When Christianity is not warm and fuzzy

Jesus is challenging me today. He says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.” (MT 10:37-39) Jesus tells the crowd that he did not come to bring peace on earth, but to cause division within families, communities, even nations. Our God knew he needed to shake things up a bit.

I always cringe and shrink back a little bit when Jesus talks about the need to take up our individual cross and follow him. I don’t really know what cross it is He wants me to take up. I would much rather pray that I can “be a nice person today” without thinking that my real calling might be something that requires just a bit more spiritual heavy lifting than that. I like soft and cuddly Christianity.

It can’t always be that way. We know that the early Christians suffered greatly for their faith. In exchange for the joy of knowing the Holy Spirit, they had to hide from authorities and meet in secret. Many of them were locked up, beaten, and killed. In some parts of the world, that treatment continues today. Division is still common throughout the world, including, if we are honest, in our own nation, communities, and sometimes even our homes.

Perhaps the cross that Jesus wants me to bear today is the visible cross of Christianity. Throughout history, what made Christians distinctive was our love for one another and our love for our enemies. Love that may be firm, not craven, but still clearly love for everyone who is, after all, just as much a child of God as we are.

Yes, indeed, Jesus is challenging me today.

The laborers are few

Today’s Gospel reading puts the modern-day priest shortage into a useful perspective. Jesus had no priests to work with when he founded his ministry. Today, in the 9th Chapter of Matthew, He calls the 12 Apostles to him, recognizing that “the harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few.” Tomorrow’s reading is from Chapter 10 and it has Jesus sending the Apostles out to the Jews, curing their diseases, casting out demons, and most important, telling them that the Kingdom of God is at hand. The first Christian Missionaries are put to work.

Jesus saw the hunger for God in the people around him. Matthew tells us that the Lord’s heart was troubled when he saw how they were “harassed and helpless.” Jesus was the embodiment of His father who is love itself, and love grieves when it sees pain and loneliness. But Jesus knew that he could not reach everyone by himself. Although he traveled all over his part of the world, he was still one man and walking was the fastest form of transport available to him. So he sent the Apostles. And then later, the 70 disciples. And then the Holy Spirit who supercharged the work of Jesus’ followers, allowing them to bring thousands of people to the Way of Christ by their zeal and love. And now, he sends you and I.

The work that began in the 9th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel continues today. There are still many, many lost sheep. There are people among us who have never heard the good news, or who have heard it but have forgotten it or who never understood the incredible promise of eternal life that lies within it. Each of us has friends, neighbors and family members who are “harassed and helpless” because Jesus is not a part of their life. They need gentle reminders that the Kingdom of God is truly at hand.

The harvest is still abundant, but the laborers are still few. Jesus continues to call us to go forth and spread the good news. Most of us don’t have the power to cure illnesses or cast out demons, but we do have the power to love. That was enough for the 12 in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s enough for us today.

Doubting Thomas

Today is the feast day of Thomas the Apostle, famously known as “Doubting Thomas.” In the modern world, Thomas is remembered as the Apostle who said he would not believe in Jesus’ resurrection unless he touched His crucified hands and put his fingers into the stab wound in the Lord’s side. Jesus granted his request, and the rest is, literally, history. Thomas became a lesson to us all and a reminder that living a Christian life requires us to take some things on faith. Trust, without the “verify.”

Thomas is mentioned at least two other times in the Gospels. First, when Jesus announced that they were going to see Lazarus (who had fallen ill and died). Thomas said to the other disciples, “Let us go and die with him,” knowing that they were returning to an area where official hostility to Jesus was high. And the third mention was during the last supper, when Thomas, probably speaking the doubt that everyone else in the room felt, admitted to Jesus that he did not know “the way” to heaven that Jesus described. This gave Jesus the opportunity to reveal that He Himself is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

There is some dispute about what happened to Thomas after Jesus’ ascension. While it is generally believed that he brought the Gospel to parts of India, it is unclear where and how he died.

Saint Thomas was used by Jesus to show us that our doubts are an inevitable part of our faith. We accept some pretty outrageous things, things that people who insist on hard proofs will never accept. As St. Paul says, “We walk by faith, and not by sight,” (2 Cor 5:7).

Learning to accept those doubts and to move beyond them is one of the first battles that a developing Christian must face, although “battle” is probably the wrong way to say it. Because our challenge is to stop fighting it and accept it. To let Jesus be a part of our life despite the lack of tangible physical evidence. Once we do that, the spiritual evidence will come pouring into our souls. When we give our doubts to Jesus in faith, he gives back to us proof in the form of spiritual grace. And like a torrent on a grass fire, spiritual grace extinguishes doubt.

