Looking a Little Closer

When our children were much smaller, they enjoyed reading I Spy books with us.  You know, the colorful pictures with accompanying riddles where one may spend an inordinate amount of time looking for three green plastic army men but only coming up with two…right before bedtime?  As my eyes would glaze over and begin to close, one of the kids would shake the bed and startle me and the search would begin again until every last item had been found and we could call it a night.  While I would much have preferred to read Dr. Seuss’ Fox in Socks or a chapter of Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White at bedtime, I would not trade those memories for the world nor the lessons this tired parent gleaned in the process.

I Spy forced us to look a little deeper.  Things are not always as they appear.  Not everything is right out on the surface.  Sometimes a second or even third search is necessary, and often teamwork is involved.  Couldn’t the same be true of our daily encounters with one another in this crazy thing called life?  If I am going to truly see you as the beloved child of God who you are, it’s going to take a little effort on my part.  I must begin to wonder what you find important, what is sacred to you rather than using my own parameters.

With each thrift store customer, Jane Knuth discovers the sacred amidst the ordinary.  Isn’t that how God moments are?  I pray that you and I will encounter the person of Jesus today through our interactions with friends as well as strangers.  Let’s look a little deeper, listen a little closer, and love a little bit more, friends.

Life has a funny way

“It’s like rain on your wedding day

It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid

It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take

Who would’ve thought…it figures

Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you

Life has a funny, funny way of helping you out

Helping you out…”

Alanis Morissette, Ironic

 We’re three weeks into the Lenten season and this week’s chapter selections from Thrift Store Saints turn our attention to how asking a simple question like “Is there anything else I can do for you today?” can be transformative for the service provider as well as the one requesting services.  When I think about Jane’s ordinary, everyday encounters with people at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store, the lyrics to Ironic by Alanis Morissette creep into my head, especially the line about life having a funny way of helping you out.

How so, you may ask?  I think of it this way.  Jane comes to work at St. Vincent de Paul kind of through the back door, not really knowing what she is getting into, but each experience of serving another brother or sister in Christ teaches her about love and life and second chances.  Jane is being transformed while at the same time transforming others.  A cynic might ask, “How can working a few days a week in a thrift store with some assorted religious items transform the world?”  Fair enough.  One person at a time, one situation at a time, one family at a time, people receive a little kindness or some assistance and they are raised up in the process.  Instead of being overlooked or turned away, someone takes the time to really LISTEN. Author Jane Knuth says, “I am beginning to understand that charity is not something I do in my spare time under controlled conditions.  And it is not even something that I do particularly well.”

 By my own admission, this blogger is not always the poster child for letting Lent truly transform me.  I’m ashamed to say that you may even hear me whining on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday about being hungry in between those meager meals, but I’m working on that…I do have to say, though, that reading Thrift Store Saints this Lent is really stirring something up inside, a feeling that awakened a few years back when I read God in the Alley:  Being and Seeing Jesus in a Broken World (Greg Paul).  I know we’re called to do more, one person at a time.  Not exactly sure what future encounters still await me, but I am truly excited by the prospect of living a life more deeply rooted in service.  Speak LORD, your servant is listening. 

 

 

Topsy-Turvy

I thought I was just reading a book for Lent, something I do most years.  You know, you read a few chapters, answer some discussion questions, perhaps even pray on it or participate in a facilitated discussion over coffee, and then go on with life as we know it.  Pretty straight-forward, right?

Well, this year, not so much.  And I have author Jane Knuth to blame (or thank for that).  I’m having a hard time “un-seeing” Anita as she receives the gift of a bed, her very first bed in her entire life.  That chapter, entitled Home Visits, really made me think about how often, in our call to serve others, we get much more than we bargained for.  We’re forced to step out of our carefully crafted comfort zones in order to help another person.  Recently at church a hymn contained a verse with the lyrics “…one foot in Paradise and one foot in the waste…” that I really believe speak of our life journey.  Until we go out and truly meet people where they are, we cannot fully encounter Christ.  At Mass each Sunday we are sent forth to love and serve God and others.  And when we start to feel a little stretched, that’s when growth occurs.

This Lent, I’m becoming painfully aware of just how “uneven” things are in life.  Why do some people have only a flat piece of cardboard and a blanket on the street to sleep on while most of us go home to warm houses and comfy beds?  How can I complain about being “full” after a hot meal while our brothers and sisters wait in line at a soup kitchen, or even worse, go without some days?  These thoughts turn my world upside down at times and prompt me to question what I currently do and how can I stretch a little outside of the comfort zone to be of service to others?

So thanks, Jane, for the little discomfort I am feeling this morning as I reflect on the book.  There’s always a feeling of struggle, a wrestling with the truth, before growth occurs.  Here’s to a Lenten “growth spurt!”

“And will you pray for me?”

The phrase “people of encounter” kind of became a catch-phrase for me last year after reading The Church of Mercy by Pope Francis.  That’s probably because our current pope reminds us that being a Catholic Christian is not some spectator sport but rather a full immersion of body, mind, and soul.  Living a life of mercy cannot be done by staying in the pews, all neat and tidy and scheduled.   We are called to get out of our comfort zones, to meet people where are they are and to ask them what they need.  And that mission begins when we are sent forth at the end of each liturgy.

