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After dinner, as the sun sank below the horizon, my mother would spread a blanket for us on the grass in our backyard. I had not yet entered kindergarten, and this routine served as part of my bedtime ritual.

We would lie side by side, gazing silently upward. One star, and then another, and then several at once would twinkle amid the deepening gloom. Eventually, billions of stars dusted our little patch of earth with a gentle light.

A serenity settled into our bones. When clouds hid the stars from us, my mother would say, “Remember, those stars are still shining down on you, even when it’s hard to see them.”

Whether my mother initially intended for our nightly stargazing sessions to be lessons in hope or not, that’s how they seem to me looking back.

She did not speak to me about hope as a theological virtue. Instead, she helped me to feel hope for myself. Passing clouds provided her with a teachable moment.

Life is not all starry skies and moonbeams. Sometimes it will enrage you or leave you breathless with grief. Storms blow in, and if we lose sight of the deep goodness and beauty of the world, we can tumble into despair.

So, she seemed to be saying, keep looking for the holiness all around you. Or, as I’ve come to say it now, look for God in messy places, in the life you’ve actually got.

Hope bubbles up from an awareness that God is in this mess with you, offering light in the darkness. But God is doing more than merely sitting alongside you.

God’s love is making you what Paul called a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This is resurrection at work in your life, a process of dying to an old life and rising to greater life already in process on planet Earth.

A nominal Roman Catholic, my mother was spiritual but not religious before that way of identifying yourself became common.

She trusted God implicitly, not as a fixer-in-chief who guarantees positive outcomes but as a reliable, sustaining, nurturing presence. As the one who would be with her and love her no matter what—and whose love would continue to shape her into her true self.

I suppose that’s why she loved with nearly reckless abandon, and I’ve come to see that her relentless hopefulness arose from her awareness of what God was doing in her life.

God’s relentless love for her led her to devote her own life to loving others. She hadn’t learned this lesson from the nuns at school or from the pulpit during Mass but … from her experience as a prisoner in Mauthausen-Gusen Concentration Camp.

This is an excerpt from Chapter 4 “An Inextinguishable Light” from my latest book Looking for God in Messy Places. You can read more about my mother’s experiences and the power of hope there. Click this link to learn more or grab a copy.

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