Wait…Wait…Don’t Tell Me

wwdtmEvery couple of months someone will stop and ask me if I work for National Public Radio. “Do you ever listen to Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me? At the end of the show they list off the names of their producers, and I’m sure I heard your name! Are you a closet radio host?!  Are you side-lining for NPR?!”

It happened again a few weeks ago, and the conversation went like this:

Beth!  Are you working for NPR now?

No.

Are you sure?  They said your name on the radio!

Yes, I’m sure.
I’m sure that I don’t work for NPR.
And I am certain that the person’s name you heard is not mine.

++++++++++++
Let’s pause here for a moment and talk about the basics of German pronunciation.  My last name is KNOBBE, and it’s really not as difficult to pronounce as it looks.

Most people (with the exception of customs agents in the Frankfort airport) assume that the letter K is silent, like Knock or Knife or Knob.  That would be logical, but it’s wrong.  As I often explain, “It’s a German thing.”  My last name begins with a hard-K sound, like Kitchen, Keys, Kettle, or Kite.

Better yet, think about how you would pronounce conniption fit (which is how I react when telemarketers call), or the word sour kraut where you pronounce both the K and the R.  Those first few letters are rolled together into one sound.

In recent decades, people ask if I’m related to Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi from Star Wars.  I claim that he is my third cousin twice removed.  (Some people actually believe me!)  I’ve found this to be the most helpful and entertaining synonym! Which is often met with a shower of movie quotes:

It drives me crazy, but whatever it takes for people to remember and correctly pronounce my last name!
++++++++++++

So, why do people seem to think that I’m the web-guru for National Public Radio’s hit show “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me”?  If you listen to the credits at the end of the show, host Peter Sagal thanks their web-guru Beth.  And apparently her last name sounds just like mine!

“She” is not me.  Her name is Beth Novey.  I know this.  It took me months of random google-searches and scouring the NPR website to find her.  (Beth, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry.  Really, I’m not stalking you.  I’m just trying to set the record straight for my friends.)

I do not know the origins of Beth Novey’s last name, but I promise you that her name is pronounced exactly how it’s written: “no-vee”.  Which, in quick succession, sounds a lot like “no-bee” especially if you think the K in my last name is silent.

While I’m not sidelining at NPR, I am happy to report that there are many exciting developments on the job front.  Including two great offers to go back and teach high school again (thank you, but no…).  I am grateful and humbled by the people in my network who continue to call, check in, and forward my name for potential career opportunities.

I had a second-round job interview last week, and hope to have more details to share soon!  Unfortunately, it is not with National Public Radio.  Although, maybe the “Wait, Wait” team would like to invite me onto the show to play “Not My Job” and have me answer questions about what it’s like to be a Web Guru!

Believe it or not, my soon-to-be new employer has a lot in common with NPR – an amazing, national, non-profit organization, located on the east coast…

Wait …. Wait … Don’t Tell Me …

Stay tuned for more updates coming soon!

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Callings Are Vocational and Locational

kids-vocation

I have a job interview tomorrow.  I could certainly use all of your prayers and positive thoughts!  You can scroll to the bottom for a career update, or keep reading for some additional reflections.

One of my first networking dates last summer was with my friend Andy.  We ran into each other at a mutual friend’s ordination, and we agreed to meet sometime after graduation.  Of course, neither of us knew that the week after graduation would find me searching for a new job!

It was quite fortuitous though, as Andy had recently made a significant and successful career transition.  On top of that, Andy is a compassionate listener, we share interests in both business and ministry, and he was full of great advice.

Andy’s best advice that evening was this: “Callings are vocational and locational.”

I’ve thought about this many times as I discern what’s next, especially when well-meaning friends send me job postings that would require me to relocate half way across the country!  I’ve received job postings from New York to Detroit to Southern California.  I am so grateful to everyone for thinking of me!

The reality though is that I have no desire to leave Chicago.  I’ve lived here for almost 20 years.  All of my closest friends are here, my church community(ies) are here, and I have a strong professional network in this area.  If I’m going to work regionally or nationally, Chicago is a great place to be located.  God continues to do amazing work through my life and relationships in this place.  It would take a pretty incredible opportunity for me to leave.

So, Andy’s little truism has been a great source of reflection as I’ve considered each opportunity that has crossed my path.

Callings are Vocational
The word vocation comes from the Latin ‘vocare’ to call – God calls upon our gifts, our skills, our passions.  God knows our life experience and our personalities.  God taps into our deepest desires, those things which bring us great joy and are life-giving to others.

My year at Amate House – teaching math at an all-girls’ high school in Chicago – was a vocational call.  It answered my passion for service, my propensity for numbers, my knack for teaching, and my desire to make a difference in the lives of young women through education.

