Faith or Hell


About five years ago, God asked something dramatic of me. I had finally finished my book (Slavery and Sin). The final edits and the index were off to the publisher and I’d filed my notes away in deep storage. My slate was clean and I was ready to start a brand new book project. But every time I started to plan and to write, I felt an unexpected, enormous, overwhelming “NO!”

I had a spiritual director at the time, and the best way I found to describe the feeling to her was that the act of starting another academic book project felt like contemplating an act of adultery. What had once been my work suddenly felt like sin. God doesn’t tend to speak to me in sentences, but if I had to put what I heard in my heart from Him at that time into sentence form it would be something like, “If you do this, you will do so purely out of your own will, without Me. I am elsewhere for you. Follow Me. Now.”

So I stopped trying to write, and I asked God where I was supposed to go. I got two answers, clear as could be. One was that I would find my own deepest purpose and my salvation in raising my children. This offended me a little, but I got over it. The other was that when I did write again, and that would not be right away, I was to write in a way that served His Church.

I was an assistant professor, on the tenure track, with tenure in sight. Quitting felt like a radical thing to do, but I also felt an enormous sense of divine consolation. And then, as if I needed a nudge or a sign, the kids’ babysitter up and resigned, completely out of the blue. So I quit. That summer with the kids was blissful. I knew that I was where I should be and I was grateful to be there.

I remember thinking that I finally understood what scripture means by the “pearl of great price.” My worth was no longer in what I accomplished, in being “Dr. Oshatz,” or in what others thought of me. I belonged to God and I was His delighted, beloved daughter. For the first time in my life, I put my entire worth in the love of Christ. I wanted and needed nothing else than to live in that love all of my days.

And then, because this is how life goes, I was tempted. Or, rather, I subjected myself to temptation. Like Lot’s wife, I looked back. What would been my dream job just a few months before appeared, the job I had been waiting for and praying for years, ever since I was writing my dissertation. I reasoned that I was highly unlikely to get the job (even my dissertation advisor said I didn’t have a chance), so the best way to avoid regret would be to apply. That way, the decision wouldn’t be mine. Nice try, but God wasn’t going to let me off that easy. I got the job.

At the very moment that I got that offer, every bit of consolation left me. I couldn’t find God, couldn’t feel His Presence, and couldn’t understand what the heck all of that blessedness and calling had been about. This was my dream job, a prestigious position in a lovely town where my husband could work, just down the road from my aging mother and my sisters and my family land—what kind of idiot would I have to be not to take it? Not taking it would mean letting down my mother, my sisters, and my mentors. I’d thought that my radical yes was quitting my other job, but it wasn’t. I’d thought I’d already made my leap of faith and was safe in God’s country, hidden away from doubt and fear, but I’d been wrong. Now I was looking at a real leap of faith. I couldn’t see or feel the other side, and this jump made no sense to anyone around me. My spiritual director had just moved to Indiana.

I scoured my Bible for proof that God wouldn’t abandon me after calling me to do something. I hung on every word of my kids’ Veggie Tales videos about Moses, Joshua, and Gideon. I discovered that God has a record of testing faith by giving people who want to follow Him laughably ridiculous instructions. I was in good company.

I turned down the job. I made a serious of agonizing phone calls, disappointing a long list of people whose respect and love I craved.

I’d like to say that at that moment, the consolation returned, God caught me in His arms, and I entered into His peace and joy, but faith doesn’t work like that. (And no number of Christians claiming that they have lived in God’s presence ever since that one single moment in time when they said yes to Jesus will ever convince me otherwise.)

Blessings did follow, including my fabulous, brilliant third child, but perfect peace did not. When I don’t surrender to God on a daily basis, I am prone to horrid, depressing floods of regret.

Here’s what I’ve learned: even once you sell everything you own to buy the pearl of great price, you still have to wake up every day and decide to love that pearl. You cannot take it or your own apprehension of its worth for granted. If a few days or weeks go by and you haven’t wondered at its beauty and sat in its presence, your decision and resulting life stop making sense and you falter. You panic, reaching out for the false jewel of worldly glory. But if you do spend that time, nothing can possibly outshine the glory of that pearl! You are greatly beloved by God. His peace guards your heart and mind.

