The Hardest Word

In 2006, I had two reconstructive hip surgeries (“triple pelvic osteotomy” for those who like to google). The first operation was a success hip-wise, but it was hard on my body. When I woke up in recovery, my pain was out of control. Over the next several days I had five or six blood transfusions, erratic heart rates, and pain. A lot of pain. I remember how lonely the pain felt, like no one else understood. I felt completely alone.

Six months later when I returned to the hospital to repeat the surgery on the other side, I remember looking into my surgeon’s eyes. He wasn’t the touchy-feely type. He wasn’t really a good listener. Not much of a talker either. But before we went into surgery he said something reassuring that—for him—probably required mustering forth and dusting off some nurturing spirit from deep within. I remember something firm, something I could hold onto, something like: “That’s not going to happen to you again. Not on my watch.” And then I told him the truth: “I trust you.”

As the anesthesia took effect and I drifted into unconsciousness, I felt deeply the reality of what I had done. Trust has no guarantees.

Trust may be the hardest thing we will ever do—harder even than love. Because trust so rarely comes with feel-good emotions. It is more often just a choice we make. But without it, we are utterly paralyzed. Without it we are so afraid, afraid of everything. This is no way to live.

Trust is not something that is cavalierly restored, once it has been broken. Sometimes it is never restored at all. But something happens when someone looks us in the eye, and from the heart, speaks restoring words—words like never again and not on my watch—and then does restoring things, like setting bones right, or listening, or being humble, or changing. Trust has no guarantees. But we are only half-alive if we never trust. Our whole human community is based on our ability to do this one hardest thing.

I pray that trust will be restored in our Church, and in the life of every person affected by the pain inflicted by and in this Body. Now we feel the cutting of the bones, the loneliness of the pain, the confusion of the aftermath. I pray for healing for every single one of us, so we can trust again, so we can be a healed, restored, strengthened, unafraid Body.

May God heal our Church and restore trust among us.

“I trust in God, I do not fear” (Ps 56:5).

A favorite picture of my husband and daughter, an image of trust.

A favorite picture of my husband and daughter, an image of trust.

Announcements:

  • Save the date for our One-Night Lenten Mission 2019! A Nor’easter got us in 2018, but we’re trying again! Hear 3 speakers and 1 wonderful choir! Wed., Mar. 13, 7:00 pm, 295 Benham St., Hamden, CT. Snow date is Mar. 15. For more information, go to amyekeh.com/lent.

  • If you’re looking for a Lenten devotional for use by yourself or with a group, why not try my 3-session book Lent: Season of Transformation? It’s a nice, neat little package of Scripture, commentary, reflection questions, and prayers. You can buy it on amazon, or purchase it at littlerockscripture.org for bulk rates!

  • Thanks for bearing with my slow blog pace! Someday when my kids are grown, I’ll miss these busy days! But for now, I’m just trying to keep up! Blessings, all!

The Last Gift of Christmas

This year, the last gift of Christmas was a Starburst.

Even more impractical than gold, frankincense, and myrrh was this gigantic chunk of sugar and food coloring left for a baby with no teeth.

Some years, Lego figures visit our manger. One year a tiny skateboard waited in the stable, in case Jesus wanted to ride it later. Barbie probably would have gone in too if she wasn’t so tall. But this year, just when I thought no one was paying any attention to the manger, the last gift of Christmas was left for the baby.

Not the yellow Starburst that no one wants. The red Starburst, the prize.

May the last gift of Christmas always be for the child in the manger. If it hurts a little to give it, then we know it came from deep within, from a place that wants more than what this world can give. And whatever we give him, may it come back to us in good measure—packed together, shaken down, overflowing, poured into our laps (Lk 6:38)!

About a week after Christmas, Eli retrieved the candy from the manger and began to unwrap it. “He said I could have it,” Eli told me.

About a week after Christmas, Eli retrieved the candy from the manger and began to unwrap it. “He said I could have it,” Eli told me.

People Last Forever

My friend Fr. Ivan Tou, CSP, is a very interesting person. One interesting thing he does is that he does not age. No one really knows how old Ivan is because he looks the same as he did twenty years ago.