It also took place in a very specific location, and East Humboldt Park looks very different today than it did 20 summers ago!

Callings are Locational
Similarly, God invites us to use our gifts in a particular place, with a particular group of people, and within certain geographical boundaries.  In other words, God is not random.  God uses us where we are.

Each year when I travel with students to Nicaragua, we have dinner with Fabretto’s president Kevin Marinacci.  Kevin spent a year in Nicaragua immediately following college.  One year turned into two, then two into three, and the rest is history!  Kevin has given his life to the people of Nicaragua for over 25 years.  And yet Kevin is the first one to tell our students, “You can serve anywhere!”  Whether it is Nicaragua or South Africa or the south side of Chicago.  The location is not nearly as important as responding to the call.  There will always be people in need, God simply asks us to respond wherever we are.

As I consider whether my next move is a vocational or locational call, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the things that give me life and spark renewed energy in me.  What about my vocation and location have always been true?  What “more” can I do for God either by staying here or risking something new?  Freedom is essential – an openness to God’s invitation and the willingness to discern without placing limits on God.

Here are some of the many things that have caught my attention:

I have a pilgrim’s heart and missionary feet.  Chicago has always been “mission territory” ever since I came here 20 years ago.   And yet, I now own a home in the city, my friends are here, I’ve put down roots.  In the midst of the job search, a colleague commented, “Beth, people around the Archdiocese know you.”  Chicago is clearly a locational call.

Meanwhile, another professional acquaintance asked, “Have you thought about being a missionary?”  I presume he meant becoming a missionary and moving to another country.  I replied, “I should really pay attention to this.”  On the one hand, I hear myself saying, “I could never leave Chicago.”  And the next day, I find myself searching online for language immersion programs in Central America.  Perhaps there is another locational calling that awaits.

I remember a conversation I had with a favorite Scripture professor, Barbara Bowe, who encouraged me to heed Jesus’ words, “Put out into deep waters!” (Luke 5:4)  It was her way of saying, “Don’t be afraid to go far, let yourself be stretched, and keep learning!”  My wonderful mentor Fr. Ken Simpson often reflects on that great line from the sending of the disciples “Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals; and greet no one along the way.” (Luke 10:4)  Fr. Ken’s advice was always, “Travel light so you can travel far.”  This is true for geographical travel, as well as following our life’s call.

Last fall, I interviewed for a position at a local parish.  It was both vocational (using my gifts) and locational (in a specific place), but for many reasons, it was not the right opportunity at the right time.  It would have been a safe and easy assignment at a time when I knew God was calling me to something more.  It was one of those very early moments of saying “no” in order to say a deeper “yes”.

Finally, one of my favorite prayer poems is Mario Benedetti’s “Te Quiero” – a love letter of sorts to those who commit their lives to serving God and God’s people.  I am often moved to tears by this stanza:

and for your open face
and your wanderer’s footstep
and your weeping for the world
because you are of the people I love you

I have an interview tomorrow.

It is an incredible job opportunity and a great career move!  I would be working for a Catholic organization for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration.  It would allow me to stay based in Chicago while making an impact on a much wider scale, and it aligns perfectly with my desire to live in greater solidarity with our brothers and sisters around the globe.

Furthermore, it feels like a calling – an invitation to become more authentically who I am.  It is both a vocational and a locational call.  I’m pretty sure this is where God is inviting me next.  Please pray for the clarity to hear the call and the courage to say yes.

I am so grateful for your prayers of support and presence on the journey!

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Saying No In Order to Say A Deeper Yes

girl-playing-snowBack in the Fall, a friend of mine ventured this guess, “I bet anything that come February, you’re going to have four job offers, and you’ll have to decide which ones to decline!”

While I was flattered by her words of encouragement, I was also feeling quite lost in the wide open ocean of unemployment.  I was reluctant to believe the truth of what she knew from her own experience.  I was swimming around all sorts of interesting opportunities, but I had no real sense of direction.  While she had the clarity and foresight to know that good things were indeed on the horizon!

Fast forward a few months.  It is a new year with new writing projects on my plate.  I’m taking Spanish classes, while still routinely searching for jobs and coordinating networking dates.  In the past month, I have withdrawn from two potential job opportunities, eliminated a third option, and I’m continuing to pursue an exciting fourth.  My discernment radar is running overtime these days trying to read the “signs” of what’s ahead!

I’m learning a lot from allowing certain doors to close, and I’m trusting that each “no” is paving the path to a deeper and more profound “yes”.  Here are 4 things I’ve learned:

1. The Heart of the Matter
I really enjoyed this segment from the “On Being” blog by Courtney Martin. She uses the image of pruning and describes of spiritual art of saying “no” as essential to our very survival.

