The one who has God lacks nothing

I was at a support-raising seminar with our new CCO campus ministry staff last week. I am putting more effort into my own ongoing support raising, now that my #1 benefactor—my dad—is gone.

During one portion of the two-day workshop, we were each asked to share Scripture passages that help inform our view of doing this counter-cultural thing: raising the money to provide our salary. It can be anxiety-inducing, to say the least, so I felt led to share from Matthew 6:25-34:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life ?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

And then I shared a prayer from Saint Teresa of Ávila.

During my first year of doing campus ministry at Gannon University, this born-and-raised Presbyterian spent almost every Tuesday evening sitting cross-legged on the floor of the freshman women’s residence hall, learning the Roman Catholic mass from the dorm chaplain, Father Susa. It was 1989, and this weekly gathering was retro even at that time; “Mass and Rap” was a throw-back to the 1960s, before Hip-Hop was a thing and when “to rap” meant nothing more than sitting around and talking.

Fr. Susa had a rotation of prayers that served as benedictions, but this prayer of St. Teresa is the one that has stuck with me through the decades:

Let nothing disturb thee,
Let nothing frighten thee.
Everything is changing,
God alone is changeless.
Patience attains the goal.
The one who has God lacks nothing.
God alone fills all our needs.

When I shared it in the context of this support-raising training, I naturally got a little choked up. Because that’s how I roll.

A few days later, the new staff came to visit CCO HQ here in Pittsburgh, and one of them asked if I could write the prayer down for her. Yesterday, I got a thank you note in the mail:

“Thanks for the prayer you shared in class and printed off for me. I taped it in my journal, as it has given me words…to fill in the moments when I’m feeling desperate but unable to pray because words have felt trite or I quickly twist them to complain in unbelief.”

I was moved that she took the time to thank me, and I was awestruck at the ongoing movement of the Spirit, a ripple effect through the decades—through the centuries! (Teresa of Ávila was born in Spain in 1515.) If I can judge the age of most of our newest staff, Erin was likely little more than a toddler when I first heard Fr. Susa recite that prayer in the lounge of Finnegan Hall.

As one of the college students who sat next to me during many a Mass and Rap puts it now, “That prayer got me through unemployment and cancer. It really is a one size fits all!”

The one who has God lacks nothing.
God alone fills all our needs.

Amen.

TeresaAvila

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Sunday on the couch with Charlotte

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This is how I spent my Sunday afternoon: on my living room couch, snuggled under an afghan crocheted for me three decades ago by my Aunt Kushie, with a purring, sleeping cat named Charlotte draped over my feet.

Today marked my second Sunday back at church since Dad’s funeral, and thankfully, there were fewer tears this morning than there were last week. I know that tears are cleansing, that it’s healthy to let them flow, that there will be many more during this season of grieving. But I have to tell you, it was a relief to be able to worship with (relatively) dry eyes this morning. I was grateful to be able to sing without choking up at the end of every stanza.

I have been back to work for close to two weeks now, gearing up for one of our busiest seasons as we prepare for Jubilee 2014. I am learning what is involved in being the executrix (for the uninitiated, that’s female for “executor”) of a last will and testament. I am grateful for my brothers, for the mutual support and the lack of drama as we negotiate unfamiliar territory together.

If nothing else, my relaxing Sabbath day afternoon on the couch with Charlotte is evidence to me of the power of prayer.

Technically, I am an orphan at age 47. But I don’t feel like I am, and it’s not just because of my age. I deeply feel the love and support of my immediate and extended family, of amazing co-workers, and of an authentic and loving church congregation. And I feel comforted by friends and acquaintances and former colleagues of my dad—those I’ve known all my life and those I’ve still not met.

I know that all of this is a reflection of the love of my Fathers—both of them, my earthly one and my heavenly one.

I know more tears will come during this season of grief. And I know that more such seasons await me down the road. I also know that I will be granted peaceful afternoons like the one I experienced today. I know that I can rest in the love and grace and provision of the One who created, sustains, and redeems all things—and that death and grief will not have the final word.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” —Revelation 21:3-4

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Letting Dad go

This is a slightly edited version of the email message I sent to family and friends this morning, sharing difficult news.

Some of you have already heard, but I know this will be a surprise for many of you. I am sad to report that my dad passed away last evening, Friday, December 27, around 8:15 p.m., about two hours after Vern arrived at the hospital.

His condition had deteriorated since the aspiration of his feeding tube on Christmas Eve. Given conversations with him before the surgery and how he was able to communicate after, especially the last couple of days (in hand gestures and in writing), our decision to let him go was unambiguous and unanimous. He was facing the need for a tracheostomy to help him breathe, the prognosis for his kidney function was not good, and if he did recover enough to leave the hospital, he would be facing a long stay in a nursing facility.

