Archive for the ‘Suffering’ Category

You Don’t Have to be the Bad Guy

With two Lego-loving boys in the house, there was little doubt that we would see The Lego Movie.  The previews looked cute, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the movie I genuinely liked.  It was fun, funny, and playful, and you can’t leave the theatre without singing “Everything is Awesome!”

There’s one scene that struck upon a deep theological truth.  Short of being a spoiler alert for those who haven’t yet seen it, I’ll simply say that in the battle between good and evil, good wins.  It’s not just that good wins, but what happens next.  Tucked in to the last moments of the movie is a conversion story, where the protagonist (Emmett) tells the antagonist (President/Lord Business):

You don’t have to be the bad guy.”  

The characters take a moment to carefully consider their responses, and of course good wins. But I love how the movie drives home the idea of choice.  You don’t have to be the bad guy.  You can choose.

In some ways, this scene reminded me of the conversion of Darth Vader in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.  In the battle of good and evil, Luke is convinced that there is still good within his father.  The moment of conversion from Darth Vader back to Anakin Skywalker is the unexpected and almost unbelievable climax of the film, which leads to the triumph of good.

So many of the stories we watch and read (and show-to and tell our children) involve good triumphing over evil.  It’s rare to see a story of conversion, however. Usually, the bad guys are dismissed as evil and defeated (and often humiliated by the victor).

Yet it’s these stories of conversion that pervade Scripture, particularly as a major theme of Jesus’ teaching.

  • Think about the stories you’ve read or movies you’ve watched lately.  Are they stories of conversion or defeat-and-dismiss?

Paschal Mystery

Catholics use a lot of words and phrases that we don’t always stop to unpack and explain.  One of these is “the Paschal Mystery.”  I’m pretty sure that as a child I resigned myself to not understanding what it meant because as it says, it’s a mystery.

The Paschal Mystery refers to the Passion (suffering and death), Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus.

The very essence of Christian faith revolves around the fact that the suffering and death of Jesus was not the end of the story.  Rather, from His death, comes new life–in the Resurrection.

Death is not the end.  From death to new life.

It is a mystery because we do not understand how it happens.  But it does.  And in this mystery we find our salvation: death is not the end.

Moreover, it’s not just something that happened to Jesus.  God’s transforming power in the Paschal Mystery happens in our lives every day.  We see the cycles of from-death-to-new-life when we recover from brokenness, whether it is physical, emotional, spiritual, or even financial.

In the post Change Anything, Change Everything, I talked about my biggest regret mistake–my failed first marriage.  After that marriage ended, I was broken.  Shattered.  Depressed.  Eventually, I picked up the shattered pieces of my life, moved half-way across the country, and with the loving help of my family, an excellent therapist, and the right anti-depressant, I worked on healing and rebuilding.  And by the Grace of God, I healed.  I grew.  I matured.  I am not the same person I once was.  From-death-to-new-life, the Paschal Mystery is alive in me.

  • What are some of your own experiences of death-to-new-life?  How is the Paschal Mystery alive in you?
  • Where in the Paschal Mystery are you now: the suffering and death of the Passion on Good Friday?  The in-between of Holy Saturday?  New life in the Resurrection of Easter Sunday?  

Lent is Coming

Lent

Ash Wednesday is around the corner, which marks the beginning of Lent.  Lent is a term derived from a word meaning “spring” or “springtime,” the season where we see nature go from death-to-new-life.  Like Jesus’ time in the desert, it is a journey of 40 days.

Theological Geek Moment (also known as “an interesting aside”):  Jesus wandered the desert for 40 days; Moses for 40 years; Noah wandered the waters for 40 days…  Ever wonder why 40?  For the ancient peoples, the number “4” carried the significance of an “earthly” meaning.  We have four seasons, the four directions (North, South, East, and West), the four elements of the body, and so on.  The number “10” means “a great many,” and the more zero’s the greater the many.  So the number 40 signifies a great many days/years, all over the earth.  The number “3” signifies divinity (not just the Trinity, but think about all the times when people in Scripture were selected in groups of threes).  When “3” and “4” – heaven and earth – come together, it signifies perfection and completion.  Numerically, this happens in two ways: 3 + 4 = 7 and 3 x 4 = 12.  Thus, 7 days of Creation, forgiving 7 times 70 times, the 12 Tribes of Israel, the 12 Apostles… a perfectly, complete number.