“You say no so you can say yes. It’s sad in the way that all limitations are, but also liberating. You are human and finite and precious and fumbling. This is your one chance to spend your gifts, your attention, most importantly your love, on the things that matter most.”

Every “no” along the way has helped me clarify what my heart truly desires.  I see it most prominently in my writing – in each request for an informational interview, every cover letter, all the points on my resume, and even when I have to explain why I am not pursuing a particular lead.

For so long, all I could see were the pieces on the cutting room floor.  I had no clear sense of where I was headed, but I knew for certain what I did NOT want to do.  Finally, like a sculptor, I’m beginning to see a clearer picture of what my future is becoming.  And much of that clarity has come from clearing away what no longer fits, letting go of what no longer belongs, and chipping away to the core of who I am – who I have always been.

All four opportunities – each one a distinct role within different organizations – fuel my passion for service and social justice, feed my desire to do meaningful work, combine my background in business and ministry, and open great possibilities for making an impact in the Church and in our world.

As it says in that beautiful prayer often attributed to Oscar Romero, “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. It enables us to do something, and to do it very well.”

2. No to Fear = Yes to True Spiritual Freedom
One of my favorite discernment exercises is a simple pro/con list, usually scribbled on the back of a recycled envelope, and later elaborated in my journal.  Not long ago, a friend connected me to a job that initially looked so good on paper!  However, there were red flags during the informational interview; and as I made my pro/con list, things became very clear.

When it comes to listing pros and cons, it’s not about “tipping the scale” in one direction or another.  Rather, this exercise is really about paying attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit within.  My list revealed a lot about where I am free to respond to God’s call and where I am stuck in fear.

One of the items on my pro-list was, “I am certain I can do this job really well!”  I laughed!  One would hope that I would apply for a job that puts my skills to good use, right?!  So, what’s really behind that comment?

As I pondered my own pro-list entries about “being able to do the job”, I recognized my own fears.  I don’t like asking for help.  I hate not knowing the answer.  I seriously dislike the awkwardness of the learning curve and those first few months of “being a beginner” that comes with any new job.   While being good at one’s job is important, I quickly realized my own need to address that “fear of failure”.

Directly across, over on the con-list side, I wrote, “No clear opportunities for growth or advancement; pretty sure I would be bored after a year.”  I knew immediately that God was calling me to something “more”.

The pro-list gave me a lot of fruit for prayer and discernment.  As for a new job, the con-items were much more compelling.  It did not take me long to realize that this was going to be a great opportunity … for someone else.

3. The Temptation to Do … Anything!  
There is a part of me that is really itching to get back into full-time employment.  To be honest, as much as I love the flexibility of being at home, I’m ready to go back to work.  In between the job search and freelance writing, I have been very lucky to see my family and spend uninterrupted time with friends.

But over the past month, I’ve caught myself in the temptation to “do anything” even if it’s not related to my career goals.  Recently, I was very tempted to say “yes” to a company that would have given me a short-lived ego boost, just to see their logo next to my name on my Linked In account!

Pride is a subtle thing.  Pride gets the best of us when our self-worth is defined by our work, by a job title, how much money we make, by the status of people who surround us, and by measuring how much we can accomplish in any given day or week.  A healthy sense of pride is not a bad thing!  One of my friends is fond of saying, “It takes a certain amount of ego-strength just to get out of bed in the morning!”  We begin to slip into unhealthy, even sinful pride when we place our own needs and egos above everything else.

One of the most fundamental definitions of vocation comes from Fred Beuchner.  “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hungers meet.”  Our vocation in life rests at the intersection of our deepest desire and the world’s greatest needs.

I’ve spent plenty of time reflecting on my skills, passions, and strengths.  As the “heart of the matter” has become clear, I find myself paying more attention to the world’s deepest needs, hurts, and hungers. Where is the world in need of my gifts?  I’m ready to give my heart full-time to meaningful work again, but it also means waiting for the right place and position to open up!

4. Who Do I Want to Become?  
I have a very wise mentor who often asks provocative questions for which I do not have all the answers.  Recently, she asked me, “Who do you want to be at 55?  What do you want to be known for when you retire?”  This was not a frivolous exercise of dreaming big.  Rather, it was her lead in to say, “This next job needs to be the first step towards who you want to become.”

I thought about her advice when I said “no” to an entry level role that would have been perfect for me ten years ago.  Similarly, I’ve declined roles that might be ideal in the future when I want to slow down and think about retirement.

