All posts by Deacon John McGinley

Deacon John McGinley is married with two grown daughters, and serves as a Permanent Deacon at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Starkville, MS. He has been active in high school youth and college campus ministry for around 30 years. Deacon John and his wife are currently leading the Catholic Campus Ministry at Mississippi State University. Deacon John is an avid mountain biker, runner, dog lover, and coffee snob.

Grieving as worship.

But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” — 1 Thes 4:13

A friend of mine, I’ll call her Grace, recently posted online describing a bout of profound grief. Grace’s mother passed away a few years ago and she still gets hit with moments of overwhelming grief. In this particular moment, she had had a dream about her mother — one of those dreams that feels very real. She woke up and, realizing that it was just a dream, sunk into a sadness that took her breath away. In her post, she blamed Satan for taunting her. Grace is a deeply convicted Christian who lives each day with the purpose of drawing closer to God. She has a passion for her faith that just leaves me in awe. In her post, she said that she felt that the more she strives to grow closer to God, the more she feels Satan goes after her. And this was just one more of his dirty tricks.

I think a lot about death. Not in a morbid or pessimistic way, I just think about the reality of it. I’ve felt for a long time that death is the single greatest challenge to our faith. We talk about it and even sing about it. We have all the sayings to make us feel better about it (“She’s in a better place!”, “Don’t you know there will be a party in Heaven when he gets there!”, “I can’t wait to walk on those streets of gold!”). The reality, though, is that most of us are terrified of dying, and we can’t wrap our heads, or hearts, around it when someone we love dies. We just don’t know what to do with it. Death is very much an inescapable part of our human experience.

Know this:  Death was not part of the original Plan. God didn’t want it this way. We did this. And we’re stuck with it.

But — and this is huge — death isn’t the end! Again, we know this and we say it out loud. But truly knowing it in the depth of our being… well, that’s probably the most difficult thing on Earth to do.

The Raising of Lazarus, Carl Bloch (1870)
The Raising of Lazarus, Carl Bloch (1870)

Something you should know about me — and you’ll see this the more you get to know me through my writing — is that I sometimes have an unconventional way of seeing things in the Gospels. Take, for example, the story of Lazarus. John 11:35 is such a familiar verse: “Jesus wept“. Every homily or sermon I’ve ever heard on this passage explains Jesus’ weeping as a moment where we see the humanity of Jesus: It’s in His grief for His friend that He is brought to tears.  Well, I just don’t buy it. If you read the passage leading up to it, you see Jesus, over and over, explaining that Lazarus isn’t gone for good, that this is all happening to show the glory of God — just wait! But the crowd, over and over, is convinced that this is the end for Lazarus — that he is… gone. And then, Jesus weeps. I think He weeps because He sees the profound stronghold death has on people. That they (we) are so deeply convinced that it is the absolute end. And not even He can change their minds. The crowd grieves without hope.

But, we, as St. Paul says, do “not grieve as others who have no hope.” Our grief acknowledges the loss, but, with faith, gives rise to hope. Years ago, I heard something beautiful about mourning. (I have searched for the source, but cannot find it. Perhaps the Holy Spirit has assimilated several ideas into this one in my head!) I will do my best to paraphrase it here:

When someone we love dies, something deep in our soul resonates that this is not how things were meant to be. We know, deep in the recesses of our being, that death was not supposed to be a part of life. We’re agitated by it. So much so, that we ache. But something else in our soul reminds us that death is not the end — that there is life beyond what we can see. And even more hopeful — we know that, one day, death will no longer be a part of it. Our longing for that day is such that we ache for that as well! And so, we grieve and mourn, knowing that this wasn’t part of the plan, and that one day it will be removed from our experience. And to the extent that we find that hope, when we mourn, we worship!

I called Grace and we talked for quite a while. I told her that I didn’t think Satan was taunting her. (I really don’t like to give him credit for anything that’s not his to take.) No, I believe that the closer Grace gets to God, the more deeply she feels the separation, the more she desires that day when all brokenness will be gone, the more she hates death and the distance it causes her to feel between her and her mother. To put it another way — she aches for God. I don’t think that’s a Satan thing — I think that’s a God thing!