Getting back to Lent… Lent is literally a 40 day period, but since it’s 6 1/2 weeks, it doesn’t look like 40 days on the calendar.  There are 46 days from Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, but the six Sundays during Lent are not counted because we dedicate Sundays to celebrating the Resurrection.

Ash Wednesday sets us up for this Lenten journey, marking our foreheads with ashes and telling us to “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” The focus of Lent, Vatican II reminds us, is Baptism–either preparing to for the Sacrament of Baptism or preparing to take seriously the renewal of our baptismal promises at Easter.  Therein, the focus of Lent is conversion.  A death-to-new-life, turning away from sin.

Giving Something Up

As a child, I understood Lent as a time to give something up like soda or candy, but in my teen years, this felt very pedantic.  It felt like I was approaching Lent as a practice of self-denial so as to suffer.  Because Jesus suffered.

The Paschal Mystery is at the heart of our faith, and yes it involves suffering.  The Passion of Jesus refers to his suffering and death on Good Friday.  That’s an important part of the Paschal Mystery, but the story doesn’t end on Good Friday.  With a Paschal Mystery spirituality, Lenten practices are never about suffering for the sake of suffering.

Asceticism is an ancient practice that means self-denial or abstaining from worldly pleasures.  (Note that “asceticism” is distinct from the similar sounding “aesthetic” which means beauty.)  It is an opportunity to take something that we may be somewhat addicted to (like candy or soda or tv or electronic devices or Facebook), take that obsessive energy and instead direct it towards God.  When we find ourselves thinking about (or craving) that “thing,” we are presented with a built-in reminder to focus on God.  Ascetic practices serve to open us to new life in God.

Some people choose to take something up or do something positive rather than give something up.  In a manner of speaking, a person might give up their “free time” to attend daily mass.  But it’s deeper than that.  With a Pashcal Mystery spirituality, the aim is conversion; new life in Christ that honors our Baptismal promises.

Perhaps this involves giving up a sinful behavior; reminding ourselves “You don’t have to be a bad guy.”  Perhaps this involves intentionally practicing virtuous behavior.

  • Is there a Lenten practice that you could do to give up a sinful behavior or take up a virtuous behavior?
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A Worker in the Vineyard

Think about a time in your own life when you were pretty much at your (emotional) rock-bottom low.  What insight did you gain about life and faith from that difficult time?  How did that insight come about?  Who or what helped make that happen?

My own lowest-low time came when I was 24 years old.  Just three weeks short of what would have been my first wedding anniversary, my spouse never came home one evening, which in itself was significant, but it was a pressing concern because we had plans to drive to his sister’s for an overnight visit.  Upon returning close to midnight, he casually responded to an offhand remark I made by revealing that he didn’t want to be married, had never wanted to get married, and thought we should just “break-up.”

And just like that, life as I knew it changed forever.  Once I recovered from the shock and came to understand that there was no chance of reconciling, I picked up the shattered pieces of my life and vowed to learn, fix, heal, and ultimately become a better, stronger, and more whole person.

One of the most difficult pieces of this process was coming to terms with my own Crisis of Faith.  I was a theology teacher—teaching New Testament Scripture to high school sophomores—at the time.  I had a Bachelor’s degree in theology.  I was not only committed to my Catholic, Christian faith, but I had specific, poignant conversations with my estranged spouse during our 17 month engagement about the Sacrament of Marriage, about the Covenant which we would be entering into, and about how divorce was not an option.  Not for me, anyhow.

An excellent therapist helped me dissect the unhealthy dynamics and patterns which led to this whole situation, but I was still left with the God question:

I had responded to God’s call to be a teacher of faith. 

I had given my life to God.

How could God have allowed this to happen to me?

When I returned to my classroom after taking a week off to get my head together, I told my students that I was “going through a difficult time,” which was an understatement, but it was all that I could muster.  It was incredibly difficult to be teaching about the faith when I was so very angry, confused, hurt, and broken in my own relationship with God.

So it was in this context when I happened to assign a Critical Thinking Reflection on the “Workers in the Vineyard” parable (Matthew 20:1-16).

