Saturday, January 29, 2011

the cross

Hanging over the altar of St. Thomas More church is a very large crucifix. It's massive. It's not gruesome, but it's also not the usual standard, with a Corpus hanging gracefully and bloodlessly. Christ's knees are bruised; the crown of thorns is cumbersome and blood runs down His face. His features are peaceful in death, but the evidence of His recent suffering and pain presses insistently into one's awareness. I sit in that church every morning, staring at that massive cross (because the eye cannot ignore it!) and reminding myself of one massive truth (that my soul tries very hard to ignore): that cross is the meaning of life.

Richard and I have come to suspect that this one obvious truth is perhaps the most important reason that we've been called to New Zealand. I don't think either one of us really "gets" that truth. Certainly on an intellectual level we would both acknowledge it - for years and years, we've each formulated our life philosophy around it. But the experiences we've had here, the stark homilies of Fr. Michael, the directions our minds have travelled in sketching out our ministries, daily life as parents, spouses and missionaries....all of these have awakened us to the humbling truth that our hearts flat out reject the cross.

The cross proclaims that the good life entails humility and obedience, submission, self-denial, discipline of the will and of the flesh, redemptive suffering, sacrifice, service.  Christ on the cross incarnates every one of those difficult ideals. The 33 years that preceded the cross do as well. How many times and in how many ways does Jesus insist that His followers deny themselves and take up their cross? In today's Gospel, Jesus' Beatitudes promise that this way of meekness and denial is the way of true joy.  The Lord is so consistent and explicit on this point that there's almost no excuse for our minds not to process it.

Yet more than ever before, contemporary thought rejects self-denial and the cross. The good life that we are seduced by is utterly dominated by pleasure: fun, entertainment, amusement, excitement, power to control, comfort, leisure, luxury, relaxation, shortcuts, convenience, ease, indulgence, superficial (or even artificial) "beauty". These things have a legitimate place in life, but it's a much much smaller place than we think. As words and concepts, each is relatively easy to reject as the summum bonum. In real living though, these attractions are the stuff of real temptation. They do offer a type of happiness, but it's consumed and then we're bored again, or seeking something even better, or restlessly impatient to have yet more. We keep pursuing the same things or the same categories of things, never realizing that they really are not fulfilling something very restless and needy within us.

Two years ago I was driving home from some errands with a Snickers bar on the passenger seat (this was back in the good old days when the passenger seat was to my right). It had somewhat recently and unintentionally become a habit of mine to pick up a Snickers bar every Monday while waiting to pay for my groceries and I almost never made it out of the parking lot without tearing open that brown wrapper. I was in a particularly "restless and needy" mood on the day in question. As I ate my favorite treat I thought angrily, "Actually, Snickers doesn't really satisfy". I instantly lost my taste for them. Here in New Zealand, the lesson about Snickers bars has expanded to cover many more aspects of life. But I've kind of moved on to Milky Way bars (literally and symbolically), and I suspect that that was not exactly the kind of conversion that the Lord intended in giving me that moment of grace.

The cross has been a major theme of Fr. Michael's preaching and of our casual conversation with him. It's become the major theme of our individual prayer lives and of our marital endeavor to support each other's path to sanctity. It's become the measuring stick by which we are reevaluating our hobbies and habits and hopes.  It stands in the background as we observe ourselves filling up our free time, our periods of silence, our use of money. We're trying to think of the cross when we reflect on what frustrates us each day, what we discipline our children for, how we speak to our girls and to each other, how we respond when someone in the family "offers us an opportunity" to forego our own ease, convenience, diversion or ability to control time and events. We're each examining how the cross (and our rejection of its message) plays into our routine sins. Most importantly, we're seeking the freedom and joy of the cross - the fruit of loving that which alone is worthy of love. Therein lies Truth, Goodness and Beauty. We've been re-convicted that it is only in this dying to self that we'll find true human fulfillment. Two self-seeking people will never be blissful in marriage, parenting, ministry or even in recreation. Jesus isn't being misleading when He promises that sacrifice and meekness are the narrow path to peace and fulfillment. He's led us out to the desert (taken us far away from all that is familiar) to speak this truth to our hearts in a way that we can hear and understand -  maybe back home we were just too distracted to listen. In turn, we are stewards of the message. Our task is to translate this open secret into words that the youth will find equally compelling. This term we hope to do so - we hope to watch the youth see both Christ and his cross anew, as worthy objects of the greatest love and sacrifice. We'll need a great deal of grace and prayers. Our lives should be more eloquent than our words, although its always so much easier the other way around.  Still, we are confident that the grace is there in abundance, for both the youth and for ourselves.

