taryn, who I’d worked with the year before and would go on to marry my best friend; Emily and Sara – who I’d never met before that summer but married two of my very good friends; there was Stephanie, who I’d met the year before, and became a classmate and close friend at St. Mary’s University; there was Mike’s wife, Hallie, who also worked with John and Taryn and I the summer before; one of John’s good college friends, Joe had married Laura, also a fellow counselor from the summer before, who literally broke my teeth.

There we were – ten years, eleven years for some, removed from a summer (or two) that have touched the rest of our lives. Of course we didn’t know it at that time, and it hadn’t dawned on me until the Baptisms.

I realized that I didn’t need to go to Winona to “check in” and return to the physical location where I was formed – the barometer can be found in my friends, the true good friends (and not just the ones from camp), that have surrounded me for the past decade. Are these the people who can call me out and bring me back to the fold? Are these the people who can challenge me to be better?  Were these the people I wanted around me at my wedding? My children’s baptisms? Are these the people I want around me at my children’s weddings?  Are these the people I hope pray for me at my own funeral, or greet me at the gates of Heaven? Because ultimately thats what the baptism we celebrated in St. Paul, is about. Its about opening the gates of Heave to a new member of the Church –  a community of imperfect sinners trying to help each other get to Heaven.

In the fall of 2004, John and I walked around the Tundra at St. John’s University and talked about the present and the future. John said to me that in the presence of our friends from camp he felt like he was standing on the shoulders of giants. When I looked around the Church of St. Joseph a month ago, I couldn’t help but feel the same.

It was good to check in.

Our Christian Brothers and Sisters in Iraq: What can we do? (part two)

My last post was a couple weeks ago, before ISIS began decapitating Catholic American reporters, before the Christians of Northern Iraq began arming themselves and before the United States began mulling an international coalition to take on ISIS and one prospective ally stated that, sooner or later, ISIS must be defeated on the battlefield.

I mentioned in my last post that merely getting Iraqi Christians out of immediate harm was not enough. More needed to be done. In an interview with Huffington Post, Catholic Relief Service’s director on the ground in Iraq said as much, pointing out the issue now is the long-term, “how do we accompany these populations to help them rebuild?”

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As 21st Century Americans, we tend to have a hands-off approach to these types of crises. Too late to Yugoslavia and Rwanda, “we” “helped” in Kosovo by watching NATO bomb Serbs set on ethnically cleansing Albanians from Kosovo. Yet millions have fled Syria in the fighting there, including children forced to march miles across a desert without anyone to guide them.

I’m not calling for us to take up arms against ISIS, but trying to make people aware. We cannot protect our brothers and sisters in Iraq from those who long to kill them for the creed they profess. Nor can the failed government we propped up and then ditched. But we can protect them within our borders, and the question needs to be, why aren’t we? We have the capacity to resettle and help these people rebuild.

I realize that taking people from their own country to another is a last resort, yet it needs to be considered.  It will take political will and legal changes,  but why can’t we bring our persecuted brothers and sisters here to our shores?

Much has been made of the city of Detroit’s rapid downfall. Abandoned homes and ruined warehouses stand were lives were once lived with promise and businesses thrived. Detroit is also attempting to comeback from the darkness, trying to attract new families and Detroit is home to a large community of Chaldean Catholics from Northern Iraq. There is room for growth in old Detroit and a cultural community already exists, are we unable to help spur growth within Detroit and provide a place where people can rebuild their lives there?

In stark opposition to the vacancies of Detroit is the booming economy and of North Dakota – with 25,000 current job openings and 2% unemployment in the state. Though North Dakota is struggling to develop and maintain the infrastructure necessary for its largest expansion since statehood, there simply aren’t enough people for the jobs in North Dakota. The homogeneous culture here may be the hardest thing to overcome – I visited with a friend yesterday who said, “yeah, but we don’t want those people here.” Seeking long-term laborers, North Dakota hasn’t been too picky about who’s been working here and when it could help alleviate a humanitarian crisis, we should do what we can to open our doors.

I realize political and legal mountains need to be moved, but given our responsibility to these people, we need to start thinking of ways to welcome our homeless and abandoned brothers and sisters here, and soon. If not us, then who?

Pray for the Christians of Iraq.

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