Sometimes we approach discernment as if all these potential opportunities and decisions exist someplace far off in the distance, beyond our reach.  There is great value in “death bed” discernment, which considers the question, “How do I want to be remembered when my life is complete?”

But discernment also invites us to recognize the things that are unfolding before our very eyes.  Lately, I’ve been pondering, “How am I responding to the ways God is already at work in my life?”  Or as Tim Muldoon says in his introduction to his on-line Lenten retreat, “I invite you to reflect on the work God is doing in you and for the world through you.”

My discernment has been a tenuous balance between what is unfolding here and now, and how that relates to who I might become 15, 20, 25 years from now.  We need to do both!

I don’t know that either my friend or I could have predicted that I’d have four great opportunities arise all during the month of February!  But as the month comes to a close tonight, I’m excited to report that there are some pretty exciting things unfolding for me!

As I wait for new information to be revealed, I trust that all of these moments of saying “no” were in fact a clear and faith-filled “yes” to something better that is yet to come!

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Confessions of a Novena Skeptic

MattPMy friend Matt (Rounding30) was recently diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma.  As far as cancer goes, this is by far the “best kind of cancer” one could have.  He has been assured by doctors and survivors that Hodgkins is curable.  He is in excellent health with no real symptoms (other than a big lump on his neck).  Still in the early stages, Matt has none the less reached out to friends far and wide asking for their prayers.  Matt specifically asked all of his friends to pray this nine day novena to St. Peregrine, the patron saint of cancer patients.  Today is Day 9 that I’ve been praying for Matt.

What’s a novena?  Basically, a novena is a series of prayers, usually recited for a prescribed number of days (typically 9) where we ask the saints – our great cloud of witnesses, those whom we know to be with God in heaven – to plead our cause on our behalf.  We ask the saints to pray with us and for us.

I used to be really suspicious of novenas.  To be honest, I still AM a little suspicious of novenas.  They seem a little too “hocus pocus” for me.  All too often I’ve seen novenas that are akin to email chain letters promising all your dreams come true if just you read these saccharine sweet words aloud and then forward them to exactly seven of your friends including the person who sent this to you.

Prayer isn’t magic.

Prayer always begins and ends with our relationship with God.  The purpose of prayer is not to change God’s mind.  Rather, we place ourselves before God in prayer in order that God can transform our hearts and draw us closer to Him.  After all, God already knows what is best for us.  God is God, and we are not.

For the last three weeks, Matt has gone public with his fears (and sighs of relief) over complicated medical procedures.  An accomplished journalist and natural story teller, his regular blog updates are not only a great way to keep friends informed, but perhaps a bit of therapy at the end of the day as well. He’s been incredibly forthcoming about the strength he finds in knowing that hundreds of people are lifting him up in prayer.  Honestly, Matt’s testimony could make even the greatest skeptic a firm believer in the power of prayer!

In some ways, asking the saints to pray for us is no different than putting a shout out via our favorite social media channel and receiving a rousing affirmation and promise of prayers from our friends.  Who doesn’t need a little help from their friends every once in a while?  Especially if that friend is also close friends with God!

Perhaps there are still a few novena skeptics out there who need a bit of convincing.  Well, despite my own disbelief, I know with great certainty that the communion of saints will plead our cause to God!  Here’s my living proof:

ST. THERESE OF LIXIEUX
therese-as-a-childSt. Therese’s mission was to make God loved!  She said, “After my death, I will let fall a shower of roses. I will spend my heaven doing good upon earth.”  This young woman once dreamed of becoming a great missionary and even hoped to die a martyr!  Sidelined by a long illness, she spent her days supporting the missions by her prayer.  St. Therese died from tuberculosis at age 24, and today she is considered one of the great patron saints of missionary causes.  (You can also watch this great story of her life here.)

Many of you know that I’ve been traveling to Nicaragua for over twelve years to volunteer with the Fabretto Children’s Foundation.  Before our very first campus ministry trip in 2006, I prayed this novena to St. Therese of Lisiuex.  Many people have reported receiving roses upon completion of a novena to St. Therese.  I was wary about the flowers and told myself that I was only asking Therese’s assistance for the sake of our mission.  I did not tell anyone about this, and on the last day of the novena, I happened to attend a luncheon.  Afterwards, someone stopped me and gave me one of the table centerpieces (filled with roses!) and said, “I thought you might like to have this.”  All these years later, those Nicaragua trips are still going strong, and that was not the first time St. Therese sent me flowers!

