What I Wish My Church Knew (About My Divorce)

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November 7, 2008. Divorce finalized. That’s my anniversary now. And it’s a very lonely one marked by no one but me. Being part of church community after a divorce can be extremely hard and there are some things I wish I’d been able to say over the last seven years but could never quite find my voice. So these are the things I wish my church knew about my divorce.

I need you to believe me.

When I say that things were bad, I need you to know that what little I’m able to bring out words is a thousand times bigger and darker than what I can manage to express. When I come back to you after the divorce saying I need help to negotiate a way for myself and my children to be a part of the community because my ex has now decided to joined as well, I honestly need your help. It’s not a bid for your attention or some game to slam my ex. I don’t feel safe, whether that’s physically, emotionally, or spiritually doesn’t really matter. Church is meant to be a sanctuary, a safe place, and you are the one I’m trusting to help me find that space. I need practical, pragmatic solutions not platitudes or a lecture. I know it’s messy. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t need your help.

Sometimes I lie when I say I’m okay.

When you ask me how I am, look at me. Really look at me. See the circles under my eyes and the tear stains on my cheeks. Hear the strain in my voice. Because there are days when it’s just easier to say I’m okay than it is to explain why I’m not. I know you really don’t have the time after the service to listen about the umpteenth battle over child support or the way my kids have started talking to me the way their father used to or how much it hurts that the guy who I really enjoyed having coffee with will never call me again because dating a divorced woman with teenagers was more than he wanted to handle. I know you have a hundred other people to say hello to this morning so I’ll say I’m okay even when I’m not. And something as simple as hug or a reminder that you’re there if I need to talk goes a long, long way towards letting me know it’s okay to not be okay.

Just because I’m in pain doesn’t mean I’m bitter or unforgiving.

The pain of divorce doesn’t end when the ink is dry on the divorce decree. And that pain changes over time. But that doesn’t mean I’m bitter or unforgiving. I will celebrate a thousand little victories this year that you will never know about and I find great joy in those things that would be silly or mundane to anyone else. I will change my hair or wear that shade of nail polish or go out to dinner alone and it that will feel like I’ve conquered the whole world, because for me, I have. But you’ll never see that. You will see me flinch when you preach against divorce when we read Mark 10. You will see me cringe when you preach about marriage. You will see my tears when you preach about forgiveness. Yes, I am in pain. But that doesn’t mean I’m bitter. And forgiveness for me is everyday thing. Especially when, because of the kids, I still have to be in contact with the one who hurt me so deeply. Instead of assuming I need to let it go or to move on or that I’m resentful, ask me what hurts and then listen to my answer. Listen to what I don’t say and ask me about that too. I already have a lot of people who make assumptions about my life, so please, please don’t be another one.

I feel invisible.

I hear your sermons on marriage and against divorce. I hear your sermons about relationships, including the relationship with God and how you use a good marriage as your example. I feel left behind as I don’t know what that looks like and I don’t know that I ever will. I see happy couples renew their wedding vows during a service and it’s bittersweet for me. My marriage was real. It no longer exists, but it did once. I went into it with such huge hopes and dreams and when I took my vows, I meant them. Seeing couples who have stood the test of time gives me hope that such love is real and possible and I love that you hold them up and celebrate their love. But I wish the church that offers an annual service for all married couples to renew their vows would also hold an annual service of healing for those of us whose marriages imploded. Give me a litany of my defeats and my victories and let me celebrate that by the grace of God I have survived what I thought would destroy me. Acknowledge that I exist and that my situation is not so uncommon. I know a lifetime marriage is the ideal but show me that I’m not alone and that I still matter as much as I did when I was a married woman. Show my children that church is a place of healing for the broken times in life.

I am more than my grief.

I have been divorced now seven years and one day. I lost everything in my divorce, far more than mere property. I came away with my confidence destroyed, my reputation under attack and my dignity in shreds. But I have worked through my grief. I spent time in your support groups and made retreats with other divorced people. I have spent time in therapy and remain in spiritual direction. I have learned who my friends are and sadly, who they are not. I’ve grown and changed and I’m in a different place now. I’m looking for new ways to connect with people. I want room to grow and a channel for my pain. Give me a space to be constructive, beyond working with other divorced people. See that I am more than my divorce. Let my experiences help to improve your pre-marriage preparation program or your marriage ministry or both. I know where I made my mistakes. Let me share that wisdom. Ask me how my divorce has changed my relationship with God. My answers might surprise or inspire you.