So, accept those nagging questions. Admit that you wonder why certain things are the way they are. Don’t hide them, set them down at the table the next time you and Jesus are having a quiet cup of coffee. And then be prepared to be amazed.

Jesus talks to me

Do you hear God speaking to you? I do. Quite often in fact. And if I listened more carefully, I am confident that He would speak to me even more often.

Jesus speaks to me every morning, both in the scriptures that I start my day with, and then also as I (try to) spend a few minutes in quiet reflection. Even more often, I hear the voice of Jesus in my friends, family, coworkers and acquaintances. As I go through my day, if I am listening for it, Jesus will speak to me through the mouths of others.

How do I know it’s the voice of Jesus? That’s a good question. Sometimes it’s not clear. But more often, the comment, the written word, or the feeling expressed is so obvious and exactly on point to what’s troubling my heart that it could only have come from the one who knows my heart best. There is a side of faith that just knows.

The egotistical side of me wants to play Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments and hear a deep, thundering voice from within a burning bush. I would love to witness a miracle, or to hear Jesus tell me a parable to illustrate the hypocrisy of earthly living. The earthly part of me secretly hopes for the fame and familiarity of God speaking to me in a clear human voice.

But the God that I need to hear, the voice of Jesus Christ, is present in the world all around me. He speaks gently, softly, and directly to the hurt in my heart, asking only that I listen.

The nearness of God

I’m in Cleveland for a business trip this morning. From my hotel, I can see Lake Erie, a grand ocean of fresh water. There are a couple of fishing boats just outside the city’s harbor. Down on the docks, Great Lakes ships are loading and unloading. Cars are zipping along on the city streets and every now and then a freight train moves through or a cute little transit train hums past on its electric tracks. Downtown Cleveland is a hard working place in the morning.

Where is God in all of this? Of the hundreds of cars whizzing past my window, how many drivers are murmuring a decade of the rosary, or offering up worries about a challenge that awaits them at work? From my angle, I can’t see the front windshields; how many mirrors have rosaries or crucifixes swinging from them; a simple modern reminder to watch the road, but keep God close by? How many dock workers started their morning by reading the scriptures, or simply asking God to keep them safe today?

Last night, my wife and I were strolling downtown Cleveland. An affable older gentleman on a bicycle struck up a conversation, telling us his name, complimenting me on how I looked, working his way sincerely through his lines. And, of course, closing with the claim that he’d been sober for five years, but he was homeless, and for just five dollars, he could get a really good sandwich at that restaurant over there. I sighed and gave him the two singles in my wallet. Was I conned? Almost certainly yes. But he was a beggar, he was undoubtedly poor. Jesus didn’t offer much leeway when he told us, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.” He didn’t ask me to evaluate the guy. It may not have been the right decision, but it’s what my heart felt called to do.

Matthew 1:23 says, “the Virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). We don’t worship a distant God. Our creator and guide lives with us, not above and beyond us. He interacts with us constantly throughout the day, helping, guiding, testing, correcting and oftentimes just loving. Like a parent with a toddler, He’s there watching our every move, letting us learn to walk, to explore and to have adventures…but not step into the middle of a busy street.

Our challenge is to learn, to get to know Him better, to grow into beings who care for the people around us, in all their shapes, sizes and economic predicaments. To watch out for one another; to love one another like ourselves.

Because He gave us a son whose name is Immanuel.

Sometimes God confuses me

I will confess that there are some passages, chapters, and even the occasional book of the Bible that are just simply over my head. The message is just too profound for my little mind. Take this morning’s first reading for example. What sort of message am I supposed to take from “Brothers and Sisters, as God is faithful our word to you is not ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was proclaimed to you by us, Silvanus and Timothy and me was not ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ but ‘yes’ has been in him.”? (2 COR 1:18-19) Am I the only one doing a reverent, “Huh?” at that statement?

I feel like the Ethiopian who needed Phillip’s help in Chapter 8 of Acts. An Ethiopian had come to Jerusalem to worship and was sitting in his Chariot reading the Book of Isaiah. Philip asked him if he understood the book, and the man admitted, “How can I understand without someone to teach me?” Phillip walked him through the meaning of the particular passage the Ethiopian had been stuck on and then baptized him before God whisked him off to his next assignment. And thus the Church was introduced to Ethiopia. But Phillip isn’t here this morning. Just me and the dynamic, brilliant and sometimes-confusing words of St. Paul.