ST. FRANCIS XAVIER
XavierHaitiSt. Francis Xavier is another great patron saint of missionaries.  St. Francis Xavier was a Jesuit priest and one of the first followers of St. Ignatius of Loyola.  He was first sent as a missionary to India and later ministered to the people of Southeast Asia and Japan.  His right arm (the hand he used to bless and baptize converts) is preserved at Il Gesu Church in Rome, which I visited this past summer.  My fondness for praying with St. Francis Xavier was completely accidental yet quite providential!

Several years ago, we had to cancel our Nicaragua mission trip due to a conflict of dates.  At the same time, we were struggling to work out the details of a potential trip to Haiti instead.  During my summer retreat, I stumbled upon this novena to St. Francis Xavier.  Shortly after returning from retreat, some important logistical details began to fall into place.  Not only did we send mission groups to both Nicaragua AND Haiti that year, but the village where we stayed in Haiti had a church named St. Francis Xavier.  Coincidence?  I think not!

54-DAY NOVENA TO THE BLESSED MOTHER
Last spring, I went to visit my sister for a long weekend.  While I was there, I met a friend of my sister who told me two almost-unbelievable stories about praying a 54-day novena to the Blessed Mother.  This novena involves praying the rosary every day for 54 days. (No small feat for anyone in my humble opinion!)

mary-icon-bulgariaI had never met this woman before, and she had no idea of the personal situation in my life that was already unfolding.  I’d been anxious about some things at work, and I was uncertain about where to turn.  I shared very little of my story with her, but she did not hesitate to share her novena stories with me!

She warned me that the graces of this novena are quite unimaginable.  From her own experience, it was clear that God had answered her prayers in some utterly surprising ways.  God often gives us gifts we think we don’t need, yet she assured me, these are the kind of graces you will receive from this novena!

To be honest, I’ve never particularly enjoyed praying the rosary, and I could feel my novena skepticism kicking in!  I went online to do a little research about the 54-day novena, and I came across this commentary which confirmed my own sensibilities.  It reiterated what I have always ascribed to – that there is no “magic formula”.  This is not about saying all the right words, in the right order, at the exact time every day.  What is most important is that we give our hearts to God.  (And in this case, ask Mary to pray with us, too!)

RosaryBraceletIt’s funny, for someone who doesn’t “like” praying the rosary, I always keep a rosary in my purse!  (How’s that for superstitious hocus pocus?!)  I prayed the rosary on the airplane ride home that night and continued to do so for the next 53 days.  Even on the most hectic days, I would look forward to spending this time in prayer and experienced a tremendous amount of inner calm while I prayed.  I remember saying once, “God, if the only grace I receive from this novena is 20 minutes of peace a day, I will take it!”

In the midst of this novena, I learned that my position at work was being eliminated.

After the immediate shock wore off, the peace I experienced was almost exponential!  I haven’t shared this with many people, because it still seems absurd to me that someone could lose their job (a job that I loved dearly!) and experience this kind of consolation. Six months later, I’m still searching for full-time employment.  I’m also taking Spanish classes, doing some freelance writing, and considering a long-term volunteer project with our Nicaragua partners.  And I continue to experience a peace and a freedom that is beyond my understanding!

There is certainly no comparison between losing one’s job and acquiring a cancer diagnosis.  Although, I think there is a particular gravitas and emotional strain that uniquely results from either one.  Upon confirming the doctor’s initial suspicions, Matt posed this rhetorical question on his blog:

“Who gets a cancer diagnosis and spends the day feeling grateful?
This guy, apparently.”

Not unlike the affirmation I experienced after praying with St. Therese or St. Francis or the Blessed Mother – it’s called grace my friend! It is nothing less than God’s unabashed love for you – reminding you that you’re exactly where you are meant to be.  We aren’t always able to see God working in our lives in such obvious ways.  What a gift when it’s right there for us to see!  Time and time again, I’m reminded that faith is not about easy answers or magical solutions.  It is about trusting in the deeper mysteries of God.

A LESSON IN MIRACLES
Finally, while we’re on the subject, one important note….

I’m sure that many (if not all) of us have lost family members and other loved ones to cancer or other horrible diseases.  Good and faithful people die of cancer every day, even those whose friends and family never ceased praying for them!  God hears all of our prayers, even if God does not answer them in the ways we would want.

joan-of-arc2I have some dear friends who lost their teenage son to cancer several years ago.  Near the end of his life, it became clear that a “cure” was highly improbable.  Their family and friends continued to rally and pray for a miracle.  With great trust in God’s mercy, my friends affirmed what we believe as people of faith – we believe in the resurrection!  Death was not the end for Jesus, and it is not the end for us either!  My friends knew that long days of sadness and mourning awaited them, but they were never without hope – even in the face of death.