These are only some of the things I wish my church knew. What little I’m able to bring out words is a thousand times bigger and darker than what I can manage to express. It’s a question no one has ever asked me but it’s an answer that needs to be heard. We’re all so many different people in so many different situations in life, sitting in your pews, seeking so many different things and in so many different ways. Maybe it would help if you would ask the question: What do you wish your church knew? And then, without judgment, listen to the answers.

Reading The Synod

Reading The Synod

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I will not tweet. I will not tweet. I will not tweet…

Yesterday was a long day. I did everything to stay off of Twitter and out of the debates that flared up as soon as the text of the Pope’s closing remarks to the Synod on the Family were released. Okay so I did maybe fire off a single tweet that the “great Catholic leaders” described as “shaping Church teachings” by one conservative Catholic Twitter user actually translated to “men, ordained or not” and pointing out that, ‘Faithful women religious were not given a vote.”

And then I went off and baked a batch of cookies. And then I did the dishes and cleaned the kitchen. And then I made a big corned beef dinner which would’ve fed half the neighbors. And then I did the dishes and cleaned the kitchen again. And then I updated my laptop to Windows 10 so I couldn’t use it until the update finished hours later.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading. I read the Pope’s closing statement. He spoke of those who would indoctrinate dead stones to be hurled at others and of those who would hide behind Church teaching in order to judge with superiority. Even as far removed as I am from the Church, I love Pope Francis. I love that he calls out the superiority, superficiality, pomposity, and arrogance of the same men who elected him.

FullSizeRenderI’m still waiting for the English translation of the full 94 paragraphs of the final document from the Synod. But I have read the paragraphs that have been made available thus far. The language on divorce, remarriage and the internal forum will garner most of the attention from the press, followed closely by the language on LGBT persons and their families. None of the above are really a big change. Although the internal forum has long been a close-kept Church secret, it really shouldn’t be quite so hush-hush. I think it’s about time to publicly answer the question of whether the Church trusts her priests to form consciences and guide individual discernment or if it does not. And if it does not, why not?

The paragraph that broke my heart was Paragraph 27, the paragraph that dealt with women. Once again the men at the top have reiterated that, above all, the value of woman lies in her role as a mother. The language which could have focused on the violence against women as a violation of their inherent dignity as beloved daughters of God was instead focused on threats to motherhood particularly through forced sterilization or forced abortions. The Church fathers irresponsibly squandered a tremendous public opportunity to speak out against the physical, emotional, and verbal abuse millions of women face every single day. Many women suffer at the hands of the very men who have sworn to love, honor and cherish them. Until death do us part for many is a not a promise of a long and fruitful marriage but rather a sincere hope that the death will come quickly and thereby end their suffering. But there are also many woman and girls who will suffer violence and abuse outside of marriage. These millions of women deserved more than a single line buried in a paragraph focused mainly on violence as a threat to the role of motherhood.

I supposed it could be said that I can’t blame the Church fathers for their lack of insight. They are, after all, men surrounded only by men, taking advice almost exclusively from men. But I can, and soundly do, blame them for choosing to remain ignorant. Non-ordained religious brothers had voting rights at the Synod. Their status within the Church is that of layman. Or a laywoman. Or a religious sister. But no woman was allowed to cast a vote. Not one. The refusal to allow women to fully participate in these discussions and the drafting of these documents is also a refusal to admit to the pastoral realities that exist in the lives of women in the Church.

The Church refuses to ordain women. While I may vehemently disagree with their scriptural interpretations, they have their traditions and doctrines that reinforce their reasons for this refusal. But what, exactly, are the reasons why the Church refuses to hear from women at all? How does one legitimately claim the title of Father but ignore the cries of their daughters?