If I’m at Mass, Father will usually explain what I need to know. If that fails, a good internet connection and a few minutes of judicious searching will give me enough insights to set me straight. I often turn to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops web site (usccb.org), and Catholic Answers (Catholic.com) is the largest lay-run apologetics web site in the country.  It’s also useful sometimes to simply type, “Explain 2 Corinthians 1:18-19” into your search browser and see what comes up. Be cautious about that last method, however. There are all sorts of bizarre web sites that can lead you down strange paths. With a little careful reading a consensus of meaning emerges quickly if you look at several, always including Catholic.com or the bishops.

But then there are days like today, where I think it might be useful for me to just accept the word as it is and not try to wring every nuance of meaning out of it. After all, there’s plenty in God’s creation that makes no sense at all (Middle Eastern politics comes to mind). Perhaps there are days when the Holy Spirit is saying, “Just trust me.”

God’s full plan is hidden from us. As humble creatures of our creator, even though we’re made in His image, we’re not Him. How a blade of grass in my front lawn fits into the cosmic plan makes perfect sense to God, but I’m not going to fully understand it. Nor do I need to. A little bit of humility guides me to realize that I can do my part in the plan, loving God and loving my neighbor, without the need to fully-grasp the big picture.

The reason for our hope? Love.

Last week we talked about the idea that evangelization for most of us is the simple exercise of acting like a Christian with everyone we meet. Be kind, be loving, be helpful. For the former Boy Scouts out there, carry Lord Baden Powell’s admonition with you and, “Do a good turn daily.” It’s Jesus’ second greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

But remember that loving your neighbor is the second commandment. As important as loving your neighbor is, Jesus did not list that one first. God comes first. We are absolutely commanded to “Love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength.” (see Mark 12:30). When we’ve done that, we can move on to loving one another. But God comes first.

Recall last week’s conversation from the First Book of Peter. In Chapter 3, Peter asks us to “always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” The reason for our hope is pretty straightforward: Jesus came into the world and gave himself up in exchange for our sins. We will live forever if we believe and live with Jesus.  And that takes us right back to Commandment’s #1 and #2. Love God. Love our neighbor.

We exist in this earthly place for one simple reason: to spread love. God’s plan is to save as many of his beloved children as possible, and to do that, he has enlisted us to spread this simple message. Love God and love one another. It doesn’t get more complicated than that. We can think about it, study on it, debate it for millennia. And we have. It still comes back to five words, and two of them are “love.”

The first commandment doesn’t ask us to “understand” God. It doesn’t say, “Study about God,” or “Give all your money to God,” or “Shout God’s name from the rooftops.” It says “Love God.” Love God the way you love your worldly partner: with everything. Your heart, your mind, your soul and your strength.

I love my wife. We’ve been married nearly 38 years and her smile still makes me weak in the knees. She knows I love her. But I still have to tell her. I still have to make coffee for her in the morning and write her little love notes now and then. And I still have to give her hugs. Love needs to be shown.

Love for God is no different. God knows you love Him. But we have to say it. We have to pray it. We have to spend time with Him. We have to do what He’s asked us to do. Love is not a noun or an adjective; it’s a verb. Love is action. Or it’s not love. And love is everything.

Quiet Evangelization

The topic of evangelization has always made me squirm. Jesus told us quite clearly to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” (MT 28:19) Jesus’ words and the work of the Catholic Church for centuries is clearly-focused on taking the Good News to all corners of the world. Our work isn’t done until everyone has been given an opportunity to join the Body of Christ, and it’s my job to present those opportunities.

But for a quiet little bookworm like me, that’s scary. The idea of trying to win over an atheist or any non-believer is intimidating; in large part because I don’t feel equipped with “the answers.” What if they ask me something hard, like the definition of Consubstantial, or the Biblical origin of Mary’s virginity? I can’t even recite the Ten Commandments in the correct order.

And there’s the whole 21st Century Political Correctness thing. We have imposed a gag order on ourselves in the name of civility. We don’t talk about religion or politics in polite company. It is a modern rule that we have to avoid saying something that someone might be uncomfortable hearing. (This topic is a whole conversation in itself that we’ll get to another time.)