I was so impressed by what they shared on their blog, and I will try to summarize it here.  They said:  We know that many of you are praying for a miracle.  We are humbled by your prayers that our son would experience a physical cure.  Please keep those prayers coming!  But sometimes the greatest “miracle” is being able to catch a glimpse of the impossible work of God that remains hidden most of the time.  God can use the worst tragedy (cancer, brain tumors, even death!) to accomplish the miraculous: reconciling alienated family members, forging a bond between siblings, or inspiring renewed faith in those who have left the church or doubt the existence of God.  We are confident that a miracle awaits us, even if a cure for cancer does not!  (Inspired by their son’s courage, they continue to fight for a cure.)

I think about my friend Matt and the journey he has undertaken. Thanks to modern medicine, I have no doubt that he will experience a complete CURE to this unfortunate disease.  My hope is that his upcoming bout with chemo will be nothing more than a temporary inconvenience, and life can return to “normal” in a few short months.  Although, I suspect he will be forever changed by coming face to face with the reality of cancer, and I can already see his life transformed by the tremendous outpouring of love and support from his friends.

I know Matt to be a person of deep faith.  And I know that God is faithful to all who put their trust in Him. I have no doubt that we will soon be celebrating the life of a young man who is cancer free!  And I am confident that God will use this time in Matt’s life to accomplish the miraculous.

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Swallowing My Own Medicine

Sage advice for singles who have ever uttered the phrase, “My parish only cares about married couples and families.”
youngwomanpraying
I had to swallow a big dose of my own medicine today, and it didn’t taste very good.  It’s easy to dole out advice to other singles when life is more-or-less put together!  My life has basically been turned upside-down the past 6 months. The result of which has left me searching for a new spiritual home.  Needless to say, it’s been a bit of an adjustment.

Given the demographics of my northside Chicago neighborhood, it would be easy to find a church with a large percentage of single people – even if that meant a little longer commute to Mass on Sunday morning.  It would be even easier for me to continuously “shop around” – hopping from one church to the next, week after week, without ever making a commitment to one particular church community.  Consistency and accountability are important to me, so church-hopping was not an option.  I had a few basic criteria (good preaching, decent music), but more than anything I wanted to find a church community close to home.

So, for the time being, I’ve landed at a large family friendly neighborhood parish.  It’s a short drive (or a long walk) impeded only by multiple one-way streets.  There is a sense of community and diversity that I find incredibly attractive.  The pastor is outgoing and personable; he remembers names and goes out of his way to introduce people to one another.  It’s not perfect (no place is), but it is a place that I find myself drawn to week after week.

Lately, however, I have found myself repeating that often-voiced single person’s complaint:  My parish only cares about married couples and families.  I never imagined that I would use that phrase to describe my feelings about the church!

I have to admit though, there are a LOT of families at my new parish, and they are blessed with a very active religious education program and a large Catholic school.  As I look around the church on Sunday, I know that I am not the only single person.  Yet despite all that is good about this place, I regularly resist the urge to grab a red magic marker and cross off every announcement in the bulletin that is specifically designed for families and circle the one or two options that are available for singles.

It happened again today, and this time I cried.  I noticed an announcement about an upcoming church fundraiser at a local pub (with the pastor and school principal as guest bartenders, no less!).  Finally, a chance to meet people in a fun social setting!  I couldn’t wait to get home and put the date on my calendar.  Once at home, I opened the bulletin again and noticed a detail I hadn’t previously seen.  RSVPs are to be turned in to the school office, and the response form also requested “your child’s homeroom number”.

Immediately, it became clear to me that this was a social event for parents, and my heart sank.

Sure, I could email the contact person and ask if non-parents are welcome.  It would not be difficult for me walk an RSVP form over to the school office, and I could simply mark “N/A” in that spot inquiring about whether or not I have a child in the school.  Perhaps I’m being foolish for overthinking this, and maybe it’s clear to everyone else that this event is open to all parishoners.  But as a new-comer, it’s really not clear WHO is invited.

(And seriously, if it is open to everyone in the parish, then why do you need a homeroom number?!  Retired people don’t have a homeroom number … neither do single people, or young couples with babies, or couples without children, or families who choose to send their kids to public school, or older adults whose children have graduated! Argh!!! Sorry, end of rant.)

THE AH-HA MOMENT
PA280024What I’m realizing, for the first time, is that community is not automatic.  Showing up for Mass is not enough.  Meeting people takes a lot of work, and truly getting to know a person takes consistent effort.  Furthermore, the fruits of those labors are not immediate.  I’ve exchanged friendly good-morning greetings with dozens of people over the past 4 months.  But knowing names does not constitute community, and seeing the same person three weeks in a row does not make you friends.

