Drop Keys of Freedom: A Reflection on Luke 20:27-40

Below is a reflection inspired by Saturday’s gospel reading, which can be found here. I shared it at a Celebration of the Word (with Distribution of Holy Communion) that I held as part of my Lay Leadership of Prayer and Preaching class. The whole service had to be video-taped and I have to review it with my professor. Guess who is not looking forward to that part? 😉 

The small person
Builds cages for everyone
While the sage,
Who has to duck her head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the
Prisoners. (Read x2)
– Hafiz

The Sadducees in this story are those small people. They are trying to trap Jesus. Sadducees did not believe in the Resurrection. They were a conservative group of Jews whose only source of authority was the Torah, the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible, and in that, they saw no evidence of the resurrection. Their worldview was black and white. Their appeal to authority secure. Their confidence, unwavering. The Sadducees were a rather well-off bunch comparatively; they had no need to hope for a resurrection in the same way the majority of the impoverished Jews did.  So they went up to Jesus with their “question.”

While there is some debate in the academic world about whether there are stupid questions or not, there are certainly wrong questions, questions that trap and build cages, questions that are dead-ends. Questions that presume the answers. These questions steal freedom and provide an answer of condemnation in their very asking. The Sadducees ask a wrong question.  It is a ridiculous example based on Jewish law meant to ensnare Jesus.  They want Jesus to crumble and they want to feel secure on their own high horse. They try to build a cage.

And Jesus replies dropping keys of freedom. He meets them right where they are, in all their hubris, appealing only to their source of authority, the Torah, and proclaims that God is the God of the living.  Jesus sees the cage they are building and instead declares freedom and hope for them and for others.  The Sadducees, in their Temple of comfort and luxury, are removed from the suffering of everyday life and their message via their question tries to heap more despair on an already suffering people, but Jesus, who suffers with the people, offers a message of hope and resurrection when it feels like darkness, despair, and division might be the end of the story.

Do we ask the wrong questions? Questions meant to trap and cage? Questions meant to justify our own righteousness? Questions where we’re actually asserting our answer? Often, these questions are judgments in the silence of our minds. We look at a disheveled homeless person on the street and we wonder why they don’t get a job instead of reminding ourselves that we know nothing about the circumstances that led them to this place.  We hear a person goes to Latin Mass or to school at CTU, or CUA, or….. the list goes on and we make assumptive judgments about their “orthodoxy.” Even of the same religion, we assume and then we box each other in.  Or a parent yells at their struggling teenager walking in a few minutes late, “Where have you been?!?!”  Or maybe in our angst and grief, we cry out to God, “what did I do wrong that my loved one had to die?” Or on another dangerous and irrelevant level, we say things like, “What was she wearing?” after an assault is alleged.

These are all variations of the wrong question.

Jesus upends our wrong, dead-end questions and answers with mercy and love and promises of new life to come. He speaks hope for those caught in darkness. He reminds us God is the God of the living, not the dead. These dead-end questions show that life has nothing to do with whether we’re still breathing.

We are alive when we ask questions and don’t presume to know the answer. We drop keys of freedom when we manage our judgments in our mind when we begin to condemn somebody instead of hearing their story. We speak freedom and life when we express genuine interest in the various expressions of our Catholic faith without crying heresy at the first sign of difference. We open room for breathing and surviving our own grief when we move from questions that condemn ourselves in our suffering to words that simply say, “God, I don’t understand and I’m hurting.” What if our first question to our teenagers was “Are you okay?” when they walk in the door, leaving space for their hearts to feel heard. And what if we asked different questions about gender and the role our culture has to play in violations of women instead of considering asking “what was she wearing.”

There may or may not be stupid questions in class, but there are wrong questions in life. Let’s drop keys of freedom by asking questions that are open-ended and give life instead of presumptuous ones meant to condemn. And let’s instead choose to be like Jesus and rather than taking these dead-end questions as personal attacks, turn them around to teach about the infinite mercy and love of our God.

The small person
Builds cages for everyone
While the sage,
Who has to duck her head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the





Life’s Better When We’re Connected

Another “running is a metaphor for life” post 🙂 

Life’s better when we’re connected.

Darn Corporate America tugging at my heart in their advertising. They got me. “Life’s better when we’re connected” was the theme of this year’s Bank of America Chicago Marathon. And it couldn’t me more true.

