Living outside the law

One of my interests lies in following politics. I have a lot of friends who range the political spectrum from left to right and there’s nothing I enjoy more than a conversation about where they’re coming from or the appropriate size and reach of American government. Should the law govern everything in our lives or as little as possible?

In his day, Saint Paul would have shrugged his shoulders and said the question didn’t apply to him. But not because he was a lawbreaker. The law of St. Paul was Jewish Law, the Torah as it was laid down by Moses. Paul claimed that all he needed was Jesus’ law to love one another.

Paul wrote a letter to the new Christians in Galatia, an ancient land that lies in Asia minor; where we now see the country of Turkey. This famous letter focused on the obligations that non-Jewish Christians had to follow the letter of Jewish law. One of the key sticking points of the day was the Jewish requirement that men be circumcised. As he was explaining to the Galatians that adherence to the Law was not required, Paul makes an important statement about Christians. In Galatians 5:18 Paul says, “But if you are led by the spirit, you are not under the law.” Paul was telling the new Christians that they did not have to follow the law, including the law requiring circumcision, if they were living the lives of Christians; that is, if they were loving one another as themselves. Later in that same chapter he points out that the fruits of this law of love are joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. “Against such there is no law.”

As I read these words, it struck me how appropriate that statement remains today. What need would we have of laws if our every act was subject to just one test: are we doing this out of love for our neighbor? What difference would laws make to a person who acted only in his neighbor’s best interest? We surely would never harm our neighbor, and even if we did so by accident we would be quick to make it right. All of the laws that we create to govern how we behave toward one another would be superfluous; there would be no point in them. 

Furthermore, there can be no law against good behavior. How do you write a law limiting joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? The law doesn’t exist to limit good behavior but to prevent bad behavior. Be as good as you want; the law won’t stop you.

Saint Paul is not an anarchist, advocating for a world of lawbreakers. He’s simply pointing out that, for Christians, the world is a very simple place because there’s really only one rule that we need to worry about. Love one another and everything else takes care of itself.

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More about listening

So, last time, I wrote about listening. This week, God gave me a gentle reminder that I haven’t been listening to him for years. Oops.

My daily prayer regimen starts first thing in the morning. I kneel for a short time and offer up a prayer, followed by studying the readings of the day. In theory, that’s followed by a few minutes of meditation. I’m pretty faithful about the daily prayer part. Meditation, not so much. In fact, it would be more accurate to describe my meditation as kinda-sorta-hit-or-miss-monthly-ish-maybe.

That’s too bad, because meditation should be an important part of any prayer life. Think of it as the listening half of conversation. When we pray, we’re talking to God. When we meditate, God is talking to us. Which voice is more important?

The problem is that listening is harder than talking. You wouldn’t think so, because the person doing the talking has to put the thoughts together and deliver them. All the listener has to do is absorb. Even more so meditation, because ideally, you’re not forming a response, and most of the time you don’t actually hear anything. You’re enjoying the quiet space and letting God steer your mind for a while. But in practice that’s hard.

I attend a study group of people and we’ve talked about this from time to time. I’m not alone. Most people don’t even bother trying meditation. We simply find it too difficult or uncomfortable to sit still for a length of time without talking, reading, listening to music or otherwise distracting our minds. It’s easier to talk to God than it is to listen to Him.

But what’s more important? My thoughts or God’s?

Are you listening?

Have you ever had your spouse say to you, “Are you even listening to me?” and find that you have to admit that, no, you’re not? Apparently, that happens to Jesus too.

In last Sunday’s Gospel Jesus was trying to explain to his disciples that he would be arrested, killed and would later rise from the dead. The Gospel writer Mark says, “His disciples did not understand him.” Why didn’t they understand this concept, or at least the first parts of it? After all, how complicated is “I’m going to be arrested and put to death”? I can understand them not grasping the thought of resurrection, but surely they’d understand that Jesus was predicting his own death, wouldn’t they? What were they thinking?

Perhaps the next paragraph offers a clue. When they got to their destination, Jesus asked them what they’d been arguing about on the journey. There was much shuffling of sandals and sheepishness until one of them admitted they’d been arguing about which of them was the greatest. Think about that. The Son of God was trying to explain to them that he would be arrested, humiliated, beaten and killed; and his closest followers were more interested in which of them would have the biggest statue erected in his honor!

