About therandomcatholic

Just your typical resident of the middle row of pews at St. Ann's Parish in Stoughton, Wisconsin. Grew up in Wisconsin, live, work and raise children in Wisconsin. Father of five, grandfather of three (so far; always hoping for more), foster father of 22.

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.

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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.

Happy Easter

Prior to yesterday’s ham-and-potatoes-and-family festival, I spent a couple of hours tidying up the yard. For someone to whom “work” involves a desk, a pen and a computer, time spent pulling out dead flower stems, trimming shrubs and raking the lawn feels like a vacation. (My wife thinks I should take more vacations like that; she has a list.)

Part of my spring yard cleaning involved rooting out last year’s dead plant material clogging the flowerbeds. An early snow last winter, coupled with a healthy dose of procrastination, prevented me from getting to it in the fall. As a result, our house looked like someone had decorated the exterior with leftover tumbleweeds from a 1950s western movie. It was time to clean things up, stretch some muscles that hadn’t been used in a while, and enjoy the cool April sunshine.

One of the unexpected blessings of my work was seeing that nature is already in rebirth mode. I pulled away inches of dead growth and discovered bright shoots of purple and green. The tulips had already worked their way through last year’s dead plants, but the hostas and day lilies weren’t far behind.

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God’s creation has a very simple consistency to it. Every spring we are reminded of Christ’s death and his resurrection. We read it in our Bibles, we hear about it in our Masses. But if we look around, we can see that creation itself tells the same story. No matter how cold and dead our world may appear, there will be new growth and new life. Forever.

Enjoy this Octave of Easter.

A mother’s pain

This weekend my sister-in-law shared a very painful experience she’s going through. As part of a campaign to make high school students aware of the dangers of alcohol and driving, their high school is conducting a dramatization. Her son is one of the students chosen to “die” in a simulated drunk driving incident. My sister-in-law was assigned the task of writing her son’s obituary. She and her husband are in agony, even though they know it’s not real. As she related the story to us, even at this distance, I found myself reflexively slamming the door of my imagination, unwilling to even consider the possibility of losing one of my five children. It’s just too painful.

And then this weekend’s Gospel shows us Mary at the foot of the cross. She stands there helplessly as her one and only son, a young man of incredible goodness, intelligence and promise hangs in front of her. Beaten bloody. Gasping with each breath for six agonizing hours as he hangs from harsh iron nails. When it’s finally over, the dead body of her son is taken down and laid in her lap.

We Christians too often sanitize this pivotal moment in our history. We celebrate the fact that Jesus conquered death, but we jump right over recalling that first he had to endure it. It is understandable that our instinct leads us to gloss over Good Friday and get right to the joy of the empty tomb, and the Easter Eggs, bunnies and baked hams of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. Contemplating death is never enjoyable, and contemplating a parent’s agony is just as painful. The parent in me weeps for Mary.

The disciples didn’t understand until the very end what Jesus meant when he talked about his death and resurrection. We don’t know whether it was denial, obtuseness or something else clouding their vision. We do know that his arrest came as a horrible shock to them. But was Mary shocked? Most of the moms I know have an extra group of senses that are uniquely-tuned to their children. They can tell from another room the difference between the silence of a child sleeping and the silence of a child in distress. Within seconds, a mom can differentiate between a cry of pain and a cry of sibling irritation. Mothers know their children. Would Christ’s fate have been a surprise to her? I doubt it. Did that make it easier? I can’t imagine that it did.

Jesus is God’s gift to us. Our Creator knew that we would need a living, breathing, human guide to help us find the Way to The Kingdom. He gave us His son; Mary’s son; as a gift we did not and could not deserve, but that He in His love wanted us to have. Jesus lived the life He calls all of us to live; a life of generosity, self-giving, humility and love. In reparation for our sins, He suffered a death that he wants none of us to suffer; a death of humiliation, agony and horror.

But Mary is also a gift to us. She is the exemplar of parenthood, the patient, loving woman who watched and endured each step of her child’s growth, and each blow that led to his death. The Mother of God never looked away; never ran away. She was always there for Jesus.

In your prayers of thanksgiving this Holy Week, might I suggest that you also thank the Virgin Mary? From one parent to another, thank her for her own pain and sacrifice. Thank her for the part of her that she gave so that we might have her son’s guidance.

Hail, Mary.

First comes love, then comes humility

If loving our neighbor is difficult, how much more difficult is it to be humble? Humility is the virtue that I love to ignore. I mean, we all say we’d like to be humble, and we include the words in our prayers, but is that what we really want? Do we really want to open the doors of the shiny, fast sports car that we call our lives only to turn around and hand the keys over to Jesus? Wouldn’t we rather take the wheel, and take ownership of the speed, twists, turns and destination of our lives? “I did it my way!” is our anthem, isn’t it?

Jesus rocked the world when he told us of the “more excellent way” that involved turning the other cheek, loving God with all our souls, hearts, minds and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. But then he knocked us out of our comfy worldly chairs by adding a call for complete humility. Our true purpose in life can only be achieved when we acknowledge that our lives are not our own at all. They belong to the one who created us. Our work on Earth is to do the work of Him who sent us. Not our work. Not Mom’s and Dad’s dream for us; not our own “career path.” Not fame and fortune. His work.

