Geography of hope

"Dad," my 9-year-old son yelled over his brothers and sisters from the back seat on a recent drive home from town, "this is where we heard on the radio that Dallas lost to the Packers."

"Right here?" I asked the diehard Cowboys fan incredulously. We were passing a corn field outside of town.

"Yeah, I always remember that here."

His memory sparked a chain reaction of others.

A number of years ago when I faced a trying challenge at a previous job, I reached out to a priest friend - then living abroad - for some advice. To this day, I remember exactly when and where I took his call. I was schlepping several high-decibel kids on a Saturday morning errand when the international call came in. Since there was no way I could talk over the kids, I veered into the Harmony Middle School parking lot in Hamilton, jumped out of the minivan and took the call just before it would have gone to voicemail.

His call turned out to be an oasis of encouragement. As the kids watched a video in the nearby minivan, I found myself almost doubled over from laughing as my friend lifted my spirits with unexpected humor. A weight lifted. The call altered the geography of my daily routine. I am not able to pass that parking lot without a sense of gratitude welling up within - for friendships and for the Lord's protection of my family.

Less than three miles from each of these places is another landmark. On Harmony Church Road at 9 a.m. Dec. 31, 2008, Father Michael Kelly, then-pastor of St. Francis de Sales Church in Purcellville, was hit by a falling tree while removing a branch from the road. He died on the scene at the age of 53.

In a few conversations and homilies in the years leading up to that day, Father Kelly removed some obstacles from my own life. He had a disarming way of making the Gospels come to life.

"But what cross do we carry?" he said in a 2008 homily. "Aside from sharing in the sufferings of Christ in doing the Father's will, we remember that the cross was also a physical, tangible object made of wood. And what does the paper come from to make the pages of God's Word? Wood. We pick that wood up daily if we would follow Him."

Places of sacrifice. Places of gratitude. Place of memory.

The Holy Land is filled with stone markers at sites where the Lord became present. After a victory over the Philistines, Samuel "took a stone and placed it between Mizpah and Jeshanah; he named it Ebenezer, explaining, 'As far as this place the Lord has been our help.'"

Where do the Ebenezers of our own lives stand? What is our geography of hope?

With Northern Virginia daily commutes among the worst in the nation, our highways seem to be the remotest places possible from shrines, markers or places of encounter with the Lord. I-66, Route 50, Route 7, I-81 and I-95 seem at face value "unsanctified" and barren expanses of tedium and despair.

And yet, if these roads are without "Ebenezers" for ourselves and our families, I fear that we have only ourselves to blame.

Moreover, if the sacraments are pouring grace into our lives, our homes and places of work ought to be filled with dozens of stone markers: Here is where I experienced forgiveness when I didn't think I was worthy of it; here is where the Lord gave me the right words to say; here is where I apologized; here is where I visited a neighbor who grieved a loss; here is where I called a fellow parishioner to encourage him in his job search.

"The apostles never forgot the moment when Jesus touched their hearts," Pope Francis wrote in "The Joy of the Gospel": "It was about four o'clock in the afternoon" (Jn 1:39). The apostle John imparted the "four o'clock" detail not to fill space but to convey just how unforgettable an encounter with Jesus is.

My 9-year-old son can remember the time and place of his beloved Cowboys' downfall. All the more so, my wife and I hope and pray that he and his siblings will one day look back on a childhood strewn with Ebenezers. May he see the tree of life at every turn. What a high calling each of us has - at home, work and in between - as we invite the Holy Spirit to show us where the next Ebenezer needs to be raised.

Johnson, a husband and father of five, is Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde's special assistant for evangelization and media. He can be reached on Twitter @Soren_t.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015