Moses, Aaron, Hur and us

Sometimes our leaders need our help. Sometimes the job of the faithful is less than glamorous. That doesn’t make it any less critical, or any less Holy.

Take Aaron and Hur. In Chapter 17 of Exodus, the Israelites found themselves in a battle with a band of people known as the Amalekites. Moses sent Joshua and a group of warriors to fight while he stood on a hilltop. As long as Moses kept his arms raised with the staff of the Lord in his outstretched hands, the Israelites controlled the battle, but whenever he dropped his arms, the Amalekites had the upper hand. Eventually, Moses got tired. Aaron and Hur found him a rock to sit upon, and the two of them held his arms up until sunset, while on the field of battle, Joshua defeated the Amalekites.

Who’s the hero of this story? Joshua and his soldiers certainly did the hard work of the battle. Moses was God’s messenger, delivering the inspiration of the Lord to the army through his raised arms. God himself provided the victory.

But what about the contributions of Aaron and Hur? In this case, God made it clear to Joshua that his strength and skill at fighting weren’t going to be enough to save the day. Moses, messenger of miracles for the Israelites, was not going to be able to do this by himself either. Aaron and Hur had the tedious, glamourless job of simply holding Moses’ arms up. Their part in the battle was critical.

Of course God could have defeated the Amalekites by himself. He could have handed the victory to Joshua a dozen different ways, or He could have given Moses arms as strong as stones. But that’s not how He wants this story to be told. God wants us to recognize that, while there are major battles to be won for Him, those battles are going to take many, many small tasks. God will send us leaders, priests, sisters, and other faith warriors to lead us. But without our support those priests, sisters and warriors will not have enough strength. They need faithful people around them, holding them up when they get tired. Providing them food when they are hungry. Doing the hundreds of un-miraculous things that friends and family members do for one another. Because it’s all a part of God’s interconnected plan for us. And step one of that plan is to lean on each other.

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What’s my job?

I’ve spent a lot of time asking God what He wants me to do. What’s my calling? What’s my vocation? What is the unique role You have in mind for me? Today’s Gospel gives the answer; an answer that hides in plain sight all of our lives. Our job is to believe and to spend time with Jesus. He’ll take care of the rest.

This Sunday’s Mass readings were the familiar grouping of Exodus and the story of God’s gift to the Israelites of manna and quail, coupled with John’s Gospel where Jesus refers to himself as “the bread of life.” (Chapter 16 in Exodus and the tail end of Chapter 6 of John.) The Israelites were hungry and grousing about being freed from slavery. (It’s amazing how we lose perspective when we’re “hangry,” isn’t it?) God sent them flocks of quail to eat at dinner time and every morning He covered the ground with manna, which the Israelites gathered and baked into a delicious bread. Jesus built on that story by using a handful of loaves and fish to feed a crowd of thousands, and then he tied it all together by telling them that he is the bread that lasts forever. All that he asks of us is to believe it, and to follow him. “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”

We could go on and talk about the rest of the Gospel story, how Jesus told us we have to eat his body and drink his blood. At that point thousands of people left him, thinking this was just too weird. But let’s save that part of the story for another day.

Today, I’m thinking about the straightforward task that Jesus gives us. His disciples had been amazed at both his words and his signs. He had their attention, so he put a challenge before them, “Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” Naturally enough, the people around him wanted that food. “What’s the job?” they were asking him, “we’ll do it, just point us to the work.”

At that point, Jesus pointed at himself and told them to simply listen and believe, and act on what they heard. He didn’t send them off to conquer another country, or to overthrow Rome. He didn’t ask them to build a temple. Just listen, believe, and come to Jesus. A simple task; a divine calling.

We still go looking for the complicated task, or perhaps for the “glorious” calling. Two thousand years hasn’t changed much about human nature; we reject what is simple and obvious, particularly when it involves humility and getting outside our own heads and egos. Jesus didn’t come to build a world of heroic conquerors; he came to build a world of quiet, humble and steady lovers. Because the world has proven time and again that what man builds doesn’t last. Walls fall, cities fall, kingdoms disappear into dusty history books. But the kingdom built on love and faith in Jesus is eternal. It always was, it still is, an it always will be.

That’s our job; that’s our calling.