This is going to sound ridiculous but I have to say it because it’s true: the marathon passed quickly for me this year because we spent almost every few miles looking for fans. At 20 points along the way, we saw someone or a group of people that Running Buddy or I knew! We were at Mile 17 when I was like, “How are we already here? I’m not getting ahead of myself or anything, but…. This is going by so fast!” Two years ago, I was all like, “Baahhh… if we don’t see our fans like we’re supposed to at mile 16, I don’t think I’m going to make it.” (Needless to say, Running Buddy was getting worried about me at that point two years ago).

But what I notice about both of my experiences is how important our spectators were to me. Seriously, they kept me going! With our names plastered on our shirts, even strangers were cheering for us, the whole way!! And then we saw our families at SEVEN spots along the way. They win at “Competitive Spectating” for sure. And despite a bunch of friends not being able to make it who were originally planning to (I was getting worried the week of), a bunch of other friends came out of the woodwork and told me where they were going to be along the route. Amazing!

I am bursting with gratitude for all those who cheered us on on marathon day, for all those who supported me with encouraging words before and after the race, and for all who donated to our Taller de Jose running team.  I’m one lucky marathon runner.

Life sure is better when we’re connected… as runners, as spectators, as friends and family, as strangers, as a human family. Who would have thought that would be one of the life/running lessons of 26.2 miles?? But my tired legs can testify, they didn’t run it alone. They ran supported by you. Just as I live my life thanks to the beautiful known and unknown people with whom I am connected.

Thank you.

Some of our fans (Sans PaPa Mayer taking the picture)
Some of our fans (Sans PaPa Mayer taking the picture)



A Friend Catches You When You Fall… and other running/life lessons

I have always maintained that I run not just to run because running is a metaphor for life. Running continues to teach me about life, about my journey of faith and love and struggle and pain and joy.  Recently, as my marathon training peaked, I was again given the gift of two life-lessons.  It reminded me again of why I run , why I’m putting my body through the hardship of 18, 19, 20 mile runs in preparation for the big day of 26.2 one week from today on October 12th!

1. A Friend Catches You When You Fall

On September 21st, Running Buddy and I ran a “supported” practice race down the Lakeshore path with the Chicago Area Running Association (CARA). It was a beautiful day and the run was going pretty well for both of us, though I was still getting over a cold and Running Buddy was having IT band issues. Then, around mile 18, my body wasn’t having it anymore. In retrospect, I was probably dehydrated, because when we crossed the finish line, I started heaving and Running Buddy literally caught my arm and held me up. Within minutes I was fine (thanks to water and recovery drinks!!). But already during those few unpleasant minutes, I was (inwardly) delighting in the running-life lesson being lived out. Running Buddy literally caught me when I was falling, just as her alter ego, Ace, does metaphorically in non-running real life. Just as my beautiful and supportive friends and support network do for me constantly. What a gift to have friends who catch you when you fall!

2. Conditions will Never Be Perfect

I’ve been hoping desperately for good conditions during this marathon training season and especially for the marathon! I’m sick of having qualifications for my training and my races. For example, whenever I talk about my first marathon it always includes something like, “Well, I hurt my foot two weeks before and almost didn’t run and then I ran anyway and got stress fractures in both my feet.” Or I tell the story of how I got mono the day after I won the lottery for this marathon (kinda kills the momentum) and couldn’t run the Illinois Half I’d been training for at that time too (kind of a downer). In addition to those bigger bummers, I just feel like my running in general is plagued with “well, I was kind of sick for that run so…” or “I didn’t get enough sleep this week” or… you get the picture. While I’ll of these things are true, I think it’s left me in the unrealistic pursuit for a smooth, no setbacks training season and race.

So on 20-miler day, when I was still getting over a cold and using sentences again like, “And I had a cold for this run, so hopefully on the actual marathon…” to (rightly) justify why it may not have been as good a run as I hoped (like my 19-miler was!),  I realized that I’m always looking for those perfect conditions, conditions that will probably never actually exist. The imperfect, rainy day journey is what matters. It’s the messy here and now. In running and in life.

We rarely get quite enough sleep, have quite enough time for our projects in work or school, or see our friends as much as we’d like because it’s hard to find the perfect window of freedom. Maybe we should stop holding out for the stars to align when we will then be at our best, but make the most of our imperfect and messy lives, which is still full of stars, even if they don’t quite align into Orion’s Belt. Maybe the lesson..and even the unexpected joy, is in the imperfect, “not ideal conditions” journey?

3. Drink Enough Water

Ok, so not all running lessons correlate exactly into running lessons. Sometimes, you learn a lesson while running or racing that is just helpful to learn for future runs.  Somewhere along the way in the 20-miler, I stopped hydrating enough….hence the unfortunate end of the race mentioned above. I learned what I need to be especially attentive to on race day!