Once again, my favorite Apostle has come to my rescue. In last Sunday’s second reading, St. Peter tells us that evangelization should be a modest, humble experience. One of my most beloved lines in the Bible comes from the First Book of Peter. In Chapter 3, he tells us that we should “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope,” but that we should also “Do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.” The whole book is a good, short read on the topic of humble evangelization.

I don’t have to stand on a soapbox at the corner of Main Street, singing the praises of God. But I do have to live a good life; I do have to love everyone around me (friend and foe). I have to be kind to such an extreme degree that people may think I’m some sort of weirdo, but I don’t have to shout about it. I just need to do it. And if anyone asks, I have to give credit where credit is due: Jesus made me do it.

Perhaps as important as all of that, I also need to spend time in prayer so that I have the explanation if someone asks for it. Could I answer the question right now if someone asked me? Why am I absolutely, rock-solid, no doubt, Hallelujah!-convinced that Jesus is God’s only “begotten” son and that we all have a share in the eternal kingdom? Perhaps that’s an even more difficult task.

Let’s talk some more about this next week.

Three words for a simple day

Coffee cup in hand, I sat down at my keyboard this morning, my mind a complete blank. “Lord, what would you like me to say today?” was all that I could summon to my mind.

There’s no deep wisdom in my thoughts this morning. I haven’t had any really deep insights into the meaning of the Mass, work, charity or mowing the lawn. I’m just sitting here, ready to do your will. I am not on fire with the Holy Spirit; nor am I in the grip of the evil one. I’m just here. What’s a Christian to do on days like today, when everything around us just feels so…ordinary?

Last week, my wife put a sticky-note on one of the kitchen cupboard doors. On the note she wrote the word, “Praise.” It’s a reminder to her that she should praise God in everything and all the time. It’s a simple reminder that there is a God, that He is both within us, coaching us and guiding us, and that He is the Almighty, the cosmic creator of everything. He helps me to love at the same time that He gives the sky its unique pale blue color this morning. Praise, indeed.

A good friend and advisor is always encouraging me to be grateful. Particularly when I am in a funk, he tells me to make a “gratitude list,” a list of the gifts that I have been given. The list is ever-changing, but it’s always fairly long. God’s been pretty good to me.

Before sitting down at the keyboard this morning, I offered up my day to God. No specific petitions; no healings or miracles; no insights. In fact, all I asked for today was that He use me to do His will, whatever that may be. It was a short, “Here I am, Lord,” Samuel-type prayer.

Praise, thanksgiving, and surrender. That’s all I have for today. It’s probably enough.

The Holy Spirit lives

The Holy Spirit is a wind that blows through the world. Like the wind, we can’t point to where it began or where it will end.

Did Saints Peter, Paul, James, John, Mary Magdalen and the other first followers of Christ have any idea where their work was going to end? Did they even have an inkling that their words were going to be repeated for many centuries? Could they have imagined that we’d be reading and re-reading their letters in remotest Canada, Africa and Australia? God knows.

Jesus told the Apostles that they would perform works that were even greater than the things He did. That’s quite a challenge, considering what He accomplished. In just three years, Jesus built a church that would last for millennia. He laid down principles that would guide the lives of billions of people and undergird the constitutional frameworks of countries around the globe. Most importantly, he would conquer death for us. He would open a doorway that had been closed to humanity; a doorway to Heaven. A doorway to our true home. And the Apostles were supposed to top that?

Yes. Jesus laid the foundation, but the Apostles built the house. They were His witnesses and carried the good news many miles farther than Jesus had gone. The Church quickly outgrew the 12’s ability to properly minister to everyone, so they appointed new leaders, deacons, presbyters and others to carry on the work. Many of the Epistles that we read each week were letters from the Apostles to those distant churches; encouraging them, reminding them, exhorting them.

The Apostles didn’t have an easier road than Jesus. For the most part, they suffered the same fate on Earth that He endured. All but one of the first 12 Apostles were murdered because of their work. Capture, abuse and murder of Christians was common, even a sport during the first centuries. They said the words, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty,” and “I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,” during a time when saying such things was considered treason by the government.  

Through all of these challenges and trials they built the church. The universal, worldwide, eternal church. The Body of Christ. A Church that has survived time and time again periods of persecution, corruption and apathy. A church that has a place for every human being. Doing great things, doing simple things, making mistakes, enduring. The Church itself is a miracle, a miracle of global proportions.

And perhaps the greatest miracle of all is that it was created by an unlikely bunch of fishermen, tax collectors and other common folk. Sustained by even more common folk.

I can’t wait to see where this goes tomorrow.