Dad was an independent man. Part of his original resistance to having the aneurysm repaired when it was first discovered a couple years ago centered around the post-surgical recovery time. He couldn’t imagine that he’d have to go at least a month without driving.

We were all gathered around his bedside in the ICU—me, my brothers Vern and John, John’s wife, Cindy, and daughter, Katy, Dad’s girlfriend, Rose Marie, Uncle Paul (Dad’s younger brother), Aunt Barb, and my cousins Meredith and Nate. After praying with the hospital chaplain and taking our moments to say goodbye, Dad passed even before the nurses had a chance to begin final preparations. It seemed fitting that he would go out on his own terms.

We are in the process of figuring out the arrangements and will be in touch as soon as they’re finalized.

Thank you all for holding him and us up in prayer. We are sad, but we are at peace that he is at peace.

Love to you all.

Below is a photo of my mom and dad, taken on a Nag’s Head, North Carolina vacation in the late ’70s or early ’80s. (Note Vern’s photo bomb to the left.) 

This is how I like to remember them both—young, healthy, together again. 

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God is with us

A little over a year ago, I was sharing a four-part series of articles about my Dad, chronicling his rise from coal miner’s ninth child to college athlete to NFL rookie to captain of industry.

A week and a day ago, my dad had surgery to repair an abdominal aortic aneurysm. While the surgery was successful, the recovery has been slower than we’d hoped. Considering his age and the size of the aneurysm, this isn’t necessarily unusual, but it has taken us by surprise. We’ll be spending Christmas with him in the ICU.

I am grateful for the many family members and friends who are lifting Dad (and the rest of us) up in prayer and offering comfort and support to me and my brothers. And I am hopeful for his recovery, even as it’s hard to watch him suffer right now.

If you are so inclined, please join me in praying for my dad. He’s the handsome guy on the right, pictured here with his equally handsome brothers.

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In the midst of this difficult season, even through my tears, I am grateful to be reminded of the true significance of Christmas—and to realize that even as my own world seems to have shrunk to the size of an ICU cubicle, God is with me—with all of us—all the time. That was the point of him humbling himself to be born into a primitive society, to the humblest of parents, in the humblest of places. And it’s why, 2,000+ years later, we still commemorate that humble birth.

“The incarnation does not mean that God saves us from the pains of this life. It means that God-is-with-us. For the Christian, just as for everyone else, there will be cold, lonely seasons, seasons of sickness, seasons of frustration, and a season within which we will die. Christmas does not give us a ladder to climb out of the human condition. It gives us a drill that lets us burrow into heart of everything that is and, there, find it shimmering with divinity.” —Avery Dulles

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Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense. ―Ralph Waldo Emerson

But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. ―Matthew 6:33-34

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
―William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 5

It’s hard to stay up
It’s been a long, long day
And you got the sandman at your door
But hang on, leave the TV on
And let’s do it anyway
It’s okay, you can always sleep through work tomorrow, okay?
Hey, hey, tomorrow’s just your future yesterday.
―Theme song to the Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson

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Why I went, and how God showed up

I first heard about the opportunity to travel to Israel  with Shoresh Study Tours as part of a CCO delegation almost exactly a year ago. Vince Burens, the CCO’s Executive VP and COO, made the announcement at our annual Summer Institute training event in July 2012, and I think I was among the first to respond—or at least, the first to commit.

The reactions I received from friends and family members when I mentioned my intention to travel to Israel were mixed. Fellow believers seemed to get it, although not all of them shared my yearning to travel to the Middle East. Others seemed puzzled, even alarmed, that I would choose to vacation in such a politically volatile area of the world.

I first toyed with the idea of a “Holy Land” tour back in 1999 or 2000, when I saw such a tour advertised in a Christian magazine. Before I could pursue it with any deliberation, violence broke out in what came to be known as the Second Intifada. I abandoned the idea.

My desire to visit Israel—and specifically, Jerusalem—was first ignited when I discovered a series of historical novels by Bodie and Brock Thoene called The Zion Chronicles, historical fiction which covers the period between November 1947 and May 1948, and the birth of Israel of a nation. This was 20 years ago, and shortly after I started reading these novels during my last months of living in Erie, Pennsylvania, I moved to Pittsburgh’s largely Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. My fascination with the Jewish roots of my Christian faith deepened.

As they say, timing is everything.