I think it’s safe to wager that when Jane Knuth first agreed to attend a meeting for volunteers at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop in Kalamazoo, Michigan, she had no idea where this journey would take her.  In fact, Jane went to the meeting, as perhaps many of us have attended meetings, with the intention of not getting that involved, not taking notes, and not committing to anything just yet. Jane was just going to show up but not really be fully present to what was “in store” for her (sorry for the shameless pun!)

When Jane encounters A Street Theologian in Chapter Three of Thrift Store Saints, we witness a transformative moment when Jane realizes she is not just helping a woman find a few pairs of pants for her job, but rather listening to a beloved daughter of Christ tell her story without the risk of judgement or mockery.  In the process, we as readers are left asking, “Have I ever acted like the church the woman describes?  Do I need to make amends?  Am I able to ask God to forgive those who have hurt me?  Do I remember to ask others to pray for me, too?”

 This Lent, what’s your “Thrift Store Moment?”  Where can you step out of your comfort zone today or this week or sometime during the next forty days? 

Being Still

It has been a wonderful experience writing weekly reflections on mercy over the past nine months.  Thank you for sharing your stories with me!   I am taking a break for Advent to enjoy a little quiet time in reflective anticipation of the birth of our LORD.  May God bless you and yours on Thanksgiving Day and during the Season of Advent!

Kris Skinner                             

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Mercy. Live it!

Earlier in 2017, I began writing a weekly blog with the goal of highlighting some “merciful moments” experienced in everyday life.  It started as a Lenten spiritual exercise prompted by Pope Francis’ declaration of December 8, 2015 through November 20, 2016 as the Year of Mercy.  Over thirty weeks later, as we come to the close of this Year of Mercy, I can honestly say my understanding of what mercy IS and what mercy ISN’T has grown.  Through these weekly writings along with the re-reading of the Church of Mercy by Pope Francis, I hope my own heart has softened a little in the process, making me more open to love and acceptance of others and less rigid and intolerant.

I also admit, though, that as an imperfect human by design, I have a long way to go.  I’m not really sure where you are on this merciful spectrum, dear readers, but I’m happy we have journeyed together since February. In the words of the song Here I Go Again by the band Whitesnake, “I don’t know where I’m goin’ but I sure know where I’ve been.”

During this Year of Mercy, I learned a beautiful quote that Fr. James Martin, SJ attributes to Fr. James Keenan, SJ of Boston College about mercy.  We shared this definition with our teens during summer faith formation:  “Mercy is entering into the chaos of another person’s life.”  Doesn’t this definition sync very well with Jesus’ take on eating with sinners and curing lepers?  Mercy is so much more than a service project or an item on a Catholic “to do list.” Love of God and neighbor compels us to “enter into the chaos” daily.

I leave you today with a list of what mercy IS and what mercy IS NOT.  Mercy IS benevolence and blessing, NOT disapproval and disdain.  Mercy IS charity, clemency and forgiveness, NOT ill will, malevolence and meanness.  Mercy IS generosity and good will, NOT selfishness and unkindness.  Mercy IS leniency, pity, sympathy and tolerance, NOT disfavor, cruelty, intolerance and uncompassion.  Mercy might not be easy but mercy IS possible.  Mercy brings grace and healing.

May you experience grace, mercy and healing today and please practice mercy toward others.  Let’s scatter mercy and watch each other grow in God’s love!

Chairs

If you have ever accompanied a loved one to the hospital for surgery, you are probably familiar with the waiting area.  In many health facilities, this means some chairs lined up against a wall and, if you’re lucky, some recent magazines.  I think it’s safe to say that nobody enjoys waiting in the chairs because it’s a time when we have no control over what our loved one is going through at that particular moment.  We sit and we wait and we hope that a doctor or nurse will come and find us and bring some good news.

My head in all its wisdom tells me that during chair time, when anxious, I should turn to God in prayer.  In my daily life outside of hospitals, that is exactly what I do. On most days, my prayer time with God is like a running dialogue, in the car, in the kitchen, in the shower, in the office, I pretty much can pray without ceasing!   But in the chairs, I feel so helpless.  For a “Martha,” a “doer,” there is nothing worse than sitting and waiting.  I cannot concentrate on the book I brought to read and I can’t text anyone because there’s nothing new to report.  What happens, dear readers, when the words simply won’t come?  Have you ever experienced a moment where either fatigue or discouragement or loneliness takes over and other than the familiar Hail Mary prayer, your mind is blank?

At times like these, I turn to simple one-line prayers or even the lyrics to familiar church hymns we sing in our parish.  A verse that I currently am walking with is from Psalm 56:3 and it goes like this:  “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.”

When everything in life is going well, it’s easy to become complacent and to forget how much we rely on God.  During the good times, try to notice those prayers or Scripture passages that lift you up.  Jot them down and put them in your wallet or purse so that the next time you are sent to “the chairs,” you will be equipped for the wait.