Our human nature is to put ourselves first. Our own wants, needs and dreams fill up our world to the point where they crowd out the view of everything else. Even when God is talking to us, it takes an effort to overcome our self-obsession and pay attention to what He wants us to know.

The world is a noisy place. God won’t compete with the noise. He continues to speak to us quietly. He calls us; persistently, yet gently and softly. It takes an effort to quiet down and listen for His voice.

We need to practice listening for that voice. We need to look for Jesus. I know from experience that one of the places I’m most likely to find him is in the faces and voices of people around me. If I slow down. If I get off my own pedestal and start looking after the needs of those people. If I work to be the servant of all.

Hmm, what to pray for…

I am sitting here this morning trying to decide what and who (whom?) to pray for. Should I pray for world peace? How about praying for kindness and gentleness in the hearts of all world leaders, including our own? For healing, justice and purity for our beloved Catholic Church? For those names on our parish prayer chain that popped up in an email this morning? Or perhaps for those people I know who are suffering physically, spiritually, or a combination of the two? I heard an ambulance siren a short while ago; maybe I should pray for the poor soul who needs the help of emergency services in the wee hours of the morning. There are so many needs that we could spend 24 hours in prayer and still not touch everyone.

When his disciples ask for lessons in prayer, Jesus taught them the Our Father. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus warns us not to fill our prayer time with empty words and assures us that God knows what we need before we ask for it. He also promises that our prayers will be answered. (We all know from experience that “answered” means answered in God’s terms, not ours.)

Turning to God with prayers for my family, friends, community, our Church and the world doesn’t call God’s attention to the problem. It’s not like he was busy somewhere else and us tugging on His robe is what was needed to call attention to that war or that person with addiction. No, God got to the scene long before we did.

But our joining Him there is still spiritually useful. Perhaps we don’t fully understand the hows and whys of it; that’s okay. God’s world is full of those mysteries. God wants us to pray, therefore there is a powerful reason for prayer. That’s enough justification for me.

Heavenly Father, loving Father, thank you for creating us. Thank you for giving us the honored place of being your children and for inviting us to reach out to you. Like children, we turn to you with big prayers and little prayers. With eloquent prayers and awkward prayers. We turn to you in our own needs and when our neighbors need you. Thank you for hearing all of these prayers and for responding by enveloping us in the love that is Your Holy Spirit. May Your will be done. Amen.

Do I want to be perfect?

Today’s gospel reading is one of those narratives that always bothers me. It’s the story from chapter 19 of Matthew’s Gospel, telling about Jesus’ encounter with the wealthy young man who wants to gain eternal life. He’s very sincere, pressing Jesus for more, even though he follows the commandments.

Jesus told him to gain life he should follow the commandments, but “to be perfect,” he needs to sell everything he has, give his money to the poor and then come and follow the Lord. And the young man goes away sad, because he has many possessions. Don’t we all?

This story has been discussed frequently at a men’s faith-sharing group that I attend at my parish. Our priest contends that, just because the young man walked away sad, that does not mean we should assume he was condemned. In fact, when you read the rest of Chapter 19 and Chapter 20 as a continuation of the same lesson, it is clear that God is generous with those who try to follow him, but are only able to do so imperfectly (the parable of the workers in the field is tied to this narrative). God loves all his children, regardless of our ability to love Him in return. Gaining heaven is not something we can do on our own; it take’s God’s generosity.

But God put us here to do his work. How much of that work should we be doing? Where’s the line? How much is enough? Is Mass every Sunday and bedtime prayers enough? Shouldn’t we be doing more with what we have?

I don’t know if there is an answer to this question, but I suspect that it’s a very personal, very individual answer. Your path undoubtedly looks very different than mine. I know that Jesus is calling me every day to follow him more closely. I can hear His call, I can feel it, and I know when I’m not doing what he wants done. There’s a restlessness in me.

Perhaps that’s His daily encouragement to do just a bit more. To love our neighbors a little more; to give just a bit more generously; to abide just a bit more patiently. Like the loving parent He is, God accepts us in our imperfection, but He’s always gently pushing us to be more of the perfect creation that He designed.

Jesus told us that to gain eternal life we need to believe in him. That’s an incredible gift. Like the rich young man, we may feel the urge to do more than simply believe. We strive to be perfect. Perhaps I’m not willing to sell all that I have and leave my wife and family to do that. But on the other hand, perhaps I can live my life more generously, more joyously, and more faithfully today; and I can offer that to God in gratitude for His gift. And then perhaps tomorrow I can do a bit more.

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.

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.