"Little in the spiritual life comes easily.
Temptation comes easily, 
resisting temptation does not."

-Fr. Hubert van Zeller

for my husband...

Friday, January 21, 2011

gearing up

It's almost time! Time has flown so quickly that it's very hard to believe that next weekend marks the end of summer break. This week our own gears have been slowly restarting in anticipation of the 2011 school year.

While the youth may not be nearly as excited as Bernadette about getting back to the books, we're looking forward to what will be our first (and most likely only) complete school year cycle with the youth groups. The first task at hand was to determine a theme for the semester. That task was rather easy, as it had suggested itself towards the end of the 2010 school year. We've decided to build the term around the  idea of developing a real friendship with Jesus. This week and next we'll be sitting down with our new partner, Glen, and developing the specifics for that mission.

A second (and perhaps more crucial) task was ensuring that the youth moving into Lighthouse from Tahu will make a smooth transition. Tahu is targeted at youth who average 13 years old, while Lighthouse youth include 17 and 18 year olds.  It can be quite an adjustment to make the leap from the junior youth group to the senior youth group, but it's essential that the leap be made. Last night Richard organized a scavenger hunt at the mall - the first event that will begin this critical blending process. It was a success - the older youth were welcoming and accepting and a good time was had by all.

On Thursday night the Handmaids participated in an overnight "mini-retreat" entitled: The Study of a Handmaid. We pondered the nature of a "handmaid", concentrating on the relationship between the handmaid and the One served.

Tomorrow, after many many requests from many teens, we have finally coordinated a Skype video conference for the youth with Danielle and Kerstin (our predecessors in this ministry). The March for Life has secured the two girls in one geographical location and we look forward to "seeing" them right after Mass in the morning. This Skype call is certain to be a highlight of summer for many youth!

Mother's group has also recommenced after a Christmas hiatus, most recently taking a fresh look at the Church's teachings on "openness to life". Half of the babies in the group were christened over the break and the other half are busily planning their baptisms at present, so we're excited to have so many tiny new Christians among us!

Lastly, the Sealy family has been trying to squeeze in a few last excursions before everything comes to a screeching halt. The upcoming school year is not nearly the impediment to our sightseeing that Freckle's birth will be. We're trying to be intentional with these last 9 weeks before we're a bit more homebound. Today we visited a tiny, fun town called Tirau. Maria was charmed by the engaging architecture on Main Street. Many shops are either shaped like animals or have elaborate signage.  The dog building above contains the public toilets. There's a similar structure shaped like a sheep in which woolen goods are sold. The cafes have whimsical names such as "The Loose Goose" and "The Fine Swine". Even the local house of worship participates in the town's theme (see first photo below).

The Ultimate Summer Event -in Richard's eyes, at least- is the possibility of the Steeler's presence at the Super Bowl (and by "presence", Richard, I of course mean "TRIUMPH"). These final games are being broadcast here in New Zealand, and Rich is working very hard at making converts among the Kiwis. It's a ministry unto itself, but he has not been without his successes. I think on Monday - Kiwi Monday, American Sunday- when the Steelers play the Jets, he may even have two fellow fans to keep watch with him (as in real grown-up men, rather than Maria and Bernadette). If he keeps up the good work, perhaps that number will double by Super Bowl Sunday.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

the blue cross

5 of the Handmaids with their "Blue Cross"
which they crafted from broken glass 
they gathered while cleaning up the smashed church doors.  