Jesus told his disciples this parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.  After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.   Going out about nine o’clock, the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’  So they went off.  And he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise.  Going out about five o’clock, the landowner found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’  They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’  He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’ 

When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’  When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage.  So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage.  And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’ He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you.  Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?  Take what is yours and go.  What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?  Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?   Are you envious because I am generous?’  Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

As I facilitated a class discussion with the 15 year olds, one kid raised his hand and earnestly asked:

I just don’t understand how this is fair.  How can it be ok to give the same amount to all-day workers and those that only worked an hour?

Still a novice teacher at the time, instead of prompting him to think it through or asking other classmates to respond, I sought to answer his question directly.  And when I did, I heard the truth that God was trying to speak to me come out of my own mouth:

The workers think they “deserve” something more because of their efforts, but that’s not how God works.  We don’t earn it.  God’s Kingdom is offered to us, and we either say yes or no.   God loves, gives, and forgives with generosity. 

Or are you envious because God is generous?

The kid paused for a moment and said Hmm, I never thought about it like that.”  And there I am standing in front of a class of 36 students, apparently continuing to facilitate a discussion, thinking to myself, Me neither, kid… me neither.”

How could God have allowed this to happen to me?

Yep.  I thought I “deserved something more” because of my efforts.  I couldn’t believe I actually had a sense of entitlement.  With God.

The last will be first and the first will be last.

It’s like when we were in elementary school and would race to be first in line (for almost everything).  There was actually a sense of superiority that being first had for those at the front.  As an adult, I see how juvenile the need to be first was; I mean we’d all be going to the same place.  I can imagine how frustrated God must get with us for not only fixating on this juvenile need, but then getting all irate at the perceived injustice of someone “cutting in line.”

With greater humility, I began to look at my situation, which was honestly the consequence of actions.  God’s care, concern, and presence enveloped me in the network of support from friends and family.

Just as my divorce and annulment were a turning point in my personal journey, this insight from the “Workers in the Vineyard” parable was a turning point in my faith.

This was my story.  This was my insight.  This was my process.  How about you?

And so I conclude as I began:  Think about a difficult time in your own life.  What insight did you gain about life and faith from that difficult time?  How did that insight come about?  Who or what helped make that happen?

Rising from the Ashes

I had always imagined one’s honeymoon would involve sand, sun, and saltwater (probably because the bulk of my family vacations were spent on the beach).  So while planning our spring 2004 wedding, when Peter suggested we honeymoon at Yellowstone National Park, I was a bit taken aback.  “We both love hiking and nature, and besides, it’s on my list.”

It’s on his list.

Though not the most convincing argument, I acquiesced, especially since he promised to set us up with quality lodging (no camping or “roughing it”).

Without a doubt, Yellowstone is spectacular. It should be on everyone’s list.

The geysers…

The hot springs…

The wildlife…

Each morning we would drive from the gorgeous Lake Yellowstone Hotel to a different area of the park.  I started to notice some of the stark trees around the landscape…


Yellowstone showed the scars of fire.  My heart broke to see the scars of such pain amid such beauty.

I remembered the intense “Summer of Fire” in 1988.  I couldn’t believe we were still seeing the effects in 2004.  My rocket scientist husband, who has a bit of the encyclopedic knowledge going on, explained that fires were an ongoing reality in Yellowstone, most of them sparked by lightning strikes.  Like most people, I assumed that fires were bad.  I got all Smokey the Bear: “Can’t they do anything to prevent forest fires?  Or stop them?”  As I shot off endless questions, Peter (who avidly avoids the phrase “I don’t know,”) suggested we tour the visitor center by Old Faithful, which told the Story of Fire at the National Park.

I hadn’t realized that there was such an allegory between “fire” and personal “pain and suffering.”

Conventional wisdom—and the average park visitor like myself—views fires as devastating, destroying everything in its path.  We see fire suppression, on the other hand, as good stewardship.

Sounds a lot like our attitudes towards pain and suffering…

Turns out that the amazing scenery in Yellowstone has been shaped by fire; it is part of the ecosystem.  The National Parks Service explains this ecological phenomenon in the educational resources on Yellowstone’s webpage (which, by the way, is where all Yellowstone fire-related facts and figures in this reflection come from):

  • Natural (lightning caused) “fires are the primary agent of change in many ecosystems”
  • “Many of Yellowstone’s plant species are fire-adapted.”
  • Some 80% of the park’s forest has pinecones that actually rely on the intense heat of fire to crack open the resin and release the seeds inside.
  • Fires actually stimulate the rebirth and growth of some plants.
  • While above ground grasses are consumed by the fires, the below-ground root systems typically remain unharmed, and even increase in productivity after a few years.