The perfectionist in me, the part of me that hates being a beginner, quickly grows frustrated.  I keep telling myself that those with a vocation to the single life have a unique role to play in the church.  In theory, I believe this.  In reality, I’m struggling to know how to do this.  At one point, I even thought, “someone should really write a book about … oh, yea… this.”

So, it’s time to swallow some of my own medicine on the subject.

SAGE ADVICE FOR SINGLES IN A FAMILY FRIENDLY PARISH

Years ago, my wise older sister and her family moved to a new city, and she developed 3 simple criteria in their search for a new parish – prayer, participation, and presence.  I think the same criteria applies to singles looking to find their place in a family-friendly parish.

1. PRAYER: Is this a place where I can pray well and feel connected to God?  Do I experience God’s presence in the physical space, as well as during the liturgical celebration?

I have to remind myself that church is not about what I get out of it – this isn’t a concert! It’s not about “feeling good” when I leave.  The purpose of our communal prayer is to give glory and praise to God!  We praise God by our singing, by our active participation, by our attentive listening, by greeting one another with a sign of hospitality upon entering, by sharing with one another a sign of Christ’s peace, by receiving Christ reverently in the Eucharist.  We praise God in all these ways.

So, as a single person, how do I praise God when I am constantly distracted by the chatter of small children?

Well, I certainly have a much greater appreciation for family dynamics after spending time with my siblings and their kids!  I’ve been the doting aunt standing at the back of church with a two-year-old who cannot sit still.  And it’s given me a tremendous amount of compassion for parents who are raising their children in the church.

Perhaps my greatest gift as a single person is to welcome, acknowledge, and empower the presence of families – especially those for whom Sunday morning can be a struggle.

Last week, I was well aware of the family of four sitting behind me.  Yet, despite their fair share of squirming and parental hushing, these two grade-school aged youngsters belted out every single word of the Lord’s Prayer with tremendous gusto!  (I found it delightfully humorous, because they reminded me so much of my nephews!)  At the sign of peace, one parent politely apologized for their kids’ antics.  I don’t remember my response, but I’m sure it was something like, “You have a beautiful family, and I’m really glad you’re here!”

Finally, I have to admit that I much prefer extended periods of silent prayer – which is not always possible at a busy parish on Sunday morning.  So, I experiment with different mass times.  I take advantage of time spent at home reading the Sunday scriptures.  Being in a large city, I know the secret hiding places where I can find a quiet prayer space during the week.  Sunday morning liturgy isn’t about me (see comments above); it’s about “us” being the body of Christ together.  The more I attend to my need for quiet time and personal prayer, the better I am able to be joyfully present and appreciative of our entire church family on Sunday.

2. PARTICIPATION: Does the church welcome participation in the liturgy, especially from women, children, lay people, families, single people, young adults, new comers, etc.? Are there opportunities for fellowship, catechesis, faith-sharing, social justice programs, etc.?  Is this a place where I could see myself participating in some way? 

I gave a presentation for singles at a parish several years ago.  During the Q&A, a woman raised her hand and insisted “there is nothing here for singles.”  I was grateful that the Director of Faith Formation was in the room.  She quickly pointed out that most events were open to the entire parish and very few things were exclusively for couples.  Sometimes, it is really a matter of perception.

I find that I need to be brutally honest about what I notice.  As I glance through the Sunday bulletin, the options for families are quickly apparent – religious education for children, a monthly family mass, marriage retreats, a spotlight on one of the teachers.  Sometimes my bitterness makes me blind, and I miss what’s right there in front of me – a book club, bible study, women’s group, food pantry volunteers, garden club, music ministry, a pilgrimage, retreat programs, etc..  If you find yourself saying there is “nothing” here for singles, look again.  Or better yet, look for opportunities to create something for singles.

3. PRESENCE: Am I called from here to be the presence of Christ for others? Are there opportunities for outreach to the community, the poor, and the wider church? 

It’s tempting for me to look at my current situation and say, “I’m not getting anything out of this” and go someplace else.  But then, I know I would be missing out on everything this great multi-generational church has to teach me.  And to be honest, they would be missing out on what a generous single woman like me has to give!  Being new, I sometimes have to remind myself of the most basic things:

Show up!  Do something that requires no commitment other than to be present.  Donuts and coffee after mass is a great example.  It doesn’t get any easier than this!  Grab a cup of coffee, say hello to people, and trust that God is at work in bringing you together.  Building community takes time, but you have to take the first step.

Volunteer!  The possibilities are endless: the food pantry, the choir, bible study, visiting the homebound.  Meet people, ask their names, ask if they live in the area, and ask how long they’ve been members here.  In turn, share something about yourself and give people a chance to get to know YOU.

