2013: An Extraordinary Year

As I sit by the tree and review my journal, I realize what an extraordinary year 2013 has been for my family.

I have no lists of accomplishments to present. I’m sure there were some, but that’s not what strikes me about this year.

In April, on the eve of my birthday, my mother called and told me she had cancer. Less than two months later, my father was diagnosed with cancer also.

Interestingly, for over a year before my parents’ diagnoses, I had felt God’s constant and close presence. Not just in prayer, it was a constant, and I just knew I wasn’t alone. I wondered many times why I felt His presence so closely.

In retrospect, as I look back over year, I see that this awareness of His presence was an answer to one of my long-time prayers that when my parents’ “time came,” He would give me the strength to get through it. Indeed, I had incredible strength, peace, and presence of mind that was far beyond anything I could have gathered from within myself this year.

My mother’s surgery in June was extremely high risk. The doctors thought it would be a long surgery with many complications – if she made it through.

I prayed with a confidence instilled by this Presence. And, I asked everyone I knew everywhere, and everyone they knew to pray for my parents. I also asked all of my favorite saints to intercede too.

So here’s what happened. My mother made it through the surgery in an hour and fifty minutes instead of the maximum of five hours they had allowed for the operation. She was off the ventilator within two hours instead of two days. The surgeon was able to do the surgery laparoscopically instead of the full open abdominal surgery he was fearing he would have to do. And, she went home the next morning at 11 am instead of going to short term rehab for weeks.

It was so funny when the doctor came out of the OR – he looked so surprised at the outcome. He said “he just couldn’t believe how well it went.”

My mother had just three sessions of radiation to ensure that all of the cancer was gone and has been declared cancer-free.

When my father was diagnosed with cancer a couple of weeks later, the doctors gave him weeks to live. It was an aggressive cancer and a huge tumor. The risks were so high that he couldn’t even find a doctor to operate.

Then, a doctor came along visiting his ENT office and said he would go ahead and try the surgery. “What was there to lose?” he said. He scheduled the surgery for the fourth week in August.

The third week in August, a week before my father’s surgery, my son had an appointment with his neurologist. At age 3, he had been diagnosed with epilepsy. At age 6, he had been diagnosed with dyslexia. At this appoinment, we would hear the the results of his yearly EEG (a test of electrical activity in the brain). I expected to hear the same results we had been hearing for the past five years. I expected to receive a couple of prescriptions for anti-seizure medication and I had the “Seizure Action Plan” school paperwork ready for him to sign.

The neurologist sat us down and told us he had the results from the EEG. Without much ado he said, “there is no abnormal electrical activity on his scan.” I was floored. “What?”, I said. “He is not epileptic anymore. He has been cured.” Those were his exact words.

The funny thing was, I had just been saying in prayer the night before, “you know, Lord, I really believe you can heal him. I’ve been praying for five years for this. I know you can, so why haven’t you?” Then I prayed and asked Padre Pio to intercede. “I know that He can do it, can you please ask Him to heal my son?”

And, the next day, the doctor said, without any ado at all really – “He is not epileptic anymore. He has been cured.”

I wanted to cry and do a jig at the same time.

I also wanted to go to adoration and drop flat on my face and say, “Thank you, God!” And that’s exactly what I did that night.

A week later, my father underwent surgery for the huge Sarcoma in his head. My father’s surgery was difficult. He teetered on the edge of death for two weeks in the hospital.

The whole time, I continued to ask everyone I knew to pray. Deep down, I knew he was going to be ok though.

Three weeks later the biopsy came back on his tumor. What had been a huge sarcoma was now classified as “pre-cancerous.” He needed no chemotherapy or radiation therapy at all.

This time around, I wasn’t at all surprised.

The next week, I touched base with my son’s speech and reading therapist who had been helping him with his dyslexia. She recommended that we stop seeing her because she said she saw no need at all for her services anymore. His speech was perfect and he was reading and comprehending above grade level. He scored 98% on reading comprehension of the standardized tests. Today, he is at the top of his class. He just got a big award for reading – only the third in his class of 18 to get this award.

So, as we wrap up the year, here are my conclusions based on my “Year in Review:”

1. There is true power in prayer
2. God is really present and hearing our prayers
3. Miracles can and do happen

1. There is real and true power in prayer

I have been proud. Like many people, I have prayed only when up against the wall. And, in all honesty, I have to tell you, I was a doubter. I generally need to see data or at least a “track record” to believe. I weigh the data and then come to a logical decision.