What are some of your favorite Scripture verses?  I’d love to hear!

 

Saints and Angels

United-Economy-Plus1.jpgMake friends with the angels, who though invisible are always with you. Often invoke them, constantly praise them, and make good use of their help and assistance in all your temporal and spiritual affairs.  Saint Francis de Sales

Did I ever mention to you that I’ve been Catholic for my entire life?  That means one of the first prayers ever learned at home went something like this:  Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here, Ever this day be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide.  Amen 

There was a Guardian Angel picture that hung in the upstairs hallway of the family home, right outside our bedroom doors.  We said the Angel of God prayer every morning and at bedtime every evening with our mother.    I taught it to our own three children when they were little. I’ve watched countless television shows and movies with angels as major characters:  Touched by An Angel, It’s a Wonderful Life, Highway to Heaven, City of Angels, etc. 

Up until last Thursday morning, I’ve managed to keep all my angel encounters at a safe distance, not really seeking to get too up close and personal with anyone of the supernatural realm.  So imagine my surprise when I encountered an angel at 36,000 feet in Seat 10C.  An ordinary angel who was already seated on a very full plane when I had to climb over him to get to my seat, 10D.  I am not proud of the fact that my first thoughts were pretty much, “Great!  I’m wedged in between these two gentlemen and I’m going to have to keep my elbows tucked in for the next few hours and not make any small talk.”  I even thought about pulling out the Bose headphones I’d intentionally packed for just this purpose and cueing up the 50 Great Songs from the Last 10 Years playlist recently installed on the phone.  But for some reason, I didn’t.

What I thought was going to be an unpleasant flying experience became a lesson to me in humility and presence.  The man in 10C wanted to tell me about his wife of forty years, their son, daughter-in-law and five-year old granddaughter.  He talked about the early years of their marriage, the challenges of parenting, the joys and struggles of families then and now.  He talked about believing in God and the power of faith.   I don’t really know why this gentleman chose to share his story with me, a complete stranger, but hearing him talk about his wife and son reminded me of the amazing love story my husband and I and our three children share.  It was a reminder to me of the ups and downs we’ve encountered before and how together, with one another and God’s help, we can get through anything.  I think that was a message I needed to hear and that gentleman was chosen to deliver it that day at that time.  I’m glad I was there to listen to the man in 10C because he had much to share.

So, keep your eyes open for the ordinary angels and saints in your life today, dear readers.   You just never know when a divine encounter may occur!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grudges

I don’t understand grudges.  During this past month, I have heard of various people in families, in churches and in neighborhoods who are not speaking to one another.  In each situation, one person offended another person and a disagreement ensued.  The disagreement was not resolved and hurt feelings and resentments grew. As a result of such grudges, families and friends are divided or don’t know which side to take, and a big mess is what we are left with.  How do you think our LORD looks at grudges?  Today I offer you my two cents’ worth, based on the Gospel of Matthew.

In Matthew 18: 4, Jesus tells the disciples that “The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the one who humbles himself and becomes like this child.”  Later in Matthew 18: 21-22, “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, if my brother keeps on sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive him?  Seven times?’  ‘No, not seven times,’ answered Jesus, ‘but seventy times seven…’”

 How much clearer do we need to hear the WORD before we just get over ourselves and start loving one another? Sometimes it is so easy to collect food for the hungry or donate to a clothing drive, both anonymous acts of charity.  Let’s not overlook the people in our own families and our own communities as they need our love, our compassion, our mercy, too.  Jesus told us to love one another.  He never told us we could be selective in that love.  It’s all or nothing, friends.  If we know that our grudges are causing another person hurt or pain, the merciful thing to do is to look for Christ in that person and forgive.  I know it’s not easy.  But being a disciple isn’t easy sometimes.  Take it to prayer.  Ask God to soften your heart.  Be merciful.  Let’s work on encouraging one another to be a little more merciful and a little less judgmental.

 

Only Say the Word

“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”785px-Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

We pray this prayer every time we go to Mass right before we receive Eucharist.  I don’t really know why, but this prayer has always been a favorite of mine.  It’s a prayer of humility, a reminder that I need to open myself up to the LORD and not hold back anything, that with GOD all things are possible.  It’s a very intimate prayer.  Even though it is spoken aloud and our voices are joined together as one common voice, each one of us carries so many things that are only known to us and to God.  For all of my adult years, this prayer has served as a reminder that even though I am far from where I want to be in God’s eyes, God will never forsake me.  I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I am humbled and comforted by this acknowledgement of God’s great mercy.

My mother used to say, “You cannot give what you don’t have,” and she was alluding to the fact that we need to love ourselves in order to love others, too.  In going a step further, I assert that the mercy I experience from God’s great love must then be shared by me with others.  I am called to extend mercy to whomever I encounter daily, including the good, the bad and the ugly.  Okay, before I risk offending anyone, that phrase is being used for dramatic effect only, so no haters on the “ugly” comment!  But that also means you and I need to view OURSELVES with mercy, too, and not just focus on the parts of ourselves that feel ugly inside.  We have all been created in God’s image and likeness, and “God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.” (Luke 12:48)