Remember, you belong here!  The body of Christ includes all of us!  That’s true for men, women, children, teens, families, single parents, widows, divorced, vowed religious, gay, straight, people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, the uber-pious, the biker gang members (yes, there was a tattooed motorcycle gang at church a few weeks ago!), believers, beginners, the hopeful, the doubtful, the lost and the found, all of us!

Each person brings a unique set of gifts, life experiences, ways of prayer … and single people in particular, at whatever age and stage in life, bring a unique vantage point.

WHY I’M STAYING HERE
I guess the primary reason I’m committed to staying here is because I can answer YES to those three questions.  Yes, I pray well there – it is a beautiful space, where I continue to feel drawn in.  Yes, I participate there – and I’m especially looking forward to the garden club convening again this spring!  Yes, I’m called forth to be Christ’s presence from there.

If you ask me where I experience the presence of Christ most profoundly these days, it’s at the dining room table (an altar of sorts?) of my best friends – where we have shared copious amounts of bread and wine, simple home-cooked meals, endless cups of coffee, and a lot of gelato!  My friends are endlessly exhausted with raising 3 kids under the age of three.  Their constant refrain is, “It really does take a village, and we’re so grateful that you’re part of ours….”

The “church” I experience in their home is messy, imperfect, filled with laughter, and sometimes interrupted by a toddler announcing she needs to use the potty.  My best friend’s willingness to listen, ask tough questions, and her ability to accept me for who I am is unsurpassed!  We don’t expect each other to be perfect, and we manage to bring out the best in each other even on our worst days.

The time I spend with my friends reminds me that the presence of Christ which I experience on Sunday in this beautiful, imperfect, holy place called “church” truly does prepare me for being and experiencing the presence of Christ in the world.

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Nicaragua 2014: Life Finds A Way

Thanks to everyone who supported our 2014 Nicaragua mission trip with your prayers, your words of encouragement, and your financial support.  We certainly could not have done it without you!  As they say in Nicaragua, “Life finds a way!”   My thank-you notes are finally hitting the post office this week.  In the meantime, here’s a little glimpse into what God had in store for us:

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FATHER FABRETTO:
We always make it a priority to be in Cusmapa for mass on Sunday morning.  Part of our commitment to solidarity is to pray with the community that we will serve and get to know throughout the week.  Fr. Fabretto is also buried in the church in Cusmapa. We pause at his grave site after mass knowing that our work is a continuation of the great mission he began here.
padres

A SUNDAY AFTERNOON HIKE:
The area around Cusmapa is known for its spectacular mountain vistas and breathtaking views.  Hiking through the area took us off the beaten path, under barbed wire fences, and through some pretty rough terrain.  It certainly gives you a greater appreciation for the effort it takes for kids to get to school each day!

hike

GRADUATION DAY!
Cesar and I met last year in the English class, and we’ve been keeping in touch ever since.  The day we arrived in Cusmapa happened to be Graduation Day for the secondary school!  I was honored to attend Cesar’s graduation celebration and meet his family.

Cesar1

FINALLY, TIME TO GET TO WORK!
This year’s work project was to create a sidewalk connecting the classroom buildings around the oratorio.  The new walkway will help with accessibility and will keep little feet out of the mud during the rainy season!  This project would not have been possible without the hard work and guidance of project engineer Javier and his assistant Felix!  Our fundraising efforts cover the necessary cost of supplies and labor.  Thanks again to everyone for your support!

WorkSite

PLAYGROUND GAMES:
We spent most of our afternoons with the kids!  It is pure joy to see our college students dump a box of Crayola markers and crayons onto an otherwise empty table. Simple classroom staples like pens, pencils, crayons, markers, and art supplies are often in short supply.  Outside, the kids teach us their version of popular play-ground games. It doesn’t take much to bring a smile to these faces!

kids

LOCAL SMALL BUSINESSES:
Learning about the local economy is always a highlight of our time in Cusmapa. We take time to visit small businesses where merchants make and sell jewelry, baskets, tortillas, and coffee! Visit the Fabretto shops online to purchase some for yourself! 

learn

NICARAGUA CULTURE AND HISTORY:
At the end of our trip, we always take a day to relax and enjoy a different side of Nicaragua.  Despite the economic poverty, Nicaragua actually has a growing tourism industry.  The old colonial city of Granada is a wonderful place to learn about Nicaraguan history, culture, and ecology.  We also spent a day at Lake Nicaragua observing the volcanoes and local wild life.

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GRACIAS!
From all of us to all of you …. thank-you!

team1

 

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