My floods of regret used to make me feel angry at God. I used to doubt. But now I think that the way things are for me is actually a beautiful gift. God has brought me to a place where to have joy and hope, I have to walk by faith. As long as I live in the love of Jesus, my days are a foretaste of heaven, but the moment I forget and return to living for my own glory, doubt and regret are there waiting to consume me. These days, there is no middle ground for me, no option of muddling through on my own merits. It’s faith or hell. But then, of course it is! What other decision is there? That’s the choice we all face, and it’s not just an ultimate choice, it’s a daily one. How amazing it is that we manage to forget that, and how loving God is to remind us.

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The Grace of Receiving

I recently gave a talk on this topic to my wonderful mothers’ group, and I thought I’d share an abridged version of it here. The timing seems right. We are headed toward the season of giving, and we cannot give what we have not received, or what we aren’t even willing to admit we need…..

I was the valedictorian of my small high school. In my senior year I won the academic award in every subject I took except for the math award, and the math teacher actually apologized for not giving that award to me. This kind of praise messes with a kid. I felt like I’d won high school, and I loved it. I still tend to want to win things that aren’t actually competitions.

Like yoga class, for example. A while back, I thought yoga would calm me down and make it possible for me to exercise without getting too intense. But I had to quit yoga. It turns out you can make yoga competitive, and when you do, you pull things.

Especially before I became a committed Christian (and soon thereafter a Catholic), I tended not to help people or even spend time with people if it got in the way of excelling at my work. And, because I knew full well I was not capable of giving sacrificially to my friends, I went to great lengths not to need anyone to take care of me.

Then God showed me what an ass I was being. About nine years ago, my husband and I and our eighteen-month-old daughter were getting ready to move across the country to be closer to family. We had a few weeks left to get the house ready to sell and to pack when my husband came down with a serious case of bacterial pneumonia and pleurisy. He lost twenty pounds, was frequently in agony, and basically couldn’t get out of bed. I only had a babysitter two days a week. There was a long list of odd jobs that had to be done, most of which my husband had planned to do, all that packing, no family in town to help, a sick husband to care for, and a little, highly demanding toddler with me nearly all the time.

Eventually my mother-in-law came to the rescue, but before I knew of that plan, I was totally overwhelmed. I wished that my friends were offering more help. They all had little kids too, and although I got a lot of sympathy and many nonspecific offers of help, I was wanting more than that. I was wanting dinners delivered without having to take the time to ask and friends dropping by to pick up my daughter for the day. I wanted these things, but I couldn’t expect them. After all, I had never been available to give sacrificially to my friends like this.

One afternoon I was standing in the parking lot of a UPS store in Oakland when it occurred to me all of a sudden that we are put on this Earth to love and serve one another. Yes, also to love and serve God, but even that we do mostly by loving and serving each other. Before that moment, I had thought of serving others as what you should do with the money and time you had left over after doing your work and tending to your own home, but I’d gotten it all wrong. We aren’t put here to work and succeed, but to serve. Loving and serving each other is the main thing.

Why had I never seen this before? I remembered being in college and wondering at how available other people were to their friends. Didn’t they have papers to write? Why weren’t they more worried about getting their work done? I had thought that my classes were the main thing, and I missed the main thing entirely.

I realized this that day in Oakland only because of my need and vulnerability. When I was finally in a position to accept the help and service of others, I got it. Because, of course, giving and receiving are linked. Before we can give sacrificially, we have to be willing to receive sacrifice.

Back when I was an Episcopalian, I went to a church where everyone participated in a foot-washing liturgy on Holy Thursday. You’d form a line, and when it was your turn, you’d kneel before a fellow parishioner, poor water over their feet into a basin, and then dry their feet with a towel. Then you took a seat, removed your shoes and socks, and someone else did the same for you.

Washing someone else’s feet was easy, but allowing someone else to wash mine felt nearly impossible. Although I don’t like to, I can get a pedicure. Receiving a pedicure I pay for isn’t receiving sacrificial service. But allowing someone to make the sacrifice of washing my feet? Agony.

One year I forgot and wore pantyhose and had to explain in hand gestures to the poor person washing my feet that they should just ignore the pantyhose and wash my feet anyway. Double agony.

Part of the problem with receiving sacrificially care from others is that I don’t want to be in debt, but that’s not it entirely. It’s mostly the idea of someone having to suffer, to be made uncomfortable or inconvenienced by my weaknesses, my dirt, my stinky feet. My mess should be my mess to deal with. No one else should take on that burden.

Except that is exactly what Jesus did, and that’s what Jesus does.

That is how Jesus loves me, with the love of taking on my sin, my weakness, and my burdens.

