The Day After the Annunciation

Yesterday the world stopped spinning.
The whole earth trembled.
Heaven came down to earth
as the Word was made flesh
in my womb.
Mine.
Though I am no queen,
no prophetess,
no Judith or Esther or Deborah.
Here in this nowhere town
dwells the creator of all the world.

I cannot say if there were trumpets,
though I heard them,
nor if choirs of angels sang God’s glory.
I only know my heart thrilled,
my spirit soared,
my soul sang
as the angel of the Lord called me God’s own
and asked me to bear his Son.

But that was yesterday.

Today the angel is gone,
and so too the astonishing peace,
the silence in my heart so loud it fairly shook.
Today I am not wandering
like one in a dream,
a secret smile touching my lips
as my hand returns again and again to rest
over the spot where Life himself has chosen to live.

Joy still, yes, and wonder.
Who am I that my Lord should come to me?
Still my heart is full and still my head spins with the glory of it all.
But today I have to think:
what next?

St. Anne and the Young Mary, by Maria Pureza Escano.

St. Anne and the Young Mary, by Maria Pureza Escano.

Perhaps I imagined it,
fell asleep in the warm afternoon sun
and turned the words of the prophet
into my fate.
Perhaps it was a dream,
a temptation,
a trick of the light.
And yet there has never been anything so real
as that shocking moment of peace,
that clarity of confusion.
Nobody could hear what I heard
and see what I saw
and not believe.

But they did not see.
Nor did they hear.
And today I must wake from this dream I am living
and act.

What will he say, when I tell him this thing that has never been told before?
Will he rage against what cannot be believed,
call me out for a liar and call my neighbors out with stones?
He would have that right.
But no.
My Joseph so gentle could never.
He will not shout, will not condemn.
But still he may not believe.

And the sorrow in his eyes would break my heart
if it did not beat for another Heart than his.
He may turn from me,
divorce me,
and leave me alone with this Child who will save him, too.
I am not afraid,
exactly.
My life is not my own.
And He who has chosen me will take me where I need to be.
Though that may be death or disgrace,
though a sword may pierce my heart,
I know he will be with me.

But
but
but I cannot help but hope
that the love of this good man will be stronger than his doubt,
that my parents will believe,
that I and my son will be safe.
As I walk from the radiance of the angel’s presence
into the darkness of the unknown,
God-with-me guides my steps,
though we may walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
And while my flesh may fear
my heart will choose to trust.

Even when I cannot see him
I will be faithful:
the handmaid of the Lord.

After the Annunciation

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Do You Have a Reliable Car?

I took my hot mess of a car into the mechanic last week for a weird rattling sound. 6 hours later, I got this call:

“What is the story on that car?”

I knew things weren’t going to go well.

I don't think this muddy disaster had anything to do with it.

I don’t think this muddy disaster had anything to do with it.

Apparently I drove her right into the ground. Shocks, struts, control arms, wheel bearings, rotors, everything.

“Your brake pads are okay,” he said. Because that was about the only thing.

Undriveable, he said. And I was kind of relieved. My prayer has always been that I would know for certain when it was time to move on from this lemon of a car, and this was about as certain as I would get. Besides, I’ve spent the last few weeks (months?) dealing with dead babies and broken marriages and foreclosed homes and kids with restraining orders and all kinds of heavy, ugly stuff that I can’t fix for people. This I could do. God has shown me again and again that if nothing else, he’s at work when my car is a disaster.

People always ask me, “Do you have a reliable car?” After all, how could you live out of a lemon? How could you put 3,000 miles a month on a car that might break down at any moment? How could you drive 500 miles from anyone you know if your brakes might go out or your radiator crack or your engine die? Who would spend this many hours in a car that regularly leaves bits behind on the highway? Of course I must have a reliable car.

“No,” I answer. “But I have a reliable God.”

A very kind young man in Alabama took this off my car when I pulled into a gas station and lay down on the ground to see what was dragging.

A very kind young man in Alabama took this off my car when I pulled into a gas station and lay down on the ground to see what was dragging.

This car has been trouble almost since I got her. She dies at inopportune moments, eats money I don’t have, and leaves me nervous that I might find myself stranded.1

But every time she’s broken down, God has saved the day. Every time I’ve been stuck somewhere, it’s because he was doing something. Every time I’ve had an emergency change of plans, he’s taking me somewhere I need to be. Maybe it’s a mechanic who needs to hear about Jesus, maybe it’s me needing to see how he provides, maybe it’s a hostess who needs someone to listen and pray with her. But it’s really gotten to the point where something goes wrong with my car and I smile and step back, wondering what God’s about to do.

He proves himself again and again, this God of mine. And it’s nowhere more obvious than with the thing I rely on most in this world. Every time there’s a disaster with my car, he reminds me that I don’t need a reliable car. I need a reliable God. And I have one.

In fact, I’ve learned so much about God’s faithfulness from my car that she’s even named after what she’s done for me. I call her Betty, but it’s really BD: Balaam’s Donkey. In Numbers 22, Balaam was a pagan prophet asked to curse Israel. He knew God would only bless them, but eventually he agreed to see what he could do. On his way there, an angel of death stood in his path to cut him down. His donkey, seeing the angel, refused to go on. Balaam beat her in rage until she opened her mouth and spoke, telling him that her refusal to move was saving him.

I’ve seen again and again how my Betty’s refusal to move has saved me: in individual circumstances and above all in transforming my ability to trust the Lord.

Oh, I’m still learning, of course. Tuesday I bought a new car and Wednesday I felt compelled to return it. As I was sitting in the chapel, anxious and frustrated to the point of tears, I suddenly remembered who God is and gasped:

“Oh, that’s right! You’re always at work!”