Another interesting thing Ivan does is write wonderful, chatty Christmas letters that are part litany-of-people-and-places-he’s-visited-in-the-past-year (this is where you find out that he has about 28 godchildren), part analysis-of-movies-he’s-seen (which I skim over when he gets too sci-fi), and part wisdom-gained-in-the-past-year.

Several years ago, Ivan shared some Christmas letter wisdom that has stayed with me. He described how, in his parish work, he is keenly aware that so much of what he does is bound to be undone as soon as he leaves a parish. A statue he purchased may be removed. A garden he planted may be made into a parking lot. A new ministry he initiated may fizzle out. And so on.

This could become quite discouraging over time, to feel that one’s work doesn’t last. But Ivan said there is one thing that doesn’t change, one thing that can’t be taken away, one legacy far superior to improvements to property or even ministries—and that is people. Love between people—relationships, friendships. Ivan said that over the years, this is what he holds onto—the people he has met and loved, and those who have loved him.

Of course, people and friendships can change too. But what does not change is the impact they’ve had on us, the memories we make, the wisdom we’ve shared, the meals around a table that enriched us, the time and the effort and the goodness of people.

This is what the Church is made of, after all. People, relationships, love. This is what matters. This is what lasts.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

After I wrote this, I found Fr. Ivan’s Christmas letter from 2016. Here is the paragraph I remember!

One thing I’m constantly relearning is nothing lasts. All the great software I wrote for HP has been erased and the back-up drives probably live in some landfill. The great ideas I started at my previous parish are no doubt forgotten as the replacement pastor and new parish staff invent their own ideas. And the things I’m doing at Berkeley will probably fade away when I move on, though Fr. George, a pastor here in the 80’s, reminds me that the current red carpet and patio gates are his doing. What seems to matter is the journey and the relationships we make along the way. People last forever, everything else has their time and then fades away. So a meaningful life seems to be connected to touching people and touching them deeply, or as Jesus taught us, love God and love neighbor with your everything.

Thank you, Fr. Ivan Tou. Come see us in Connecticut!

Okay, maybe we’ve all changed just a little bit. Ivan, Amy, Ono. CUA 1999. People last forever.

Okay, maybe we’ve all changed just a little bit. Ivan, Amy, Ono. CUA 1999. People last forever.

Retro-Post: Sr. Blanche's Desk

This week I’m re-posting one of my first and favorite blog posts. It’s been off my site for several years as I wanted to make a few edits, and then I just never got around to re-posting it. Some of you may have read it in That Mighty Heart.

My first ministry position was as a parish DRE in Clinton, Maryland. I was 23 when I started, and I honestly had no idea what I was doing. This essay is about my office at the parish, which I inherited from the matchless Sister Blanche Twigg, MHSH. The bookcases of Sr. Blanche’s office were lined with Little Rock Scripture Studies and Catechist Magazines, two publications I never dreamed that I would someday write for. What a beginning I had there, with co-workers who mentored me and parishioners who accepted me. What a place that was to be, sitting at Sr. Blanche’s desk!

* * * * * * * * * *

Sr. Blanche’s Desk

I will never forget my first “real” job interview. Fresh out of graduate school, I was applying for a parish position as a Director of Religious Education. I was 23 years old. 

The interview was by all accounts fairly average until I asked the pastor why the former D.R.E. left the position. He looked happy and sad, amused and wistful, all at the same time. “Sister Blanche served here for 25 years,” he told me. “She was 82 years old. She has gone to be with the Lord.” Later I would discover that Fr. Tom’s emotion was the result of a long and solid friendship with this formidable religious sister. Twenty years his elder, she called him “Tom” in a mother’s tone and ran the show as she liked. And she liked a tight ship.

In the coming months, I would hear many legends about Sr. Blanche – how every morning she “pointed” her car in the direction of the parish and drove to work; how no one could say no to her; how children obeyed her and parents feared her; how she was a force to be reckoned with; how much they loved her. Sr. Blanche was a gifted educator, a respected Scripture scholar, a master recruiter, a thrifty manager, a green thumb, a tough cookie, a trusted friend, a spiritual guide, a miracle worker.