Do you want proof? Look no further than the cross. Jesus was begotten of the same stuff as God. He could part seas, he could raise the dead, he could summon armies of angels; but he did not live the life of a god. He saw his mission as one of complete service. He gave away the best seats at dinner tables. He gave away his private time when the crowds came looking for him, and he gave away his very life because that’s what God asked him to do.

There’s no question about it; we were put here to do the same thing. We probably won’t be called upon to sacrifice ourselves on a cross. In all likelihood, God will be perfectly happy with you living a perfectly “normal” life. But ask Him. In your morning prayers, ask what he needs to have done today. Then listen, really listen, because he will give you the answer.

And then prepare to serve…and to be amazed. Because the servant’s life is not a life of misery. It’s a life of joy. No matter how happy we are to be making our own way in the world, that happiness will be multiplied a hundredfold when we start living for the one who put us here.

Live humble. Live joyous.

Stumbling into that love thing

I stumbled across 1 Cor 13:4-8 again today. You know the one I mean; it’s that “more excellent way” of living that Saint Paul gave us, saying, “Love is patient, love is kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

I think we should all be required to stare at that paragraph for a few minutes every day. I know it would do me some good. Like Jesus himself, that Bible verse sets the perfect standard for love. Selfless, outward-focused, always giving. Saint Paul gives us a measuring stick that we can use to evaluate our day. Were we self-centered, or other-centered? To what degree?

As you know, I’m a work in progress (and that’s being charitable). The only perfect part of me is my perfect record of imperfection. If there’s one stone in the middle of the path to Heaven, I’ll find it, trip on it, fall over it, and probably cuss when I stub my toe against it. After I get back up I’ll kick the stone down the road in anger…and then trip over it again.

I’m still stumbling, but gradually also learning that Jesus doesn’t hate me for the stumbles. He doesn’t curse me or laugh at me or get fed up with my slow progress. He winces each time I fall, sharing in my pain. His hand is there every time to help me up. He politely pretends to ignore my intemperate rock-focused-language and He waits patiently until I come to Him to talk about the rock before offering advice (like, “Pick your feet up a bit next time; there are rocks in the road”). He doesn’t get mad when I ignore his advice.

As a husband, father, brother, and boss, I really do want to live up to Saint Paul’s rubric of love. And I really can see how my particular corner of the universe would be a much better place if I did. Fifty-seven years of experience tells me that I probably won’t hit perfect marks on the Saint Paul Scale anytime soon. But those same years also tell me that’s okay. As long as I don’t stop trying, and as long as I don’t stop asking Him for help.

Because Jesus will be there. Because He is Love.

Building up virtues or tearing down sins?

It occurred to me recently that we spend too much time focusing on our sins and not nearly enough time focusing on our virtues. Perhaps focusing on how to be more virtuous would be more profitable than dwelling on how to be less of a sinner. What do you think?

Let’s use this morning as an example. I’m not a morning person by nature. I like to sleep until the very last minute, getting up with just enough time to do the morning minimums and get out the door. But I know from long experience that I should get up an hour before that time to do some spiritual readings, meditate, read the morning news and clean the kitchen before heading off on my day. Experience has shown me without fail that the extra hour more than pays off throughout that day. I’m calmer, more serene and my heart is in the right place. In contrast, when I sleep in, I’m more tense and edgy, and the added energy left at the end of the day is wasted on late-night television.

But focusing on the negative impacts has never been an adequate motivator for me to change my behavior. Meditating on my slothly (I hope that’s a word) habits makes me cranky and pushes me away from the loving spirit that I know God wants me to be. In contrast, focusing on the positive outcomes of the right start time gives me a spiritual boost every day.

So this has me wondering; would God prefer me to concentrate my energy on all of the weeds in my spiritual garden, or to nurture the flowers and vegetables? Which seed bears more fruit?

I’d love to hear what you think.

Christ the King

The Catholic Church year ended this weekend. Happy New Year, Catholics! Yesterday was the Feast of Christ the King. The church year starts with Advent; that time of anticipating Christ’s birth, so it only makes sense to end the year with a celebration of Christ’s coming as the King of the Universe.

And what Gospel reading does the Church use to remind us that Jesus will sit on an awesome throne, with dominion over the entire visible and invisible universe? What parable or sermon is used to bring the power of Jesus’ almighty kingship to life?

“Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.”

The Kingdom of Heaven is eternal, immortal, vast beyond knowing and powerful beyond anything we can conceive. And yet it is first and foremost a personal kingdom; a kingdom that demands that I love my brother as much as my own self. A kingdom that reminds me that every person is my brother. Jesus’ standard for loyalty to his crown is love. We are called, in both large acts and small, to love one another. The depth of our love for our fellows determines our place among “the sheep or the goats,” in the Kingdom.

Christ is the King of the Universe, one heart at a time.