Thanks to all who have supported me in fundraising for Team Taller de Jose! In addition to water, it is my supporters, whether in person with cheering, through online donations and encouragement, or in spirit and prayer, who will keep me going next week!  If you haven’t had a chance to donate yet, you can still do so here: https://connect.clickandpledge.com/Organization/tallerdejose/campaign/2014marathon/fundraiser/MelissaCarnall/



Another Medium

Melted Crayon Rainbow-JKCreate
This is a poem I wrote originally for my internship as a hospital chaplain in place of a “verbatim” with my supervisor last week. Two things to note before reading that will help the references in it make sense:
– I had a minor health scare recently that turned out to be anemia. Easily remedied! 
– I had another type of scare a few weeks ago in an incident with a patient on a behavioral floor where I was concerned for my safety and felt trapped in the room. Thankfully, nothing “actually happened.” 
Last thing to note, this is a poem in the “Spoken Word” genre I suppose, so maybe consider reading it aloud for its full effect?

Another Medium.

I got a B- in art in the 4th grade.
I didn’t get another B for 10 years
And I gave up any hope of being an artist for more years than that.
I had tried and been found wanting,
So I would leave the art to the artists
And I would stick with numbers and then eventually with words.
Words could be my medium.
They can be inserted passionately into space
And their absence can adopt as much meaning as their presence
They can speak life or indict injustice
They can explain, and qualify, and be understood.
Unlike my 4th grade art that couldn’t explain itself.
That couldn’t cry out in self defense–
I was trying.
Words. Words. Words could be my medium of choice
While I pondered the possibility of me
An artist.

An artist
I pondered another medium too.
Alongside my precious words, I found another art form that awakened my soul.
That worked with words but also with silence
And that used the 64 colors of the Crayola box
With the 65th color of the breaking of a heart
And the 66th color of the vulnerability of a hospital bed
I feel my words get jealous as I get acquainted with this new medium
But don’t you see, words?
I still love you.
I’m using you right now.
Together we’ll create our art, with this medium of words and silence
And color and breath and heartache and joy.
Our medium is life itself.

I tried out this medium recently.
Furtively, like an imposter, I painted and composed and mixed words.
I stood silently at hospital beds in utter confusion
And in awe of the vulnerability of our human condition
Masked more easily for some.
I entered into the pain of rejection with our sisters and brothers with mental illness.
I crossed myself with fellow Catholics
And waxed rather nonpoeticly when asked deep theological questions.
And I fumbled words of español and uttered honest prayers for our searching.
My heart swelled in the swirling of the graced mystery
I thrived on the poetry of it all.
Or so I thought.

Then I couldn’t leave the room
I felt trapped by his presence
And then trapped by my mistake.
And my iron ran low
And my frustration ran high
And suddenly, my new medium appeared as a fraud.
I was kidding myself.
There’s nothing poetic about ministry, about life.
He was tired of life
And I was just tired.
And my iron ran low
And my frustration ran high.
And my new medium appeared as a fraud.

I wasn’t an artist
And life wasn’t a poem.
I was bumbling and tired and life was a mess.
But outside my own willing
I’ve felt the beauty amidst the mess
The graced mystery swirls and I’m not strong enough to resist
Love has captured me.
So sooner rather than later
The romantic in me can’t deny the canvas being painted
And I want to be a brush.
Coaxed back to art with empathy and concern,
Iron and friends, the trust of my patients and the brushstroke of the Artist.

Maybe I am an artist after all.
In my art with a patient
I thank God aloud that God has created her in God’s image.
So she can consider her dignity and worth.
And since art is meant to stir in us
Is it lacking in humility to say
It stirs me to consider that I am created in the that image
Of our artist-God too?
I am a brush and a pencil, a painting and a poem.
Art and artist.
Words and image and life and pain and beauty.
Our medium is life.
Maybe I am an artist after all.

Mass, Parking Tickets, and the Lie of Worry

I wrote this Scripture reflection for this Sunday’s readings for Catholics on Call. It first appeared on their site, here. 
You can find this Sunday’s readings, for the 8th Sunday in Ordinary time, here. 

