My back gave out on me about a decade ago. That became a time of transition for me. I went from being a breadwinner to a bread eater. A man who often worked overtime for extra cash was now counting on someone else to bring in the food. A Baptist who loved Scripture was now a closet Catholic, stay at home dad, who still loved Scripture. Things were changing. I was now taking care of children, changing diapers, doing dishes and laundry. I also had to relearn how to do all things and what my limitations now were due to my back surgery. I am still learning those. To this day I am finding ways that my back can no longer work the way it once did.
It would be pretty easy to be bitter about that. I grew up in the South where a man was only worth his salt if he earned money to support his family. A man worked. It wasn’t that a woman couldn’t work. No, my mother was a hard worker too. She mowed the yard, fed the horses, and also held down her own career. I had heard all my life about lazy people who didn’t work and never in a positive way. Yes, I know disability is a support net for those who can’t work. Here I was though 30 years old, disabled, with a family to raise… bills piling up, and no income on my part. I would eventually get disability but it was off in the future. I didn’t find myself bitter though. I was disappointed, depressed, sad… but not bitter.
I eventually found myself attending daily Mass after my children were at school. Engaging in conversation with Father Tim Siegel became an enjoyable thing on a weekly basis. I would at some future date join RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), then walk away. Then join it again a few years later, converting to the faith in 2012. What I came to realize is that God had freed me up to spend time studying Sacred Scripture, time learning about the faith, and to grow closer to Him. What at first depressed me, brought me to a place in my life where I could discern a call for Holy Orders and the Diaconate. That’s something I could not have done with the job I had. I didn’t have the time left over to be both a father, a husband and a student. There just weren’t enough hours in the day.
Today’s readings remind me of how difficult times of change are for us. Imagine the disciples who were standing with the Lord hearing Him speak of His imminent torture and death at the hands of the Romans. They asked the question most of us probably would have wondered, “When will you reveal you are the chosen one? The Messiah? The one to conquer the Romans and restore Israel to its glory?” They wanted the kind of change that comes easily to us. The kind of change that makes us feel good. The transition from one state of life that we don’t enjoy, to the one we want. Those are easy, aren’t they? Getting a raise at work, a free vacation, a new car as a gift, finding out your wife is pregnant and a child is going to be born into your life? All of those are easy to accept. It’s the other changes, the ones that bring sadness or pain, those are much harder to desire.
Jesus was given all authority and power in Heaven and would ascend to the throne of God. If that was all that had to happen all the disciples would have rejoiced and marched into the trials with Him willingly. It was the other part that had to happen, the satisfaction for sin, the curse that must be born as a result of all the bad things we have done, the death of our Savior; that was the part that would be hard to accept. It’s bad enough that He had to suffer for us, but He also had to die. Later would come the resurrection but they couldn’t see the future. Just as when I was laying the hospital bed after the surgery reeling in pain, pushing that button to release pain killers into my body, all I could see of my future was suffering. I couldn’t see the beauty of God’s plan to come out of this.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying God wanted me to suffer. No, I don’t believe God wants anyone to suffer. In fact, I believe that’s why He sent His only begotten Son to suffer and die for us. No, I think God doesn’t want us to suffer, but He uses the suffering that we do undergo to help us grow closer to Him. By suffering Himself on the cross He turned something of no value, into something of immense worth. Suffering for the sake of suffering, suffering in bitterness and hate, that doesn’t do any good. Suffering for another, with joy and peace, even in your anguish… that’s different. Looking for a gift to come out of suffering… looking for God’s hand in the world during your suffering… That changes a man.
My surgery allowed me to journey with my daughter as she took her first steps, learned to ride a bike, spoke her first words, and broke so many milestones of growth. It allowed me to spend earnest and heartfelt time in prayer with Christ. To delve into Sacred Scripture and Tradition in a way I’d never been able to do before. It allowed me to have time to study in Ministry Formation and Aspirancy classes. I was able to see the truth of the Catholic Church and where Martin Luther and Calvin had gotten it wrong so many hundreds of years before. Instead of despair and depression, I now found light and joy. I found that on the other side of suffering was a beauty, a transition, a journey that kept going. I am still in pain. Every day. I still take a few painkillers, especially in order to sleep. Yet, I am not bitter. I realize that I can offer that pain up for you. For my Parish family. For my wife and my children. My friends and relatives. For those I know, and those I don’t. I can turn my suffering into something beautiful, something different.
That’s what the Ascension is about today. Jesus went to be with God that He might send the Holy Spirit to be with us. A comforter, a teacher, and a guide to help us turn our own lives into the worship of the Father through the Son. To teach us true discipleship. It doesn’t mean our lives are going to be easy or pain-free. Jesus tells us time and again that the opposite will be true. They will be difficult, messy, and filled with events that we wouldn’t choose if we could avoid them. People will not like us when we speak the truth, and some will persecute and kill us for our faith. In America, we don’t worry about that too much. However, recent events in the U.K., the Boston Marathon, even back to 9/11 have shown us that even here we are not safe from extremists. Are we ready to risk it all for the reward of Heaven?
In our Parish, we are in the middle of a transition. Starting June 1st, Father Francis will be our new Pastor. Father Don will still be around a few days while Father Francis takes a trip to his native country to refresh before his new assignment. I keep hearing people who are so sad that Father Don is leaving, and I am too. I’m also excited to be on the journey we are on. We have a new priest who we have to learn to do things with. A new pastor who will lead us on in our faith in a slightly different way but with the same Gospel. It’s a journey that will be filled with challenges and blessings… but it’s not an end. It’s never an end, but a beginning. Just as Jesus ascending to Heaven did not end His existence, but rather made Him more alive and present than ever; so too does retirement for a priest not mean an end to his ministry, but a start of a new phase of it in his life.
Let’s celebrate then both. Celebrate the new journey for Father Don as he travels into retirement and all that entails, and Father Francis as he comes to be a part of our family and to journey with us towards heaven. Let us make the transition easy and loving. Let us look for the gifts of God that pour out on us during this time and watch as His hand guides our little Parish into the next phase of our existence. Above all, let us keep Christ at the center of our lives and all our activities that His Holy Spirit might continue to guide us toward Life itself.
His servant and yours,
"Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my rock, and my redeemer. - Psalm 19:14
A reading for the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord: May 28th, 2017