Jesus would’ve been a great coach

Have you noticed throughout the Gospels how Jesus is always nudging his apostles and followers to be better than they are; to do just a bit more than they were doing; to go beyond whatever it was that the apostles thought they should be doing? Jesus was the world’s best motivational speaker/coach/mentor. He knows what we’re capable of and he wants to open our eyes to the possibility that we can do it.

Take the story of the wealthy young man in Chapter 17 of Matthew’s Gospel. The story goes that he ran up to Jesus, knelt and asked what he can do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him to sell everything and join the others who were following the new path. The young man went away sad. The young man thought he was doing it right. He’d been following the commandments his entire life; what more could God want from him?! Give up everything? That was just one thing too many.

Or what about the story of Peter walking on water? In Chapter 14 of Matthew, Jesus walks on the water toward the disciples. Peter, scared out of his wits and perhaps not 100% sure he wasn’t seeing a ghost, asked Jesus, “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus complied and Peter was good for the first couple of steps. Then his faith faltered and he sank. Jesus fished him out and asked him why he doubted.

No matter where we are in our faith journey, we can do more. And no matter how weak or faulty we are, we can succeed. We cling to our possessions, we cling to our accomplishments and we even cling to our fears. We hold onto what we know because we’re afraid of what we don’t know. Jesus understands that about us. After all, He stood at his Father’s elbow as we were created; he has seen the recipe of our DNA. He knows that both striving and fearing are a natural part of the human condition.

But he also knows we are Sons and Daughters of God. We are children born of the soil of this earth and at the same time we are everlasting spirits born of the breath of God. It’s an incredible creation; we are an incredible creation. While we are on Earth we won’t fully appreciate what we can do; and therefore we will always be striving. God built into each of us a longing for the Eternal Life, so we spend the mortal life reaching for it. Learning, failing, and growing are mysterious and necessary parts of our development as God’s children. And God gave us the Universe’s best personal trainer to guide us along in that development.

We are wonderfully made

Reading the psalm selection for yesterday’s Mass was a challenge for me. The responsorial psalm was verse 14 of Psalm 139. “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Saying that over and over again seems wrong.

I’m not alone. Many of my good friends struggle to say those words. It seems the more humble you are, the harder it is to acknowledge something that we all know: we are children of God, created in His image. That means we are a pretty awesome creation. But there’s an immature form of humility that tempts us to we deny who we are. The old “Aw shucks, Ma’am, it weren’t nothin” sort of humility that prohibits us from acknowledging that God’s works are fabulous and that we are the best of his work. 

For most of us, this self-deprecating humility is born from a fear that we will let our egos run wild, and we will start to praise ourselves above God; that we will start to take credit for his creation. Where’s the balance?

Like most things from the Bible, the answer often comes to me when I read the whole context. In this case, Psalm 139 is a prayer that acknowledges God is everywhere and in everything, including us. “You have searched me and you know me. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely. Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.There’s more, but you get the idea.

If we were cars, human beings would be two-seaters; we were built to operate with God alongside us. We are not solo operators. The human soul works best when it works in complete cooperation with its creator. Things work out better when we allow God to be a part of every action we take, every word that we speak and every decision that we make. Even when life doesn’t treat us so well, accepting the challenges of life and immediately turning them over to God allows him to use them to build us up; to make good come out of evil.

We are wired to operate this way. Cooperation with God is a part of our nature. When we’re not cooperating with him, we feel out of synch; something’s “just not right,” and we can’t put our finger on what it is…until we get back to where we belong. It’s a naturally-regulating sort of existence. When we are cooperating with the Divine Will, life has a natural, easy “flow” to it. That’s not an accident.

That’s a pretty awesome creation. Give thanks for it and go with it. It’s how you were designed.

Saints and lost keys

Today is the feast day of Saint Anthony of Padua. Saint Anthony was a Franciscan priest of the 13th century. He was an incredible speaker, attracting hundreds of listeners. He died exhausted in his mid-30’s. His piety was so obvious to everyone that he was proclaimed a saint in less than a year.

Today, most Catholics who know Saint Anthony know him best for his ability to guide them to lost objects. Yup. Saint Anthony helps us find our lost stuff. Christianity is weird sometimes.

I was thinking about that; wondering why God designed his universe this way. Why is it one of the Heavenly roles of a man who was a famous and inspiring speaker to spend his eternity whispering in our ears “You left your car keys on that bookshelf over there.” Wouldn’t his time be better spent putting inspiring thoughts in our head?