Shoresh Study Tours of Israel are focused around helping Christians understand the Jewish roots of our faith. “Shoresh” is the Hebrew word for “root.” As stated in the study guide we received on our first evening in Tel Aviv:

Standing in the very places where events in Scripture took place will make the Bible come alive for you as never before. Stories from a far-off land suddenly are immediate and real. Experiencing the modern State of Israel, as well as the present-day expression of the Lord’s body in the local congregations provides a powerful testimony of how God keeps His promises. The God we serve is not a lifeless historical face—no, He is alive! Likewise, the ‘Jewish roots’ of our faith are not dried-up artifacts of an age gone by: they have sprouted and continue to bear fruit today.

This promise was made real to me during many moments of the trip, but never as profoundly as when worshiping at Christ Church on Sunday morning. We were more than halfway through our trip by then, and joining together with other Christians in Jerusalem to praise Jesus, the Christ—the Messiah—was as moving an experience as anything else I saw or did during our time in Israel.

The Scripture lessons in the lectionary that morning included Psalm 42:

As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
These things I remember as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng.
Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.
My soul is downcast within me;
therefore I will remember you
from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon—
from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers have swept over me.
By day the Lord directs his love,
at night his song is with me—
a prayer to the God of my life.
I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?”
My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.

…and Luke 8:26-37:

They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee. When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.

Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

“Legion,” he replied, because many demons had gone into him. And they begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.

A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs, and he gave them permission. When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left.

Here is some of what I wrote in my journal that evening:

23 June 2013
Jerusalem

There’s something about hearing preaching on Scriptures that have just come to life by the privilege of BEING in the land of the Scriptures.

A few days ago, we read Psalm 42 in the region of the Golan Heights at Tel Dan.

The day before, [our guide] David indicated a steep bank along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where the pigs may have been driven by demons into the water.

Between that and the reality of taking communion—matza and wine—at Christ Church in Jerusalem, where the liturgy referred to “Messiah” and “Yeshua” as well as “Jesus”—I found myself on the verge of tears several times.

It’s day 6 of this pilgrimage, and I continue to wonder—Am I really here?

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Processing the pilgrimage

Since I returned from Israel last week, the most frequent question I’ve been asked about the trip has been, “What was your favorite part?” Close runners-up have been, “What surprised you the most?” and “Did the experience meet your expectations?”

You’d think by now I’d have ready answers to these questions. But, as I said to my extroverted friend, Ginger, when she quipped that she doesn’t know what she thinks until she says it: I don’t know what I think until I write it.

So. Time to write it.

What was my favorite part?
If we’re talking about places, my photos would suggest the Garden of Gethsemane. I took more pictures there than any other place we visited, but that is likely because of the majestic olives trees and colorful flora, especially in comparison to the stark monochromatic rocks and hills and valleys of the Judean wilderness, which we visited a few days earlier.

Compare this Judean wilderness, or West Bank, view from Masada:

5 view from Masada

…with this view of the Garden of Gethsemane:

19 Gethsemane

The Garden of Gethsemane, in spite of its poignant significance in the passion story of Jesus, was like an oasis in a very real desert.

But to answer the question of what was my favorite part of the trip: in very broad strokes, my favorite places were the Sea of Galilee and Jerusalem. I have read about these seemingly mythical sites in the Bible for years. Now I when I read the accounts, they come to life in new ways.

I know now what it means to see a “city on a hill.”

22 A city on a hill

“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

And I can picture Jesus looking over the banks of the Sea of Galilee while preaching his Sermon on the Mount.

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And seeing the multitudes, Jesus went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him:
And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.  (Matthew 5:1-12)

I took a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. Sure, there was a DJ aboard, so in some ways it was more like a Gateway Clipper cruise along the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela Rivers. And oddly, at the beginning of our hour-long sail, the American flag was hoisted and said DJs played “The Star Spangled Banner.”

But we were sailing to Tiberius, and even as I was posing for and taking pictures with my fellow travelers, I did not forget the significance of that body of water.

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Now as Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. Going on from there He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and He called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him.

Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people. The news about Him spread throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all who were ill, those suffering with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics; and He healed them. Large crowds followed Him from Galilee and the Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan. (Matthew 4:18-25)

***

In Jerusalem, I felt the tension on the Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock, where Muslims, Jews, and Christians mingle uneasily at a holy place that holds deep spiritual significance for each group.

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Standing on the Mount of Olives, descending to the base of the Kidron Valley, sitting for a while near the Garden of Gethsemane, and walking up into Old City Jerusalem, along the Via Dolorosa, or Way of Sorrows, I was aware that I was following—literally—in Jesus’ last footsteps. Even if the actual roads he likely traveled are several feet below the ones I walked.

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I should not be surprised by this, but I find that as I write, I have more to say about my favorite parts of the trip.

Stay tuned.

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