My first day on the job, I walked into Sr. Blanche’s office. Her plants had been cared for, her books arranged neatly. I sat down at Sr. Blanche’s desk. It felt large and unfamiliar. Unsure what to do next, I opened the top drawer. I looked at all the things Sr. Blanche had left behind – things she had used so many times, things she kept at the ready. Who was I to clean out this desk? With whispered apologies to my predecessor, I began to pick up the items inside, one by one, trash can at the ready. But I couldn’t throw away much more than a few brittle rubber bands. Many of the items were unidentifiable or just really old. In her eyes, they might have a use someday. Who was I to decide they wouldn’t? 

This was my first encounter with Sr. Blanche. And in my own way, I encountered her many more times in the coming years. I was the opposite of this great lady – I was young, I was new, and it became obvious rather quickly that no one feared me. I needed her, I leaned on her in some inexpressible way. Her influence mentored me. Her legend challenged me. And all the while, those strange things in the top drawer comforted me – old things waiting to have some new use. 

I never tried to be Sr. Blanche. It would have been utterly futile. But I took care of her plants, I read some of her old books. I tried to care for her people, and sit earnestly in her chair, and make her proud in my own small ways. And in the years I occupied that desk, I happily left the top drawer just as it was. It contained treasures I did not yet understand. 

As I look back on that time, I like to imagine that together, Sr. Blanche and I were like the scribe training for the kingdom, like householders bringing out of our treasuries what is new and what is old (Matt. 13:52).

* * * * * * * * * *

Sr. Blanche Twigg (1917-1999) joined the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart in 1936 and served as the Director of Religious Education at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Clinton, Maryland from 1974-1999.  Among other things, she was known for her thriftiness and her love of Scripture.

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But I Say to You

There’s a line from C.S. Lewis’ brilliant and imaginative book The Great Divorce that comes back to me a few times a year. It convicts me, in a good way.

In The Great Divorce, folks who have died are freely offered entrance into Paradise (which Lewis describes fantastically). There’s just one hitch. They have to give up the thing that’s dragging them down, the thing that holds them back, the thing they’ve clung to all their lives. They don’t have to cure themselves or fix everything. They just have to let go of a burden. Turns out, after a lifetime of habitual living, that’s pretty hard to do.

One plucky soul has a lot to say to his heavenly guide about why he thinks he’s just fine as he is. What need is there to change? Why would someone dare to ask more of him? And so comes the fateful line: “I’ve done my best!” His heavenly guide responds, “Have you? Have you really?”

The question pains me.

No, I haven’t. I really haven’t.

There’s a lot of talk these days about not being too hard on ourselves. And that’s good in the sense that self-loathing and undue pressure are hurtful and counterproductive. But in affirming our humanity and accepting our shortcomings – and letting go of some of the empty expectations the world places on us – we mustn’t excuse ourselves from the very high standards that God has for us. Not expectations that emerge from a task-masterly nature or a cool unkindness. I’m talking about expectations that emerge from love.

The Sermon on the Mount is a case in point. To paraphrase Jesus, “You have heard it said that you should not kill. But I say to you, do not even be angry with your brothers and sisters.” Or, “You have heard it said that you should love your neighbor. But I say to you, love even your enemy.” If we are full of excuses (and full of ourselves), we will simply never achieve these things.

We are loved beyond our own imagining by the God who created us. The Scriptures describe a God who is enamored with his people, who cannot leave or abandon them without betraying his very self. But because of this undying love, he wants us to strive higher, harder, longer and without compromise. Yes, he loves us as we are. And yes, he demands more from us every single day.

Sometimes we can honestly say, “I did my best.” But sometimes we just say that because we don’t want to try harder. What does “trying harder” look like in your life? How will you give him more, this God who loves you so?

P.S. I loaned my copy of The Great Divorce to someone, so I’m paraphrasing here! I highly recommend the book. It’s short, creative, and it makes wonderful Lenten reading.

A mixed media piece depicting a scene from  The Great Divorce : "Ghosts." © Monica Dyer. Shared with permission. Visit Monica's website to see some of her beautiful artwork:  monicadyer.net .

A mixed media piece depicting a scene from The Great Divorce: "Ghosts." © Monica Dyer. Shared with permission. Visit Monica's website to see some of her beautiful artwork: monicadyer.net.