I’m driving to Mass after having just skimmed these readings to prepare for this reflection, and I can’t find parking in the free lot, so I park on the street, in an area where the signage is unclear about whether the parking was free or not. Seeing as this parking stress is causing me to be/feel late, I decide to risk it and go into church without feeding the meter. The whole first ten minutes of Mass, I squirm in my seat, worrying that I am going to get a ticket (on my roommate’s car at that!). I justify my worrying with a running inner monologue, “I can’t afford a ticket… I’m in grad school for goodness’ sake! And my roommate will be nice about it but would of course not be happy that I got a ticket in her car. And did I already say I didn’t want to waste that money?! Groceries. Running shoes. Plane tickets to visit my niece and nephew. Spiritual Direction. The homeless man on the corner.  All more important uses of that money.”

My worrying is of control. But aside from leaving Mass, there is nothing I can do to fix the situation. This Sunday’s gospel reading comes into my mind, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat….If God so clothes the grass of the field… will he not much more provide for you?” The reading assures me that God will provide, but my usual response kicks in—that not everyone has their basic human needs provided for—and the inner monologue seems to be winning the worry war. But I try again, because it seems a waste to sit in Mass while my mind is outside trying to protect the car from being ticketed.

I preach gospel to myself: No, not everyone has their basic needs provided for, but that is not a lack of God’s provision; it is our lack of stewardship and sharing of the earth’s resources that interrupt that provision. But what is not interrupted, is God’s care, concern, and presence among us. We can trust that we are remembered, known, and not alone: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb?” (Isaiah 49 in this Sunday’s first reading). And this Sunday’s psalm (Psalm 62) reminds me, “Rest in God alone, my soul.” Worrying just makes me feel like I’m doing something, but I’m not. Take a deep breath, and rest in God’s presence, here, in the present. Choose God, not mammon (Mt 6:24). That obviously doesn’t mean I shouldn’t steward my resources wisely, but in this case, in this moment, to keep worrying about the ticket would be to serve mammon instead of God.

The wind changes. My inner monologue reluctantly gives up on the worry and chooses Presence instead. Worrying about the future, worrying so that it feels like I’m doing something, is ultimately the belief that God will not be there whenever the next bad thing happens. It’s a lack of trust in God’s faithfulness and a false substitute for real action. Good and bad, abundance and lack, joy and tragedy, will continue to happen regardless of the amount that I worry. But when I worry, I rob myself of receiving the comfort of a God, who loves me like a mother, and I’m unable to offer my best self to the world, “as [a] servant of Christ and [a] steward of the mysteries of God” as I’m called to be (in this Sunday’s 2nd reading).

A potential parking ticket is a small example, of course, but if I can’t practice this gospel-living in the small stuff, how can I be expected to live it in the big stuff, when worrying feels even more “justified?”

May we forego the lie of worry today and instead choose to trust the loving provision of our God.
May we be moved to action when we are called and needed, and may we “Rest in God, alone” when we must accept the limitations of our circumstances.

P.S. In case you were wondering, I didn’t get a ticket. 🙂

On Service: A reflection after a “year of service”

I know it’s been awhile since my last post :/ This is why I don’t make any claims at being a consistent blogger. But I do hope to make some improvements at shortening my hiatuses 😉 This post is a minimally-edited reflection I wrote during our Amate House closing retreat the week of June 11th (I know, I can’t believe it’s over already!). We were encouraged to reflect on our service experience this past year and then we shared our stories with our own community.

When people ask what I’ve learned this year, I often reply, I’ve learned things with my heart that I previously knew in my head. I feel that God has been cementing truths into my heart through the experiences of this year.

Prior to Amate, I almost had an aversion to the word ‘service.’ It felt too top-down, too I-have-all-the-answers-and-the-resources-so-let-me-help-you. When people said, “Wow, you’re doing a volunteer year?! Good for you!” (outside of those who thought it was silly, that is), I responded with “Thanks, but it’s a privilege to be able to grow in this way. I feel so blessed to be here. I truly felt I had more to receive than to give in the realm of service. I wanted to avoid top-down service at all costs.

Fast forward from my Amate interview to my site placement choices. One of them was clearly more admin-oriented (read top-down unfortunately in my mind, not ground-level) than the others. But it also was the most intriguing, it was in a church setting focusing on parish life which is an interest of mine, and oh wait, I can’t lie, the networking opportunities seemed too good to be true in light of my God-given dreams. Every single person I talked to about my choices, including people who normally have diametrically opposed views agreed! I should put that one first. And so I did. I truly am glad I was the one to end up with that job. I believe I was meant to be there.