The discomfort of being served is at the very heart of Christian life. On some level, that discomfort actually is discomfort with the depth, the cost, and the personal nature of Jesus’ love for us.

The disciples felt the same way I do about foot washing. Recall Peter’s response to Jesus telling him he would wash his feet: “Never shall You wash my feet!” And Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.”

Notice how strident, how absolute Peter’s response is. It’s “No way, Lord. Never. Not happening.” That’s the same as his response when Jesus tells him He will suffer and be killed. Never, Lord. And Jesus replies, “Get behind me, Satan.”

Apparently, one of the hardest things about being a disciple is submitting to being served by Jesus. It humbles us to be served by God. We don’t feel worthy. Because we aren’t.

Our very life is a gift, and our eternal life is a gift that someone else (a perfect, loving, innocent someone else) suffered horribly to get us. We can’t ever repay that gift. Spiritually speaking, we are all charity cases, every single one of us.

Back when my husband had pneumonia, I actually did receive the help I longed for from a friend. One night at two o’clock my husband had to go to the emergency room. I didn’t want to wake up my little toddler and drag her there, and Daryl needed me to care for him without distraction, so I took a deep breath, picked up the phone, and called a friend who had offered to help. I asked her to come over and sleep at my house that night. She came without hesitation. When we returned home four hours later, we found that our friend hadn’t been sleeping. She had been cleaning our house, which in the midst of our crisis had gotten pretty filthy. I had been so tired that night that I had gone to bed without washing the dishes. Coming home to a clean house made me feel tremendously grateful and loved, but also mortified.

Mortified literally means put to death. And that is what scripture tells us has to happen so we can live in Christ. We have to die to self. Mostly we do that through abandoning self-regard and surrendering our lives to Christ, but that night, I died to self by receiving my friend’s sacrificial care. That care was Jesus’ care for me, given to me through my friend. God’s care is like that care. It comes to us only when we are aware we need it, willing to ask for it, and able to receive it with gratitude. And, like my friend’s sacrificial care for me, once we have received that kind of love, we can share it with others.

The humility that comes with needing and gratefully receiving can open our hearts to Jesus. Since we often meet Jesus in the love and care of others, we should not hesitate to gracefully receive that care. When we are tempted to shrug off a compliment, refuse an offer of needed help, or avoid relying on others, we might imagine that it is Jesus offering that compliment or that help. Because it is.

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My Surprising Secret to a Happy Marriage

I’m writing about something I have never written about before. I’ve barely even spoken about it, even with my closest friends. It’s been my secret, but it’s time to share.

I support and follow the Catholic Church’s teaching on artificial contraception.

I have shied away from discussing this topic because it forces me to talk about intimate matters in public, and there’s already way too much of that going on these days. It feels unseemly to bring it up. The Southern lady in me is aghast, but it’s not just that. The real problem is that I know how hard this teaching is, and for reasons I will explain, I haven’t had to experience the full brunt of its difficulty. I’m a vastly inadequate poster child for the virtues of chastity and openness to life.

So I’ve been silent. I’ve done nothing to counter the usual narrative, the “Catholic women ignore the Church’s teaching on contraception, which is just an idealistic theological fantasy cooked up by old, celibate males” story.

But now I feel compelled to speak up. For one thing, the Synod on the Family is on my mind, and I’m aware of how badly Catholic clerics need to know that there are people in the pews who love the Church’s difficult teachings and whose pastoral need is to hear these teachings praised and defended rather than evaded or ignored. Also, I’ve come to realize that many of my Protestant and Catholic friends think the Church’s teaching is nuts, which means, unless they think I’m nuts too, that they take my silence to mean I don’t follow or defend that teaching. Finally, and more importantly, I’ve come to realize that I can’t answer questions about what makes my marriage such a happy one, how I know what God wants of me, or what it means to surrender to God, without telling this story. It feels awkward to say so, but the truth is that I can’t think of any specific action that has made a more profound difference in my spiritual life than rejecting contraception. (Or in my family life—there’s one of us who would definitely not have existed if we had followed conventional wisdom on these matters.)

When I first stopped using contraception, I was a new convert to the faith. I didn’t fully understand the Church’s teaching, but I had converted because I had decided that the Church possessed the truth and was protected, in its fundamental moral doctrines, from error. If I had thought it was possible for the Church to be wrong about something so important, I would not have become a Catholic to begin with.