Well, I’ve got my data, I’ve got my “track record,” and I believe. I wish I wasn’t a “doubting Thomas” but I am so glad He “met where I was at.”

So many times I have said, “I’ll pray for you,” when I didn’t actually have time to do anything for someone. Praying seemed too easy. I felt like physical labor must be required to actually help someone. Don’t get me wrong – offers of physical labor can be extremely helpful – cooking a meal, offering childcare, running errands, etc. Now though, I realize that praying is actually really helpful too. It’s not a matter of – “well, all we can do now is pray.” It is the first and last thing we should be doing and it’s way more helpful than any help I could offer because it calls down the God of all creation to help out the person who needs help. What could be more helpful?

The saints knew this. All of them spoke about the power of prayer. St. John of the Cross said, “In all our necessities, trials, and difficulties, no better or safer aid exists for us than prayer and hope that God will provide for us by the means He desires.”

The twentieth century Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, succinctly sums up the power of prayer. “By leaving everything in God’s hands, the love that bears all things carries us further, it achieves more in the extreme suffering of not “being able to go on any further” than in potent, self-assured action.”

2. God is really present and hearing our prayers

Who, at times, hasn’t asked in prayer, “God are you really there? Can you hear me?”

Throughout the bible, we hear people wondering if God is there and if he is hearing their prayers. In Psalm 22, David says, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Even Jesus, on the cross, says the very same thing (Matt 27:46).

After this year, I can’t doubt that God has heard my prayers and the prayers of everyone I asked to pray during these ordeals. God isn’t a figment of the imagination or a literary figure of the past. God is real and present and hears my prayers.

It wasn’t just my prayers though. There were people praying all over the world for my parents. Dozens of priests were praying and offering prayers and masses – in at least 8 states, in London, and at Lourdes. I’ve heard also that people from all over the US were praying as well as people from France, England, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Brazil, The Philippines, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt, and Burundi.

My friend Marcia, said her mother from Brazil was on a pilgrimage and was praying in a small church in Italy and thought of my mother so she started praying for her. She called Marcia and asked when the surgery would be. It turned out that she thought of my mother and was praying at the exact time that my mother was in surgery.

Over the past few months, my co-workers, who are from all corners of the globe, have asked many times how my parents were doing. They have said that they even had their families “back home” praying for my parensts. As I recount to them how well my parents are doing, almost every person I’ve told has said “praised be to God” in their own language…Arabic, Kurundi, Amharic, Tigrinya, etc. My colleagues also come from many different faith traditions. It struck me that Catholics, Evangelical Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and followers of even more religions around the world were all praying for an intention together and praising God. Isn’t that beautiful?

3. Miracles can and do happen

I can’t deny that what happened in my family this year was miraculous. My mother’s doctors, my father’s doctors, and my son’s doctor were all surprised. The outcomes were not at all what they expected. They can’t scientifically explain why things turned out the way they did.

I have great confidence that, if it’s God’s will, he will perform miracles if asked. I do not think miracles are meant to be extraordinary occurences because Jesus said, “whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive” (Matt 21:22).

St. Augustine said, “God is not a deceiver that he should offer to support us and then, when we lean upon him, should slip away.”

Our hopes and prayers our limited by our own finite nature but God is infinite and omnipotent. We would do well to expand our expectations of God beyond the box of our limited minds. St. Therese of Lisieux, who had very little formal education but was granted the grace of great knowledge of God said, “We can never have too much confidence in God; as we hope in him so shall we receive.

St. Patrick too, a victim of human trafficking and a man who knew a lot about suffering and miracles, said, “Turn trustingly to the Lord. Put your faith in him with your whole heart, because nothing is impossible to him.

In fact, every saint seems to know this secret that we are apt to forget – God offers all of us infinite love every moment of our lives and, included in this love, is the well-being of all we hold dear. For our part, we need to trust him – drop all defenses and completely trust him. When we “drop our defenses,” it enables us to see God’s love in action outside and above the finite projections we had for the outcomes of each situation. God’s love is always there for the taking. It is we who reject it, or limit it, or just can’t recognize it. Just think – we could be living in this love every single moment if we so choose.

So, as I look back at this extraordinary year, my “takeaway” is that, going forward, I’m not going to worry. I’m going to bring it to God in trust and actually trust him. I know, deep in my bones, that He’ll take care of it and it will all work out the way it should. I’m going to heed Padre Pio’s words – “Pray, hope, and don’t worry!”

Walking between Worlds at Christmas

One week ago today, I was driving along and reflecting on my day when one of my favorite Christmas songs came on the radio, “Love came down at Christmas. Love all lovely, Love Divine.”