The People-Watching of a Catholic Cynic

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The past few weeks have been heaven for those of us who are shameless people-watchers. I’m not sure what was more interesting: watching Catholics watching the Pope, watching non-Catholics watching the Pope, or watching Catholics watching non-Catholics watching the Pope. A personal favorite was the Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. We watched half of it in the local diner. Everyone there was exceptionally quiet, watching and listening to the Mass. We got home in time to watch the end of it. After the Mass was over, as the Pope making his way through the crowd, the commentator stated, “We heard the Pope at the end of Mass say ‘Go in peace.’ Very much keeping with his message throughout this visit…”

My younger son laughed. “Obviously he’s not a Catholic. They say that at every Mass. That’s Jesus’ message not the Pope’s.”

And as if all that wasn’t enough fun to watch, now that Pope Francis is back in Rome, we have the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. I’m curious to see what will come out of it all. So much talk about divorce, remarriage and annulments certainly pricks up my ears. My longtime Twitter nemesis, Fr. Paul is in Rome observing the Synod from the outside. I asked him if he knew if the topic of domestic abuse was on the agenda for discussion. He hadn’t seen anything at that point and at his suggestion, I read through the Instrumentum Laboris (working document of the synod) and found not a single mention.

***sigh***  Why am I not surprised that a room full of celibate men wouldn’t even think to include an issue that effects 1 in 4 women, 1 in 7 men, and certainly impacts the entire family. I have searched periodically for the last eight years and I have yet to find any official Vatican document of any sort that deals with violence in the home. Plenty to say about what is or is not acceptable in the bedroom but abuse of a spouse is never mentioned.

Yes, I know, I’m a cynic. And yes, I know, the Church in no way condones violence. But if you’re going to gather to discuss the pastoral issues facing families, particularly divorce and remarriage, don’t you think it might be common sense to discuss WHY people get divorced in the first place? Domestic abuse is certainly high on the list of reasons.

Then the bombshell hit. Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Gatineau, Quebec proposed discussion of ordaining women the diaconate. I almost dropped my tea when a friend texted me that newsflash. Finally! Someone with a little authority making the same argument I’ve been making for the last few years. Now the people-watching gets really interesting. The traditionalists immediately started howling that women can “just go be nuns” and “they don’t need to priests to serve”, even though the discussion was clearly about the diaconate not the presbyeriate. The moderates hemmed and hawed and clucked their tongues while making the usual patronizing, non-committal statements about the need for the “feminine genius” and “expanded roles for women”, neither of which are ever defined. Then there are the liberals, who went wild with hope that there was finally a real discussion of women having a role in liturgical ministry and some sort of real voice in the Church.

From the cynical outsider perspective, I see a whole lot of posturing. And it makes me wonder which message these men are keeping to: their own or that of Jesus. Because Jesus was certainly talking to the women about their situations rather than telling them that this is how it was going to be. Jesus addressed the pastoral realities of the people he met, not just the theological ideal. It seems like the Vatican forgot that centuries ago and is too entrenched in its own traditions to admit that it may need a course correction. The Catholic Church is missing half the of the voices and half of the reality. The theologically ideal Catholic woman is a either nun or married (once, forever) with children. That is not the pastoral reality. And let’s not forget that a woman’s perspective on the Gospel is not heard from the pulpit on any Sunday, ever.

Finally, I ventured into the online debate on women’s ordination and the anger, hostility, insecurity and general nastiness of some of the Catholics I encountered was really sad to see. The Vatican has firmly established in the laity, and a majority of the clergy, an accept-everything-or-get-out mentality.  I suppose that seemed wise in light of the Reformation, but with the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approaching, I have to wonder if that mentality isn’t going to eventually suffocate the Catholic Church.

Life Reclaimed

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The first time I sat down with my therapist, about a week before I filed for a divorce, he asked me what I wanted. I wanted to build a new life for myself and my boys, away from the abuse, the constant anxiety, and the fear that we had lived with for so long. What that looked like, I didn’t know yet. So many people seemed to think that once the ink dried on the divorce agreement, life would magically start over fresh and new, full of promise and hope. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me I could meet someone new and do anything I wanted now, I could pay my way through school clear through to a doctorate.

That whole ‘clean slate’ thing? Hate to tell you this but it’s a myth. There is no clean slate; just a huge pile of junk from my imploded life. Some of it was useful and some wasn’t. Some of it needed to be repaired while some was too damaged to be salvaged. An awful lot of it was obliterated and pulverized into a thick dust that covered everything else. It has taken a number of years for that dust to settle and to be able to pick out what is salvageable.