So, perhaps you, too, find yourself feeling the deep loss of someone you love who has passed away.  Grieve! Let yourself mourn. But do so with hope! Hope that one day the original Plan will be restored! And know that your mourning is, in a very real sense, worship of the One who longs for us to live with Him in eternity!

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Image: PD-US

 

Lent is not about what you are doing for Lent

By now, you’ve probably been asked, “What are you doing for Lent?” And, whether you’re willing to share, you likely have an answer. You probably know what you did last year for Lent and may even be able to recall the most memorable or challenging thing you ever did for Lent. But what if the question were, “What is God doing for you this Lent?” I’m willing to bet that most of us never consider that question. For many of us, Lent is about what we’re doing – mostly what we’re “giving up”. Lent becomes a contest with ourself to see if we can make it the whole season without giving in. And we reward ourself by overindulging at Easter because we made it! When Lent is reduced to the acts of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving – with no other end in mind – then we really miss the whole point of Lent. We end up spending 40 days going through an exercise that amounts to … a 40-day exercise.

About three weeks ago, I seriously injured my arm. I was at work and was carrying some things when, suddenly, I felt a surge of electricity run through my arm and I dropped what I was carrying. I knew immediately that it was bad – bad enough to require surgery. I had damaged a major muscle and found myself broken in a way that I couldn’t fix. My wife picked me up from work and we headed straight to my doctor’s office. The next day and a half were spent seeing doctors, getting x-rays, pre-admitting for surgery, talking with insurance companies, and waiting. Thankfully, the surgeon was able to squeeze me in to his schedule just two days after the injury. I began that day well before daybreak, showered with surgical scrub, showed up right on time at the outpatient clinic, filled out even more paperwork, and signed the consent forms. In the end, though, none of what I did fixed me. Sure, I had to do lots of stuff, but I had to rely on the doctor to put me back together. My arm is now beginning to heal – not because I filled out some form, but because a skilled surgeon fixed what what was broken.

What we do for Lent is not the point of Lent. What God does is the point of Lent. We all find ourselves broken in a way that we can’t fix. It’s what we call the fallen human condition and none of us are exempt from it. We need to be healed and restored, but no matter what, we can’t do it by ourselves – we need God for that part. We have our part to do, but it will be Him who ultimately puts us back together. Lent is sort of like those two days before my injury and my surgery – we have to wake up (recognize that we’re broken!), clean up (fasting and confession!), show up (prayer!), and sign the consent form (give God permission to do what only He can do!).

The Last Supper, Master of Portillo (c. 1525)
The Last Supper, Master of Portillo (c. 1525)

In Luke’s Gospel, we read the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem during the time of Passover. He sends some of his disciples ahead to prepare a room for the meal (Luke 22:12). We all know the significance of that meal – it’s the one we call “the Last Supper”, the one we recall on Holy Thursday. It’s at that meal that Jesus institutes the Priesthood. It’s at that meal that He gives His command to serve, which He demonstrates by His own example of washing the feet of the disciples. The disciples that had been sent ahead were given an important job – prepare the room. They cleared a space, set the room, prepared a meal, and served it – but it was Jesus who did the real work!

We are often invited and allowed to play a role in God’s work – and often it is by preparing the room. We do this at Mass – we set flowers, light candles, sing songs, read Scripture, exchange a sign of peace, and so on. But Jesus does the real work! We set the space for Him to show up! In the end, it is not about what we do, but what HE does.

And so it is with Lent. Give something up for Lent – so that Jesus can fill up the space left empty through your fasting. Pray more during Lent – so that Jesus may transform your life. Give to the poor – so that Christ may meet you through them. Lent is about preparing room for Jesus to meet you in the deepest part of your heart, where He can heal and transform you. What you do for Lent matters only to the extent that it makes room for God to do the real work.

If you want this Lent to matter, look past the stuff you’re doing. Look at what God is doing. Don’t rush back to business as usual when we reach Easter – that’s likely when He is finally able to begin the real work once you’ve cleared some room for Him.

So, what is God doing for you this Lent?

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Images: PD-US