Matthew 10 29-31And the peace was back again. Because for a few hours I’d been overwhelmed by the unknowing and the complexity and the heaviness of life but then he sang me that song he’d been singing all day (Matthew 10:29-31) and I remembered that he is always working all things for good. I don’t have to know how or when because he’s done it enough that I trust him.

Meanwhile today I’m buying a car on my way from Atlanta to Baton Rouge. Hopefully this one lasts longer than the last! And while I went looking for reliability this time around, there’s a part of me that mourns the loss of the jalopy that taught me so much. Rest in peace, Betty. Well done.

 

  1. When I sold her, she had parts from Missouri, Nevada, Georgia, Oklahoma, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. At least. []
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The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run

You may have picked up on the fact that I’m a little bit obsessed with Saints (and those on their way to being declared Saints). There’s something about getting to know one of God’s best friends that just makes me love him that much more. I have this image of life as an obstacle course (think American Ninja Warrior) and Saints as competitors who’ve finished the course and come back to coach you through. Here I need the witness of someone with low stamina, like me, there the advice of someone with a short temper. I keep a pantheon1 of Saints in my back pocket to encourage me by means of their own particular weaknesses.

coverSo when my beautiful friend Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda asked if I’d review her latest book, The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run, I jumped at the chance. Maria and I have been friends since I met her oldest son in college2 and I’ve long admired her work and her deep joy in the Lord. Plus, I can’t get enough of modern martyr stories. And this one did not disappoint. Impeccably researched and written with a clarity that allows Father Stanley to shine through, this first published biography of Father Stanley Rother is the perfect introduction to a simple man called to greatness.

Fr. Stanley Rother was a down-home Oklahoma farm boy who failed out of seminary because he was better at manual labor than book learning. But he persevered, taking John Vianney as a model, and was ordained and sent to rural Oklahoma to serve. It wasn’t long before he answered the call to missionary work, heading to Guatemala where he would overcome his difficulty with languages, mastering Spanish and Tz’utujil, and earn the love of his people by working side by side with them.

Fr Rother and little girlBut Latin America was a tumultuous place in the the 1980s and Fr. Stanley knew that the powers that be didn’t appreciate his solidarity with the people. It became clear that his life was on the line if he stayed where he was, but Fr. Stanley loved his people too much to abandon them. “At the first signs of danger, the shepherd can’t run,” he said time and again, echoing Jesus’ words in John 10.

Fr. Stanley did leave Guatemala for a few months when things were at their worst. Back in Oklahoma, everyone urged him not to go back to Guatemala. The book details his Gethsemane experience, interviewing friends and family members and excerpting from Fr. Stanley’s letters. But while he was clearly suffering, he was not conflicted. He had promised he would return and return he did, arriving back at his parish just in time for Easter. Three months later, he was found dead in his rectory. He had been tortured but had taken it in silence–he knew that crying out would endanger those around him.

This past summer, the Vatican declared Fr. Stanley a martyr, a step that speeds his canonization process considerably. For the people of Santiago Atitlán, however, no canonization is necessary. Despite his temper and his other human weaknesses, Fr. Stanley had been a powerful witness of God’s love among them. He had lived as a Saint and died as a Saint. And while they will rejoice when he is canonized, as I have no doubt he will be, nobody will be surprised at the Oklahoma farm boy turned Guatemalan martyr raised to the altars.

He has Jesus eyes.

Look at those eyes. Jesus eyes.

Fr. Stanley is a compelling figure, stern but animated by love of God and his people, but I must say that much about him didn’t resonate with me. After all, I’m basically the opposite of this taciturn country priest who was more comfortable with a spade than a textbook. So while I was quite impressed with how thorough the book was–imagine hearing from a Saint’s first grade teacher–Fr. Stanley was a little too ordinary for my liking. At first.

Until I realized that his ordinariness was exactly the point. The witness of his willing acceptance of torture and death is that much more beautiful because he’s a regular guy. He wasn’t a mystic, one foot already on the other side of the veil, or an activist, willing to sacrifice for the cause. He was a lover. And he knew that his people needed him. They needed to know that they mattered, to him and to the One he served. He made no secret of the fact that he didn’t want to die. But he wanted to live for his people more than he wanted to live, as he explained to his bishop: “My life is for my people. I am not scared.”

It’s this quiet determination that struck me. He went deliberately to his death because he loved those he would die for. Can I live with the same intentionality? Can I wash dishes and listen to sob stories and reply to emails with the same deliberate love? Can I be powerfully present in the ordinary? That’s what made Fr. Stanley able to live with extraordinary grace in the end: a determination to do the work of the day well.

If you’re from Oklahoma or you’re a farmer or you’ve struggled in school, Fr. Stanley’s your guy. If you wonder how to love the poor or face difficult mundane crosses, I think his witness will speak to you. If you live an ordinary life and long to be extraordinary, you’ll find that in Fr. Stanley. Grab a copy of this book, not just to support my friend Maria (who is amazing, so maybe for that reason, too) but because Fr. Stanley will remind you of the holiness of your everyday. He’ll show you how your life can transform the world around you. And he’ll probably be the first American-born man canonized, so it couldn’t hurt to join his fan club ahead of the rush.

 

141211_cdennis_MariaScaperlanda442-2If you want to keep up with Maria, you can follow her at her blog. I couldn’t find a picture of us together (though I have pictures of me with every one of her children and most of her grandchildren), so I’ll give you the official headshot instead. There, don’t you want to be her friend? Or at least buy her book? I thought so.

  1. If you’ll excuse the implied heresy. []
  2. In case you listen to the podcast, he’s the one who saved the Eucharist from Satanists and then passed all the credit on to other people. []
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