Going back to college and working on rebuilding the outside aspects of my life may appear to be such a huge step. Actually, that has been the easiest thing I’ve ever done but I couldn’t do it until I knew what it was to feel safe in my own skin. It’s the inside stuff that has been brutally hard and only a few people have any real understanding of exactly how hard. That work is still ongoing and probably will be for quite some time. It took time to reestablish my own interior space and to learn who to let in, who to keep out, and most importantly that it is necessary to cut ties with toxic people and places.

My dating church adventures have been part of that cutting of ties. Learning to accept that it’s okay to sort through this pile of stuff that was handed to me as part of the religion I was raised with has been pretty much the same process as going through the divorce. It is a process that been further complicated by the fact that I am still bound by my promises to raise my boys as Catholic. My old parish was no longer a healthy place to be and bringing them to the Lutheran church is not an option as my questions are not their questions.

These last few weeks, as we’ve settled into a new Catholic parish, I’ve found a great deal of peace. I can continue to raise my boys in the faith away from the drama and toxicity I’d tolerated for too long. I met with the pastor there this past week and explained the back story of our exodus from the old parish. I was assured that this will be a safe place that will wrap around me and the boys. When I mentioned my issues with the Catholic Church and my Lutheran leanings, I was met with a shrug. “Eh, my best friend is a Lutheran. I figure God knows what He’s doing. Jesus told us in John 10:16 ‘I have other sheep not in this fold…they will all become one flock.’  So it’s all good and know that my door is always open for you.”

After I left his office, I did a little reading on the parish itself. (Confession: I’m a shameless history geek and the history of churches is especially interesting to me.) The church I have settled into was built with bricks reclaimed from the demolition of a slum. Those very bricks around me have their own history of a life imploded and rebuilt into something greater and more beautiful. What better place could there be for starting to build something new?

Love Changes Everything

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Yesterday, I ran into an old acquaintance at a church picnic. It was woman I got to know both in depth and yet not at all over the course of a few years in the grossly under-appreciated sacred space known as the Church Parking Lot. I was a year or so out of a divorce that I had initiated. She was at the beginning of one she never wanted. How something so intensely personal came up in the normally polite, reserved ‘hi’s and ‘bye’s over the holy water, I don’t know but somehow it did. I lost count of all the times we stayed talking as the parking lot emptied out around us. I know plenty about her divorce but at the same time, I know almost nothing about her. It was kind of sad in a way, as if that whole experience had defined her entirely.

As for me it’s odd to look back now and recognize that there actually was a time when I went to Mass every day. That was abruptly cut in half when my boys transitioned into public school and I could no longer make 8:00 Mass. Every day became Tuesdays, Thursday and Saturdays. It did not go unnoticed. After Mom’s fall, surgery and months of physical therapy, daily Mass became almost impossible. My less-frequent attendance quickly became a favorite conversation starter, as in, “Where have you been?” or “Why haven’t you been here?” More and more I felt pulled to spend time alone at the beach, away from the observations, opinions, and commentary of the daily Mass crew. That was a few years ago and so much has changed, none of which comes up for casual conversation.

So when I ran into this lady at the church picnic after not talking to her for a few years, I expected the usual, ‘Nice to see you, how have you been, boys are getting so big…’ sort of conversation. Instead, she instantly began to divulge her life’s difficulties as if we’d just parted ways a few days ago. The whole time she was talking, she was staring at my face like she wasn’t quite sure what to make of me. Rather abruptly, she stopped talking, looked me head-to-toe, backed off a half-step and then asked, “What did you do?”

I have to say I was a bit taken aback. “Do?”

“Yeah, you just… look… so… different. You look like ten years younger… you’re just… just… absolutely radiant.” As she sort of stammered, she looked like she couldn’t decide if she wanted to reach out to touch me to make sure I was real or if she wanted to back away slowly.

The last few years, I’d felt like everything was constantly changing. What had I done? Where to even start? Especially with someone whom I barely know at a picnic in the parking lot of a church I’m barely connected to anymore?

She must’ve sensed my hesitation. Before I could formulate a reasonable answer, she gushed, “You’ve lost ten pounds. You look so young and vibrant. You look like a woman in love.”