Among many other realizations, I have come to know that God does a way better job planning this universe than I do. Therefore I will assume that He has good reasons for the roles he assigns, no matter how odd they may strike the rest of us. And I can live with that.

But I also had a thought that perhaps one of the reasons is that God wants us to live every day in connection with one another, both the living among us and the dead. We are, according to the Creed, “a communion of saints.” We are a single body of believers; short and tall, fat and thin, smart and simple, living and dead. We are many, many parts. But a body whose parts don’t communicate with one another wouldn’t work very well, would it?

Is it possible that God assigned the eloquent Saint Anthony to help folks recover their lost objects as a way to encourage people to communicate with Anthony (and for Anthony to communicate with us)? Is God using this as one more tool to keep us in communion with one another, regardless of which side of the curtain of life we’re on?

I often talk to Saint Gerard, the patron saint of expectant mothers. I was named after him (I was my mom’s eleventh child). My wife and I have had a couple dozen babies through our household, both our own and foster kiddoes; Gerard and I have a lot to talk about. I also like to seek advice from Saint Philip Neri, a saint known for his quick wit and humble sense of humor. And every now and then I meet a new Saint who either lived an interesting life or has a unique calling. And we talk.

God invented networking long before business schools thought of it. Have a terrific day. Stay connected.

The Ultimate Sacrifice

It’s amazing how we neglect to think about the Eucharist. Speaking just for myself, although I am a lifelong Catholic, it was decades before I actually sat down and asked myself whether I truly, TRULY believed I was eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus. On its face, it is a horrifying thought, but when we accept it as the supernatural gift that it is, we realize that it’s an incredible thought. Jesus suffered through a painful and ignoble tortured death in atonement for all of the sins that people before and after him had committed and were going to commit, including mine. He stepped in and took the place of the doves, lambs, goats and bulls that our faith ancestors had been killing and offering up as sacrifices. Just Jesus, just the Son of God, offered up once and for all. With the power only God can confer, he declared that bread and wine would become his body and blood and we were to eat that sacrificial meal as an essential part of our spiritual life forevermore. And for over 2,000 years, we’ve done exactly that.

It’s incredible. It’s mysterious. It is an example of generosity that no human can match. We should think about it more often.

 

The greatest commandment

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Yesterday was a combo feast. It was Mother’s Day, but it was also the feast of the Ascension of the Lord; the day we remember and celebrate Jesus being taken up into heaven. The combination evoked bittersweet memories for me. Years ago, my mother passed away suddenly from a heart attack. I never had an opportunity for a proper goodbye and the sadness of that has lingered. Even though her passing was more than 20 years ago, there’s still an incompleteness to it; an empty space.

Did Jesus take the time to say goodbye to his mother? The Bible doesn’t talk about it, but I can’t imagine him leaving without spending time with her. God is love, and Jesus was all about spreading that love. There’s no way he would have ascended to heaven without taking one last walk through the garden with the woman who bore him, literally, in birth and in death.

Before Jesus left, he assured his Apostles, and by extension all of us, that he would not be far away. He said that he would return one day and we eagerly await that day. But he also promised to remain within us, as long as we kept his commandment…and his commandment was that we love one another. 

On Mother’s Day, my wife likes to wear her mother’s charm necklace. The necklace has a child-shaped charm for each of the 22 babies that she cared for when we were foster parents. It’s quite a conversation-starter. Most people do a bit of a double-take when they realize what the charms represent. Twenty-two babies (twenty-seven, if you count our five birth children) is a lot of…a lot of life. And it’s a lot of love.

My wife and my mom have a lot in common. They share a unique passion for children. Between my wife’s 27 and my mom’s 13 (plus a horde of grandchildren), they have given years of their lives to nurture future generations. They have lived Christ’s commandment.

Happy Ascension Day, Jesus. Your commandment is alive and well.

He works in mysterious..and sometimes humorous..ways

Last week, my wife and I were driving from Sheboygan to Milwaukee. We got into a conversation about replacing our home computer, which is several years old and not very efficient. I recommended that we buy an inexpensive new one. Linda resisted, claiming the old one still worked. The topic rubbed raw nerves in each of us and the conversation became strained. It was an argument; not quite a fight, but an argument.

