Thursday, December 3, 2009

Joy, an act of the will

I belong to the most wonderful Bible Study Group. This is my fourth or fifth year with the group, I have lost count. I found the group quite by accident. I was trying to find a Catechises of the Good Shepherd Class for my children that met during the day and was led to this group. Truth be told, I was not too excited about having to actually do anything myself. I have never been much of a bible reader, and I was hoping to just be able to drop them off and go shopping. What a mistake that would have been.

I have met some incredible women and have learned a lot. It is a true joy to be in the presence of so many women who take their faith and family so seriously. There are around a hundred women in total; women of all ages from many different parishes.

This year I have been asked to lead a small group and to share the responsibility of giving the large group lecture with one of the co-founders. Today was my first lecture on the book of James. Though it was written as a talk and not a piece of writing, it is what I have been working on for two weeks, and so I post some of it here:

Count it all as Joy: James 1: 2-8
And what are we to count as all Joy? Our trials. I am guessing we have all been around Catholicism long enough to know Pick up your cross and follow me. We know it is through suffering that we imitate Christ and gain eternal life. So, I wanted to talk a little bit about how we do this. How and why we count our trials as joy so that we can turn our knowing we should Pick up our Cross to actually picking up our cross.

In teacher training we were told to always start with our objective. Make the test first. Know what it was that we wanted our students to take away from the lesson. And work backwards. This sounded good. But in truth, especially as a new teacher, it rarely worked out this way. There was that great game the kids would love, all those worksheets that came with the teacher materials that were so easy to print off and hand out, the text book that needed to be read, right? The test was usually composed after looking back at all the lessons of the previous weeks to see what stood out as the most important and most repeated information.

In the end, you had eight hours a day, five days a week, eight weeks a term that needed to be filled. The goal ended up being keeping the kids busy enough, engaged enough that they wouldn't mutiny. If they learned something along the way, well, that was good too.

Trials can be just that. Meaningless Busy work that fill the minutes, days, weeks and years of our short lives. Something to pass the time between the cradle and the grave and if we learn something along the way, well, that is good too.

But the Christian is like the seasoned teacher. The teacher who has taught the same material for so long, that the air she breathes serves to instill in her students her objectives. Not a second of her day is spent on meaningless tasks to pass the time. Every opportunity, planned or unplanned becomes a means to teach to the test. And the test is no longer a series of questions on a page, it is a goal so deeply held by her, she no longer even has to think about it.

James tells us our objective. He tells us the answers to the test. He tells us what we will take away from the lessons of the trials of life. Steadfastness. Maturity. Perfection.

But like all but the most perfect teacher, we get caught up in the day to day and forget the objective. Our trials may teach us lessons, but almost in spite of our desire to learn from them. The first thing we must do to pick up our cross and follow Christ is to keep our goal in mind in the midst of our trials. To practice so hard and so long that it becomes part of the very air we breathe. That we are not left to see with 20/20 vision what we have gained, but know in the midst of the very trial that we are gaining the crown of everlasting life.

It takes practice, like the progression from the new teacher trying to keep her head above water to the guru who takes even the unfortunate event of the rabbit escaping from his cage to teach the difference between Democracy and Tyranny. We need to know our material and internalize our objectives. But it is this opportunity we have, that we must try and acknowledge with each trial, it is in this glorious opportunity that we may count as joy.

Now, I wanted to take a moment to distinguish between feelings and an act of the will. This is something I have been struggling with for a long time. Trusting vs feeling like I am trusting. Loving vs feeling love. Taking Joy vs. feeling happy. For I think there is a big difference and we may often doubt ourselves because our feelings do not seem to get the message from our head. I really am not picking up my cross because I do not feel at all happy about this. But are we really to laugh when the dog dies, or throw a party when the teenager totals the car? People do it all the time with love. I no longer love my spouse because I don't feel in love. I joke that if I felt the way I did when I met my husband for 13 years, I wouldn't be able to function. I didn't need sleep or food. I had butterflies in my stomach and was living on cloud nine for months on end. You can't hold a job or run a family like that. Thank goodness the feelings come and go while the love remains steadfast.

To give another example, I use trust: My father died three months before I got married. And in between the funeral and the wedding, I went to spend Easter in Nashville with my then fiance, now husband. I drove into town and we went straight to confession to be followed by mass. I got in line and went to confession to a priest I had never seen before. I was at that point really working on making a good confession, not putting the sin I was most embarrassed of in the middle, so he was less likely to pick it as the one to focus on. No, I laid it out there, put the worst one last and waited for the humiliation of having to have a discussion about it. At some point in the confession I had mentioned my dad. So when the priest finally spoke, he said, "I don't think you have grieved for your father."

What? I just gave you some really bad stuff. I am ready to be humiliated for these things I have done. But don't accuse me of not trusting God. For that is what I heard in his words. I assured him I had grieved. I had cried for my mom and my siblings and my grandparents. But I knew God had a plan. Hadn't I prayed for a miracle with the caveat that only God's will be done. To which he responded, "I don't think you have grieved for your father."

And then the floodgates opened. And I left the confessional and the tears were still flowing. And I sat waiting for mass still crying. And then mass started and I was still crying. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I do trust you, you know that I do, you know that I believe you have a plan and that this was your will for my father. I am sorry I am crying, I do trust in you." But I couldn't stop crying and my heart hurt so badly I thought it was surely broken with the loss of my dad. And then came the Gospel, and I was still crying.

And it was the gospel of Lazarus. The one I'd heard a million times. Jesus gets there late, he is told Lazarus is dead and what does he do? He cries. I must have missed that part the first million times.

Why were you crying, I asked. You knew you would raise Lazarus. You knew God's will and God's plan? You are God! Why were you crying?

It was at that moment that I realized that God does not require I don't feel human. That it is okay to be sad, or angry or frustrated. We trust in spite of it. We count our sufferings as joy in spite of our sadness or anger or fear or frustration. In fact, these emotions themselves are part of our suffering. We can be sad for the loss of the dog, or the dad; scared for our child in his car. Our Joy is in the act of the will, not the emotion. It is joy in the opportunity God has given us through our suffering to become steadfast, mature, perfect. And despite our feelings, we can count all as joy.

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