Ah, yes. Weight. Always a safe topic amongst women. “Actually I’ve gained about ten pounds but I do feel really good. My RA has been in remission and I picked up weight almost instantly when I stopped my meds…”

“No. No” she cut me off, “It’s not that…” she insisted. She looked me up and down again. I was starting to feel like an alien species by this point. Not at all pleased with my reticence, she turned to my mom. “What has she been up to? Look at her. Her whole face is different… her eyes…”

It should be noted at this point that Mom goes to the church picnic for one reason and one reason only: undying loyalty to the pastor. If he says come to the picnic, she comes to picnic. Socializing in-depth with people she barely knows is about as much fun for her as hugging a pissed off porcupine. She shot me one of her Don’t-you-dare-make-me-share looks.

“Well I did go to back to school and I’m thoroughly enjoying myself…”

Even that didn’t seem to satisfy her but it did get Mom off the hook. Soon enough I found a good excuse to exit stage right.

I spent most of last night and a good chunk of this morning trying to wrap my head around that conversation. In my own mind, I’m just the same old me I’ve always been. Life unfolds a minute at a time and I guess sometimes I don’t realize how much my life has changed until I’m in a situation where I’m faced with someone who still holds on to an outdated image of me. But radiant? Ten years younger? How can that be? Did she miss the new white streaks in my hair?

Well, I suppose if I’m honest, everything around me right now feels fresh and new in a way I’ve never known. Life is good. I’m happier now than I’ve been in an incredibly long time. God and I are on better terms than we’ve ever been. So yeah, I guess she wasn’t all that far off. I am a woman who knows she is loved. Apparently that shows. Who knew?

Dating Church

It’s been almost a year since reality set in that I had moved beyond the point of Unhappy with the Catholic Church. Over the past year, I’ve been through a grieving process that felt – okay, feels – all too familiar. The same storm of emotions that swept through me during my divorce returned and with a greater force than I would’ve expected. This was different. It’s not like I had to go to court or deal with the lawyers. There was no case to made as things were divvied up. No other party to be offended. The great Roman Catholic Church will hardly notice the departure of one broke divorced woman. So why was this so freaking hard to face?

Because being Catholic was who I was. Or more precisely, who I thought I was. It’s not. It was a part of who I was but it was only a part. And as I’ve grown and changed over the years, that part of me has died.

That realization scared the shit out of me.

It was far easier during the divorce to deal with the fact that the marriage had died, probably before it ever really drew breath. But this was different. I had lived out of this part of me for 40 years. Now it was dead.

It was time to start over. From nothing. But how?

For the first few months, I pretty much panicked. For many years, I had associated God so closely with church that separating the two was – and still is – a painstaking process.

Gradually, the panic started to subside somewhat and a lot of the subsequent conversations God and I have had over the past nine months or so boil down to one simple exchange.

“Now what?”

“Trust me.”

“Really? Again? I just did that yesterday?”

“Yes really. Again.”

I really hate it when He says that.

Trust and I parted ways a long time ago. Too much Being and not enough Doing for my taste. Too much outside my control and way, way outside my comfort zone.

About a year after my divorce, I met a man and we dated rather amicably for a few weeks. But honestly, I wasn’t ready to be in a relationship. Forget about not being close to ready, I couldn’t even see ready with a high-powered telescope. I still needed time and space to heal. I quickly figured out the hard way that I couldn’t be in a healthy relationship if I didn’t even know who I was. I couldn’t trust anybody yet because I couldn’t trust myself.

My relationship with church is even more complicated. I need to know who I am. I need to know who God is. I need to know where God and I stand and be able to trust that space before introducing any church community into that equation. My time spent alone with God on Cape Cod in March gave me the solid footing I needed to take another step. I have recently started to visit other churches.

Am I going to join a new church and start bringing my kids there? No. Not in the near future. Why? Because I’m not ready to go that far. That’s too big of a commitment right now.

Church and I are honestly not even dating yet. We’re more at the Let’s-Have-Coffee-And-See-If-We-Get-Along Stage.

As for my ties to the Catholic Church, that relationship, much like my divorce, is insanely complicated because of my boys. They’ve been raised in the Catholic Church and in this world I know they’ll need strong roots to thrive. So for now, I bring them to Mass and teach them what I can. I do from time to time point out where the Catholic Church may need to rethink its alignment to the teachings of Christ, but only so that they learn enough to think for themselves.