They made a gift of their cross to the church. 
I'm so impressed by their ability to seize a negative event
and turn it into something beautiful.
The doors appear to have been smashed by a somewhat desperate 
drug addict hoping to find the Sunday collections.
Fr. Michael led the congregation in a prayer this morning 
for this person's recovery from addiction.
(I do not believe that the person has been caught
although some people have now stepped forward 
who saw the car )

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

bang, crash, slam

"Oh the noise, oh the noise, oh the noise, noise, noise, NOISE,
That's the ONE thing he HATED, the noise, noise, noise, noise!" 
-Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas

I had pictured New Zealand as being, kind of, like, quiet. Really quiet. Peaceful. Serene. But this was a huge mistake. To start with, I neglected to consider the noisemaking capability we'd be importing with us from our homeland in the form of two little American girls. Bernadette is in a stage where the absolute most entertaining activity she can come up with is screeching and squealing as loudly and happily and frequently as possible. Maria, meanwhile, has hunkered down in a year-long phase in which the absolute most entertaining activity that she can come up with is imitating Bernadette. At present, that means participating in the noise. And yes, for those of you who are second-guessing yourself, Maria is the elder daughter. We had thought that the younger child would be the mimic, but that turned out to be another mistaken assumption that has been disproven Down Under. 

Given their current passions and pasttimes, buying the girls a harmonica and a plastic (recorder?) for Christmas was an ill-considered decision that I have deeply regretted ever since. But this past week has been, by far, our most cacophonous yet and it actually has very little to do with either child or her new present. 

On Friday night, the house across the street had a party that raged on until 6 am. Now, it's far from unusual for music to blast on our street until 2 am on the weekends, but this was the especially egregious kind of party whose throbbing bass and shrieking voices seeped insidiously through earplugs until dawn. 

Saturday witnessed the outbreak of a street fight in the busy road in front of our bedroom window, with participants flinging each other in front of oncoming traffic and shouting angry obscenities. Apparently the decibel at which one can deliver an insult adds to its menacing quality. Remember that if you're ever in a street fight.

Then, early on Sunday afternoon someone drove through the church doors. Deliberately. When the glass  repair man arrived, he took in the sight and simply said,  "Why?" We have no idea, but we wonder the same.  My little Handmaids were the ones who discovered, reported and cleaned the mess. I'm very impressed. Some of them can be glimpsed in the photo below.

And then on Monday (yesterday) construction - or rather, demolition - began in our home. There's a large hallway in the center of the house - almost every door in the house opens into it (3 bedrooms, 2 closets, the garage, the dining room, the living room and an unused, sealed-off door to the office - an amazing feat, really). The parish offices are located on the other side of that wall. It will be reconstructed in a new and improved location this week to make space for a meeting room in the office area. The process will be loud. Very, very loud. It will even be louder than all the other noise we've had this week put together. Thus, we are currently and gratefully transplanted to another home for the week.



The house we're in at present is blissfully quiet. No traffic, no mall, no streetfights. Until my offspring arrived in this home, it appears that the most disruptive sound would have been the twice daily "meow" of the housecats at mealtimes (only, since these are Kiwi cats, they of course say miaow). The neighborhood is peacefully bordered by a quiet beach to one side and the greenest, tallest, most rolling hills imaginable on the other. It reminds me of....New Zealand. The New Zealand I had imagined prior to May 27, 2010.

We're enjoying relaxing in the very private, enclosed grassy garden, walking in the very sedate, manicured upscale neighborhood, sleeping in the undisturbed luxurious stillness, and -as of this afternoon - reconnecting fondly with our dear Little Buddy, who made a triumphant return to us with all his "memories" intact. Happy Happy, Joy Joy.

It's almost time for Richard and I to get serious about planning our upcoming term. (On a side note, I just learned that the entire 2011 school year will be reconstructed across this nation to accomodate the Rugby World Cup. Love it.) Until February 5, when classes commence, we've been doing strictly "fun" activities with whatever youth are around - many are travelling, camping and attending "camps". We had a surprise farewell pool party for Justin, who graduated Lighthouse and embarked on a missionary year with NET in Australia. We've had some movie nights, a double date with the newest courting couple in Lighthouse, some bonfires on the beach. Our family camping and Wellington trips sort of disintegrated in the face of reality - Bernadette's erupting incisors and my growing inability to sit or sleep comfortably put a damper on attempting either of these feats.

Hopefully Little Buddy hangs in with us and there are no further disruptions in the flow of the blog! In conclusion, just one of the photos Richard caught of the Christmas sunrise. He says the clouds in the middle formed an unmistakable angel. I think it looks like the Holy Spirit (but he was the eyewitness, not me). Either way, very cool.

Monday, January 3, 2011

little buddy and the big crash

A belated but very merry Christmas to all! We had (and are continuing to have) a very crazy and singular experience of the Christmas season, and it's not only the heat that is throwing me for a loop. As briefly as possible, our Christmas....