It felt as if I had walked between many worlds on this particular day.  In fact, I walk between worlds most days but at no time are the contrasts more apparent then at Christmas.  Stark contrasts.

I had just finished picking up hundreds of gifts at a parish that had been donated to newly arrived refugees.

I stopped by a store to pick up the last two gifts on my list.   I watched families, many likely undocumented, grab their bit of the American dream – maybe a toy for each child if someone was generous enough to give a tip at the “under-the-table” job.

In another store, I catch a glimpse of a supreme court justice.

I navigate my way through gatherings of Washington’s elite – lawmakers, diplomats, professionals – the “powerbrokers” of the Free World and I walk among those having no countries at all, fleeing war-torn lands, having not ten cents to their name.

A refugee arrives in my office with a 20” x 20” plastic bag of all of her belongings. A neighbor puts 8 garbage bags of extra belongings on the curb to donate.

Dirty, dingy apartments; pristine urban lofts and suburban “McMansions.

I see a woman walking with her family. Her husband clutching tightly to a small bag which might hold two small gifts for the two young children. The mother breaks a small branch with berries off at the request of her young son. He gives the branch to her. Her haggard face brightens.

I see SUV’s full of bags. People heavy laden with gifts.  Faces worn with the burden.

Such contrasts.  Painful contrasts.  But similarities too.

There are so many kinds of poverty – not just financial.  The most affluent people can also be the most poverty-stricken.  There is the poverty of age, the poverty of physical illness, the poverty of mental illness, the poverty of addiction, the poverty of loneliness, the poverty of rejection, the poverty of fear, the poverty of abuse, the poverty of homelessness, the poverty of loss of homeland, the poverty of the unwed mother, the poverty of the exhausted mother, the poverty of the exhausted executive, and the list goes on.

Poverty is universal and it always involves division.

Jesuits often speak of working toward the realization of the “Kingdom of God on earth.”  I used to wonder exactly what this meant.  What would it be like?  How could this ever happen when there are such great divides between peoples?

In my job, I spend a lot of time working to “bridge the gap” between worlds by helping  families from different “worlds” understand each other.  I’m particularly interested in those moments where we cross those barriers, reach over the fence, and touch “the other.”

At this time of year especially, I often witness abundant giving to meet overwhelming needs. But the significance of this giving is more than just financial.  Sometimes in this space, I have seen the reach over the divide, the touch, glimpses of “the Kingdom of God on earth.”

When we encounter “the other” and work toward understanding him we are working toward peace.  Pope Francis said in his Christmas Urbi et Orbi addess:

“True peace – we know this well – is not a balance of opposing forces. It is not a lovely “façade” which conceals conflicts and divisions. Peace calls for daily commitment, but making peace is an art, starting from God’s gift, from the grace which he has given us in Jesus Christ.”

In his Christmas homily at Midnight Mass, Pope Francis reflected on “the mystery of walking and seeing: “Walking,” he said, “brings to mind the whole of salvation history, beginning with Abraham, our father in faith. From that time on, our identity as believers has been that of a people making its pilgrim way towards the promised land.” 

It is in this space, where we walk between worlds, encounter “the other,” and reach out to “the other,” that we find the vibrant and vital truth of God’s love for all of His children.  In this place, there is no division and all come together in His love.

But we cannot cross the barriers of all these different “worlds” without a bridge.

Pope Francis continued his Christmas homily:

“Jesus is Love incarnate. He is not simply a teacher of wisdom, he is not an ideal for which we strive while knowing that we are hopelessly distant from it. He is the meaning of life and history, who has pitched his tent in our midst.

The shepherds were the first to see this “tent”, to receive the news of Jesus’ birth. They were the first because they were among the last, the outcast.

We bless you, Lord God most high, who lowered yourself for our sake.
You are immense, and you made yourself small;
you are rich and you made yourself poor;
you are all-powerful and you made yourself vulnerable.”

In his prayer, Pope Francis highlights the divides that Jesus bridges.  Jesus is love incarnate.  Jesus is the love that breaks down all barriers, unifies all divides, and erases all contradictions.  He is the bridge.

Pope Francis urges us to live lives of encounter with “the other” because it is here that we are granted the grace to see as Christ sees each of us, through the eyes of love.  When we come to begin to see as He sees us – beautiful individuals created in His image, all loved boundlessly, with no divisions of human construct, all beckoned by peace and called with great joy to one table – we begin to realize the Kingdom of God here on earth.