As for dating, I made The List of all the things I need and want in a man and handed it over. Okay so I handed it over with with the very strong suggestion that if He wants a man in my life, He’ll have to put him in front of me and smack me upside the head so I notice.

As for church, we’re still working on finalizing The List and I suspect that may take awhile.

God and I are just moving this through a little at a time. There’s been a whole lot of ‘Trust me’ going on and that’s getting to be an okay thing for me to do on a regular basis.

And yeah, I still hate it when He says, “Trust me.”

And yeah, I still let Him know about it.

Will You Hear?

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It started with a blog post entitled ‘Ringing Hollow’, which in a moment of sheer brazenness, I not only tweeted the link to but also tagged the Pope himself. The tweet lead to a response from some who saw it. The response lead to a conversation. And then in that one conversation, a nun told me she was seeking new ways to engage the unchurched and unbelievers. It was worded, to my sensitive eyes, as though they were one and the same. I replied with the tweet that started some incredible new connections:

Many unchurched strongly believe in God but not in the churches. Churches have become more about moral codes than love & mercy.

Since that made it’s way around the Twitterverse, I’ve found myself in some amazing conversations with Catholic priests, sisters, deacons and lay ministers and some of other Christian denominations as well. And I keep thinking to myself, these are the ones who should be running the churches. These are the ones who don’t dismiss what they don’t understand. They ask. They listen. I mean they really listen. And while we may not always agree in the end, we have found much common ground. I walk away feeling heard. They walk away understanding some of the issues facing those abandoning the pews. I can’t tell you how much it has eased my pain just to know someone cares enough to even make the effort to try to understand.

But sadly they’re not all like that and I have a few words for those who have only harsh admonitions for ones like me. For just five minutes, for the love of God, please just hear me. After that, go ahead and argue. Call me what you will. Disregard me if you dare. But make sure you’ve actually heard me. Not because I alone matter much, but because I am the voice of many who will never dare to speak up. They will drift quietly away and leave you wondering why your churches are empty.

An Open Letter To The Church:

You speak much but listen little. How can hear me if you don’t listen?
You say we have enough commonality in Jesus. On that I agree.
But if you really believe that, why must I be a cookie cutter of you?
His house is quite big enough for all of us.
I say I feel frustrated by the inconsistency between the total acceptance and love that Jesus taught and what has been cherry-picked to be crafted into strongly enforced laws.
You tell me I don’t see the big picture.
I say divorced people need to be openly welcomed, that not all marriages are sacramental and some needed to end. To find honest sacramental love after a divorce would be an incredible blessing but it shouldn’t be a choice between church and spouse.
You tell me you storm heaven to protect the institution of marriage.
I wonder if you know Jesus unlocked the gates of heaven 2000 years ago and hears my whispers just as much as He hears your racket.
I wonder too if you have forgotten that marriage is more than an institution. It is about very real human beings, and some of them happen to be gay.
I say as a woman I feel sidelined and rejected.
You tell me to go read books written by men that explain my place.
I say women should be ordained, not to be equals to men but to bring balance to them.
You call me a heretic before I can finish my sentence.
I say I feel hurt.
You say go elsewhere.
I say I’ll go elsewhere.
You say I’m sulking.
You say things are changing.
But I no longer listen to what you say.
Did you ever stop to think that maybe I didn’t want to go? That more than anything I only wanted to be accepted, loved and heard.
So now I’ll say this, and hope that you hear me:

I no longer feel safe or nurtured in that which was home. My wounds are too deep. I need time alone with the only One who can heal them. What lays beyond that, I don’t know. Please don’t say I’ve lost my way because I didn’t take your road home. My Shepherd knows the path He’s asked me to walk. You may not recognize it. You don’t have to. I do and little by little He shows me. Truly, it’s a blessing that He shows me so little. If I saw the whole road, I’d likely run screaming back into my assigned pew, duck my head and beg Him to choose someone else.

And if you don’t care what a nobody troublemaker like me has to say, that’s okay. But maybe listen to Fr. Mark who so wisely said,
‘People get lost when love gets trumped.’