The day before Christmas Eve, both Bernadette and Little Buddy crashed. Bernadette woke up at 5 am on December 23rd with burning skin, a racing heart, loud shallow breathing, and what Kiwis call a "grizzly" disposition. At 8 am we were able to take her to a doctor, but she was so angry that he simply gave her some medicine and asked us to bring her back in an hour so that he could examine her when calm. We returned as directed, but at no point did this poor doctor get to examine a calm child. He diagnosed her with an infection of some sort, requesting that we return in 24 hours (unless she had an amazing recovery overnight, which seemed quite doubtful to all present). He also had the nurse affix a little plastic bag to her bottom to catch her urine for analysis. Unfortunately, we very promptly forgot all about the bag and sat her in the high chair an hour later and were stunned and horrified to watch FLOODS of liquid come cascading over the seat of the high chair onto the dining room carpet. The teensiest bit of urine that we were able to salvage from the bag never made it to doctor's office because by then we had also realized that the hard drive on our computer had crashed. Our brand new Mac. The one with all of our youth talks and schedules and ministry materials. And all the photos from our entire marriage and child raising years, very few of which are backed up. The computer that is alone our connection to the outside world - providing all access to email, Skype, blog (Kelly) and Steelers' scores (Richard). The computer upon which rested all our families' hopes for sharing - via video chat - some part of Christmas with our daughters. Richard raced to the Apple repair store only to be told that they were on holiday until Jan 5. They took a cursory peek at our hard drive, pronounced it "crashed", and warned that there was no promise that they would be able to salvage anything off of it. 

Christmas Eve witnessed the barely hoped for "amazing recovery"of little Bernadette. She woke up cool, smiling, playful and healthy. We all enjoyed a beautiful Christmas Eve (as long as no one counts the "discussion" Richard and I had at the dinner table about whether or not the best time to try to reinstall an infant carseat is 5 minutes after your wife has put Christmas Eve dinner on the table). Happily, we were able to sort out ultimately that the aforementioned time is decidedly not a good time for car seat adjustments of any sort and everyone returned to the appropriate festive holiday spirit. We went on to have a lovely evening of laying out presents and praying before the parish Creche. Richard was able to bike down to the beach and watch the sunset while I wrote out his card and cards for the girls. I'd love to post the stunning photos he took of the Christmas Eve sunset and the Christmas morning sunrise, but I'm on a borrowed computer at the moment and can't get any photos off our camera.

There is so much to say about Christmas day itself, but I think the most succinct summary will do nicely. The day began before dawn (as do Christmases in most homes with small children) with delight, joy and wonder....but, 4 chocolate novelties, 7 hours of nonstop excitement (in the summer heat), and 15 Gielens later, I found myself covered in vomit and holding a shaking, sobbing, incoherent Maria who barely even seemed aware that she had just thrown up all over Mama no less than five times. As always is the case when Maria is sick all over me, I marveled at a love that would actually feel honored about being vomited on. I don't mind at all that she has never thrown up anywhere else besides on me - I truly prefer that she chooses me over a heartless and germy toilet bowl. That must be true love. Or true insanity. One of those two.  But then my second thought was the awful realization that we were at Fr Michael Gielen's family's home and I am just finishing my 6th month of pregnancy and there are probably no spare maternity clothes laying around anywhere. Normally, being covered in vomit is a very VERY temporary arrangement, but I feared that I might be stuck in this awful state for the long haul. So I was extremely thankful for the Christmas graces of a fresh t-shirt and pair of shorts. We whisked Maria home, put her straight to bed and have had no upheavals of any sort since.    

Since then we have been flitting about New Zealand, trying to make the most of the next month of downtime. We went to our first Kiwi wedding and reception, held at our first Kiwi Cathedral, followed by our first visit to a Kiwi Zoo. All this took place in Cambridge and Hamilton (our first foray to the "other side" of the north island). We have a beachfront camping trip planned in the Coromandel (all the way at the top of the north island) and are also hoping to go way down to the bottom of the north island to see Wellington and Masterton. Our home will be a construction site as of tomorrow - the office is being expanded into the hallway outside our living room, which provides an added incentive to get out of town for a few days!

We wish everyone a holy and grace-filled 2011!  We'll post again when Little Buddy is returned (hopefully with all our photos and documents intact). If anyone knows of a patron saint of computers, now is the time for his or her intercession!