We talked ourselves into separate corners and I decided to cut off any further conversation about it. Internally, I was trying to keep it from descending into a fight. Externally, it probably looked to Linda like I was turning it into one. But regardless, I said that I was done talking about it and didn’t want to talk any more. I turned on the radio, just as Cliff Richard was singing his 1979 hit song. The very first words Linda & I heard were, “It’s so funny, why we don’t talk anymore…”

We laughed so hard tears came to our eyes. Linda said, “It’s a sign,” and I said, “I know it is, and I think God should be quiet!” as I laughed. Our dispute over whether or not to replace the home computer immediately fell into the category of “unimportant,” where it belonged.

The Lord is working constantly in our world. Nothing is too small for Him to notice. He tries to talk to us directly, but His voice is soft and small and we are all too often making too much of our own noise to hear him. At those times He will use the world around us to speak to us. Listen for His voice in everyone and everything around you today. He is there.

Don’t be “goin’ it alone”

One of the ways the world pulls us down the wrong path is by telling us that we have to “stand on our own two feet,” “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” and do things “my way.” My way is not God’s way. Living the eternal life is a team sport; there are no solos.

I keep a copy of Saint Faustina’s Diary on my night stand. Saint Faustina was a Polish nun who lived in the 1920’s-30’s. Jesus spoke to her on a regular basis and she was the one who brought The Divine Mercy to the Church. She kept a diary for most of her religious life, and I find it to be a great source of wisdom.

A few nights ago I was paging through it and came across this insightful paragraph.

“When one day I resolved to practice a certain virtue, I lapsed into the vice opposed to that virtue ten times more frequently than on other days. In the evening, I was reflecting on why, today, I had lapsed so extraordinarily, and I heard the words: You were counting too much on yourself and too little on me. And I understood the cause of my lapses.” Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, Paragraph 1087.

This is a common trap for me. I will often realize that I’m overeating, underpraying, cursing or falling prey to one of dozens of worldly shortcomings and I’ll resolve to stop doing that. I take the very manly route of determining that I will be stronger, I will be a better person, I will force myself to build the habits that I need; I will, I will, I will. And then I fail.

There’s nothing wrong with self-discipline and gradually building ourselves into the person that God created us to be. Living the “if it feels good, do it,” lifestyle is destructive to both our bodies and souls, and we need to resist those constant temptations. But we are designed to do that in cooperation with our Creator. He wants us to call on him constantly throughout the day, not just at bedtime.

So the next time I’m faced with temptation in its many forms, I pray that I will have the common sense to resist…and to pray.

I don’t like snakes

Okay, let’s get this out on the table right now. This post is about snakes, but I don’t like snakes. They’re creepy, they move funny and the big kids used them to scare me when I was a boy. I just don’t like them, okay?

So, why did God have to use the serpent as a sign of healing? I would have preferred a bunny rabbit.

In the old Testament, the Israelites were constantly getting in trouble as they wandered in the desert. They’d be okay for a while, but soon God would find them off in a corner, worshiping some pagan god or other and generally not paying attention to the laws and commandments He had given them. Frequently, God resorted to Old Testament-style discipline to get their attention refocused on living the life He had designed for them as His chosen people.

In one instance, God sent snakes. (I’m glad I wasn’t there.) The Israelite camp became infested with serpents. Many of the people were bitten and became ill or died. They repented for their wrongs, asked Moses to pray for them, and God told Moses to put a brass likeness of the “fiery serpent” on a pole. Anyone who looked at the serpent on the pole was cured. (See the Book of Numbers, Chapter 21, verses 4 thru 9.) King Hezekiah destroyed the serpent-on-a-stick a few decades later because the Israelites started worshipping it as if it were a pagan god, but that’s another story for another day.

Jesus revived the story of the serpent and the pole in a reference to his mission. In Chapter 3 of John’s Gospel, Jesus was trying to explain the concept of being born again in faith to a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Right before making his world-changing statement in John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”), Jesus told Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is the ultimate cure for eternal snakebite.

I’m still not crazy about snakes. God does not have to worry about me burning incense and worshiping one any time soon. Nor am I all that comfortable contemplating the horrible wounds and suffering that Jesus endured on the cross for my sake. But I recognize the powerful draw that the sins and temptations of this world have on me (just as they did on the Israelites), and I know that the world’s venom is even more deadly than the worst snake poison. And I am grateful that He is there to make me well.