In the gift shop section of the visitor center, I picked up the book Fire: A Force of Nature: The Story Behind the Scenery, and was struck by a quote on the front page:

“Fire presents opportunities for new life that don’t exist until a burn.”  

Isn’t that the truth.

Certainly my own greatest moments of personal growth have occurred in the aftermath of a painful crisis.  The growth might range from learning a difficult lesson to forging a new, better, stronger path.  Sometimes it prompts me to develop compassion, broaden my perspective, and practice empathy.  Other times the crisis has me questioning decisions, priorities, and/or relationships.

Just as the amazing scenery in Yellowstone has been shaped by fire,                                                                                                       the amazing person that I am has been shaped by personal pain and suffering.

I marvel at the idea that whatever part of me which was struck down by personal pain and suffering has somehow been rebuilt.  This dynamic is at the heart of the Christian message: from death comes new life.  Theologians use the phrase Paschal Mystery to refer to the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Christ.  But the Paschal Mystery doesn’t just refer to what happened to Jesus.  It points to the process of dying and rising that we experience in our everyday life.

And by referring to it as a “mystery” we reaffirm the fact that we don’t always understand how that new life occurs… yet we have faith that it will.

“Fire presents opportunities for new life that don’t exist until a burn.

From death comes new life.

As marvelous as it is, it’s also important to see the word “new” in each of those phrases.  New life.  Different.  Things will never be quite the same as they once were.

Anyone who has experienced personal pain and suffering resulting from the loss of a loved one can attest to that truth: Things will never be quite the same as they once were.

Moreover, let’s be honest: pain is real.  Fire burns.  No one is expected to cheer on suffering wearing a t-shirt that says, “Yay – growth!”  That’s not what faith in the Resurrection is about.

I cringe when I hear phrases like:

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.

Everything happens for a reason.

I know they certainly don’t bring me solace.  I can’t imagine a Holocaust survivor or rape victim finding comfort in hearing any of these clichés, either.

The enormity of the Yellowstone “Summer of Fire” in 1988 was unprecedented.  That summer was the driest in the park’s recorded history.  The practice of allowing for “controlled burns” was called into question as the fires burned from June through September, threatening lives and homes in the greater Yellowstone region.

With controlled burns, a fire ignites naturally – with a lightning strike, firefighters monitor as Mother Nature does some “spring cleaning” through the burn, and the fire extinguishes naturally.

The fires that summer were just too big and too out of control.

A total of 248 fires started in greater Yellowstone in 1988; 50 of those were in Yellowstone National Park. Despite widespread misconceptions that all fires were initially allowed to burn, only 31 of the total were; 28 of these began inside the park.  In the end, 7 major fires were responsible for more than 95% of the burned acreage. Five of those fires were ignited outside the park, and 3 of them were human-caused fires that firefighters attempted to control from the beginning.

Between the evil of arson, the enormity of the problem, and the imminent danger to others, Yellowstone National Park needed help.

More than 25,000 firefighters, as many as 9000 at one time, attacked Yellowstone fires in 1988.

There was a lot of damage.

Ecosystemwide, about 1.2 million acres was scorched; 793,000 (about 36%) of the park’s 2,221,800 acres were burned. Sixty-seven structures were destroyed, including 18 cabins used by employees and guests and one backcountry patrol cabin in Yellowstone.

Yellowstone was certainly affected by the fires, but all was not lost; it was not devastated; it was not destroyed.

The effects on many plants and animals are still being studied, although in the short-term, most wildlife populations showed no effect or rebounded quickly from the fiery summer. In the several years following 1988, ample precipitation combined with the short-term effects of ash and nutrient influx to make for spectacular displays of wildflowers in burned areas.

Contrary to what was feared, the fires of 1988 did not deter visitors. In 1989, more than 2,600,000 people came to Yellowstone—the highest annual visitation of the 1980s.

While we are in the midst of the flames of suffering, it is difficult.  Even Jesus wept.  But that is not the end of the story.  From death comes new life.  We are people of the Resurrection.  Faith in new life is what it means to be a people of hope.

As a people of hope, withstand the fire.  Understand that controlled burns are a part of life.  Ask for help.  And when rising from the ashes, be sure to identify and appreciate “spectacular displays of wildflowers” whenever you see them.

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