And yet, all these years later, I have only three kids. What gives? My small family is probably why people assume I contracept. But you see, I don’t really have only three kids. I have three kids here on Earth, but there are eight more in heaven. I’ve been pregnant eleven times. I have a known problem that leads to frequent miscarriages, usually between five and ten weeks. I haven’t had to contend with the expense and the logistics of a large family, but I’ve had to deal with the difficulty of remaining open to life in a different way. Alongside my husband, I’ve had to accept uncertainty and loss.

But God blesses us through suffering, and indeed all of that uncertainty and loss has been an enormous blessing to me. My miscarriages, as painful as they’ve been, have helped me to understand and appreciate the wisdom, goodness, and beauty of the Church’s teaching on sexuality and marriage. Because of those losses, my husband and I have experienced our children as given rather than chosen. We haven’t planned our parenthood. We did not choose when to have our children or ponder the perfect age separation or birth months. For us, being open to life also means being open to death. The only way to deal with that, to go forward in hope, is to surrender to God, to decide that His plans for our family are good and worthy of trust.

Having surrendered to God’s plans, and having been so grateful for the children He gave us, how could we ever shove God aside and demand total control over our fertility? “Ok, God, that was great of you, but we have two kids now, one boy and one girl, so you can bow out now. It was nice cooperating with your awesome creative power, but we’ll take it from here.”

But, horrifyingly, that’s exactly what we did, at least for a couple of years. I was a professor pursuing tenure, and we were just so darned busy. I wouldn’t get any more maternity leave, and even if I switched jobs and did, all those extra years of child care! So expensive, not to mention exhausting. It is not a coincidence that we also didn’t attend Mass every Sunday during this time. We were moving often and were spiritually afloat. Thankfully, we recovered from our temporary insanity (which, from the perspective of most, looks like temporary sanity, I realize.)

Being open to life when you want more children is one thing, but being open to life when your family feels complete is another. Accepting our fertility again took a deeper level of surrender, but the rewards were huge. For one thing, we have Peter, who is walking, talking, screaming evidence that God’s plans are better than mine. Far more difficult and exasperating than mine, but better.

But there’s another reward, having to do with our marriage. As long as we used contraception, I couldn’t fully grasp what our marriage really was. I was as if we were just two individuals, joined in a partnership to raise children while each pursuing our individual goals, trying to be as close and as happy together as we could. But that’s not what marriage really is. That’s a sad, distorted, dull shadow of what marriage is. When we stopped blocking our fertility and went back to cooperating with God, our marriage began to feel once again like what it truly is, a real one-flesh union, a new creation that transcends both of us, something mystical and joyful that reflects, in a not-yet fully clear way, the way God is united to His people. God is alive in our marriage, not just in each of us separately. It’s as if our marriage was a thing, and now it’s a being. It’s alive and potentially life-giving, and we don’t know exactly how it will grow and develop.

Date nights are great, but if you really want to put excitement in your marriage, give it life. It’s also how you make your marriage last, because to end it would be tantamount to murder.

Like I said, I know it’s a hard teaching. It’s difficult to embrace chastity in marriage, and it’s difficult to welcome more children, especially for women with big careers or with health problems or for poor families. I haven’t shared my experience before because I don’t want to appear to give advice or to shame anyone, and I’m not doing that now. What I want to do is share this piece of the Good News, because that is what the Church’s wisdom in this area has been to me, something beautiful, true, and good that’s hidden in plain sight. It’s a treasure well worth sacrifice and a truth worth defending.

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We’ve Been Warned

After a papal visit that provided a welcome rest from the cynicism of our hyper-political culture, coverage of the Pope has devolved into the familiar stories of spin and political speculation. It’s a let-down, all this anxious squabbling over whom the Pope truly represents, but it probably gives us a clue as to what is ahead. Pope Francis seems to have a particular gift for pushing boundaries in a way that elicits confusion and discomfort, as did Jesus.

Someone should draw this comic strip: Two kids are fighting over a pope doll. One says, “He’s my pope!” and the other, “No! He’s MY pope!” In the next frame, Jesus walks in and says, “No, He’s my pope.” Adopted younger siblings can be so annoying.

As annoying as it is, though, the squabbling over the Pope is also comforting. The ill-founded hopes that Pope Francis will give his blessing to the various redefinitions of the married state reveal a shared human longing for genuine and merciful moral authority and the failure of the language of civil rights and the approval of the courts to replace that authority. Sheep who resist the shepherding of traditional authorities nevertheless long for a good shepherd.

Continue reading at First Things

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