I spent the first half of the year feeling one of two things: 1. entirely inadequate, fighting with Excel for 3 hrs to complete something that should take 20 mins or 2. thoroughly bored, constantly losing the battle between taking some sort of creative iniative and getting online to browse blogs. The second half of the year was similar except I lost some patience and stopped searching for God in the waiting. A few concrete projects kept me sane but for a few months there, I was at the end of my rope. In the midst of unrelated personal struggles, sitting in front of a computer for 8 hrs a day, with only one hour worth of work to distract me was enough to have me crying at my desk or running to the chapel daily. How ironic—‘complaining’ about not having enough to do, when others were utterly overwhelmed with “real, down-to-earth” problems! First world problem, right?! I felt a little useless, a lot embarrassed, and rightfully humbled.

Remember what I said about thinking that service was a privilege and having to learn that with my heart? Well, I honestly can see that so much more clearly now. I would have originally suspected I would have learned that from all the people I would serve from disadvantaged circumstances but of course God always has different (better) plans.

I learned it by not being able to serve in the way I anticipated. This year of minimal service was humbling, pruning experience as I couldn’t even accept the praise of doing a volunteer year. For example, when someone like Alex Kotlowicz (author of There are No Children Here) comes for a community night and thanks us for doing Amate and working in direct service, I nod, smile and accept that it’s not for me right now. Not being able to have my need for service/for helping fulfilled by a “white-collar” job is ironically humbling. But good in that it takes my need out of the picture and leaves room for God. I learned how much of me I still wanted to offer in service. Not that that’s a bad thing per se. But when serving or helping others is how I find my worth (read, I’m a 2 on the enneagram) that need can be a negative one because our life has seasons where that need can be more tangible fulfilled than others. So offering God through me is a much better, sustainable mindset than offering me.  Searching for God in those I serve is another sustainable service practice I think!

That experience taught me another important truth about service. It is always about presence. When we are present to others, whether our clients or co-workers, we are witnessing to the presence of God. Nothing cements that better than having nothing else to give. Sure I finagled some data in Excel, administered some surveys and organized some parish workshops, but in the grand scheme of things, the work was good but not earth-shaking service. My service was to be a presence of youth, joy, and hope. The bureaucracy of the Church, while full of faithful people can be a place of old age and despair, but more commonly, just a place of the everyday, of boring and needed administration—kind of like the unsung task of changing diapers, sans the cute baby 🙂 It’s a blessing to be able to bring some youth and light and inspiration into that. [And please, don’t misunderstand me. Though different than I expected, I am so thankful for the experience and I seriously think the world of my boss and co-workers].

Another truth I’m currently learning in my heart through this past site experience is to trust in the slow work of God. I have received so much this year during my extra time to reflect at work and about my work. God tells us that “to whom much is given, much is expected.” (Luke 12:48) I know that the pruning of this year that has born little tangible fruit in the immediate sense, will yield much in the years to come. God’s timetable is not my own. God is up to so much in each of our lives. I know this time is a precious piece of the larger picture.

Lastly, outside of the context of community, I don’t think I could have learned so much or trusted that God was in my work. Our “second full-time job” of community obviously took effort and time and sometimes added to the chaos, but knowing that we had each others’ unique experiences of service made me more okay with my own experience. Alone, I would have given up hope of allowing my fruit to be pruned and ripen. My aversion to the word ‘service’ is now lessened. My seemingly top-down job taught me it doesn’t have to be that way. Service can mean we mutually offer God to one another.

My community as we finished our closing retreat for Amate House



I was thinking about the concept of reflection a lot especially at the beginning of the summer. Kind of odd, huh? Reflecting about reflecting?! But it’s true. I was. I was thinking about where an un-reflected life leads.  And how important reflecting is to becoming who we are. Who we should be. A better version of ourselves. Who God made us to be.

Last semester I didn’t have much time for reflection. Or better yet, I didn’t make time. But so much happened-as always! I was very thankful to have a summer, especially a May that allowed me to think. About what I experienced. About what kind of person I was becoming. What I liked and what I didn’t. And that made me realize…

An unreflected life does not lead to good things. To who I want to be.

Life happens. Things get thrown at us. People change. We move (on).

Without reflecting, we just react. We don’t ACT purposefully. We also miss out on life. On the little things. Or the big things. We miss out on the gifts that God lavishes us with at every moment. We miss God’s presence in our lives. We don’t see the good.

We become a product of our circumstances instead of letting ourselves be molded by our Creator, the master Molder.

Reflecting isn’t about living in the past. It’s about living in the moment and finding God there. It’s about seeing His hand at work– in the past and present. And making ourselves open to His hand in the future.

May this blog help me remember to reflect. Apparently someone else thought reflecting was important too…

An unreflected life is not worth living.

Says Socrates.

i leave for chicago in two weeks. Better get preparing for and reflecting on that!!