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.

Sufficient for a day is its own evil

Last week we talked about not worrying; about accepting the portion that God gives us for today, both the good and the bad. The post was based on the “Worry Sermon” (I made that title up); which is the last portion of the Sermon on the Mount (see Chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel).

There’s a sentence in that reading that has always felt wrong to me. The last sentence of Chapter Six reads “Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.” Other translations put it this way: “Sufficient for a day is its own evil.” Those words always felt awkward, like there was a word missing or out of order. Surely Jesus meant to say “The day’s own good things are sufficient for the day,” or, “I’ll give you enough to help you through today.” Why “sufficient for a day is its own evil?” It’s as though Jesus is promising us bad things, and plenty of them. Seems very un-Jesus-ey. It feels particularly out of context in a reading about not worrying. I’m all set to live free as a bird, peaceful as the wildflowers, and comfy as Mary at Jesus’ knee (while Martha serves lunch). And then Jesus tells me that today’s gonna be a handful.

St. John Chrysostom must have talked to someone who knows me. He wrote about this sentence. His answer was this: “Doesn’t every day have enough burdens of its own? Why do you add to them by laying on those that belong to another day?”

This sentence is one of those examples of parts of the Bible that need to be read in context. You can’t just quote this as a one-liner at parties (unless you like being alone at parties). It just doesn’t make sense outside of the context of the idea that came before it. The sentence before it that goes, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself,” helps a lot. Backing up another sentence, Jesus reassures us that, “Your Heavenly Father knows that you need them all (clothes, food, shelter). But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

God knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows that we can only deal with things, both good things and bad things; in daily doses. This is one more reminder to live in a relaxed manner; by living for today and meeting today’s challenges as they come. And not by dragging tomorrow into the day’s fight.

One day at a time.

Facing Up to My Hypocrisy

I am a hypocrite. I claim to follow Jesus and to live my life according to his word, but that’s not true. In at least one way, I am defying the will of the Lord. “Sell everything you own and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” (Luke 18:22)  I can’t do that.

I truly struggle with this. I know that possessions occupy too much of my time. I am not wealthy, but I am comfortable. I own two houses, two cars, nice clothes, books, electronics, et al. They distract me from living a life of service to others; in other words, from living according to God’s word. But I also know that I will not give them up. I have a family to support; I have bills to pay. These things seem necessary parts of my life.

I have put this on God’s altar. I don’t have the courage to literally offer him all that I possess, but this much I can do: I offered up my fear of poverty, my love for material things, and I offered  him my unwillingness. I have prayed to God to make me willing to give these things up.

And I prayed for trust. Trust, because that same bible chapter says that we will receive 100 times more of these things in this lifetime, plus eternal life in the next. Trust because later in that same chapter, when people say, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus responds, “For man this is impossible, but for God nothing is impossible.” God is not calling us to live a life of poverty; he is calling us to live a life of complete trust in his will. Trust in His will, not our own. That is the key.

Because it’s not the possessions, it’s the attachment to those possessions. It’s not the money, it’s the love of the money. It’s not the clinging to financial security, it’s the lack of trust in God.

Pray for me, Brothers and Sisters.

Living between the lines

The Church that Jesus Built is awesome. It’s filled with miracles, with saints by the thousands, and with countless stories of faith-filled heroism. Its boundaries are the outstretched arms of the one and only God, who allowed Himself to be humiliated by His own creation; to be tortured and killed so that He could show us that our Earthly lives are just the beginning. Since the dawn of creation, the Church has been the “Greatest Story Ever Told.”
But most of the Church’s story is never told. Most of what takes place under the big tent of Christianity will never be written about, or spoken about, or made into a movie directed by Cecil B. DeMille. God is truly with us, and because He is with us, the majority of His work is the work of day to day living. It’s not the epic stuff of Moses talking to a fiery shrub, or St. Paul getting knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus. It’s not even Pope Francis tweaking the egos of the College of Cardinals. It’s doing the dishes for your wife just because. It’s calling old Aunt Tess to ask about her day. It’s turning to God with a problem while you’re at work and listening for a bit of small inspiration to get you through. It’s slogging through your day and remembering to take Him with you.
Sometimes I read Jesus’ admonition to “be perfect,” and I despair because…well, I’m just not. Sometimes I read the lives of the Saints and wish that I had that kind of faith. I read about Fatima and dream that maybe I could be there for the next one. I want the drama, I want the excitement of the Big Story.
Then God gives me a little poke in the side. He whispers a sentence or two to guide my writing. I blow the dust off the cover of my Bible and read the Book of James. And I’m inspired. “Faith without works is dead,” is a pretty simple and profound motto to live by. I turn to Him with a worry about my wife, daughter, son or friend and within a day that worry evaporates. Or he simply makes the sun rise in a particularly beautiful way.
The Bible was never meant to be the whole story. The stories of Jesus, of Abraham, and all the others in the Bible are just small slices, quick glimpses of the lives that they lived. As John the Apostle said in chapter 21 of Revelation: “There are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.” But that doesn’t mean the other stuff, the stuff that was not written down, is any less wondrous. God gives us the Bible as a tool, a source of inspiration. But God gives us something much greater than the Bible. He gives us his presence throughout our day, and through all of our ordinary, non-heroic little lives. God is with us between the lines.

Who’s in charge?

Last Sunday, December 28, was the Feast Day of the Holy Family. Right after Christmas we are treated with a portrait of the new family of Joseph, Mary and their newborn son, Jesus. After Christmas the three of them trekked over to Jerusalem for Jesus’ circumcision and other Jewish rites for a newborn and his mother. (Luke 2:22-40) After the prescribed rituals, and, undoubtedly some oohing and aahing from friends and neighbors, they went home, where not much more is said about their family life, except that Jesus “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”

Alongside that inspirational family photo, for many of us, the Feast of the Holy Family could be known as “Who’s In Charge Day” because of one sentence in the second reading. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he provokes arguments when he says, “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” (Colossians 3:18). Let the debating begin, as we couples try to maintain our Christianity and at the same time square these words with modern beliefs about the roles of men and women. Which side should I be on? Paul or Modernity? Is my wife in charge, or am I? Or are we equal partners?

It’s a false choice, and getting caught up in that debate pulls us farther away from the point Paul was trying to make: “Above all these, put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.” Paul was using the understood family roles of the day to tell us how to love one another. And how’s that? Like Jesus loved us: humbly, and with everything we have. Whatever role we are called to play in our family, our marriage, our work and our society, we must act out of love in everything we do. Stewing about who’s in charge takes us in the opposite direction.

Paul was not trying to establish or re-establish the rules of social order. He was taking people where they were: as sons, daughters, fathers or mothers, masters or slaves, and saying, in essence, whoever you are and whatever you do, do it in love and service. He was telling us to fulfill our duties to one another in love, knowing that when we serve one another we are serving God.

No acts, no Christ

Looking for an inspiration to draw closer to God, I picked up my Bible and dropped it open. I read the story from Chronicles about how King Josiah held a huge Passover meal, providing all the people of Israel with meat sacrifices. Once again, it looks like a community-wide parish festival, with the Levites Working until nightfall cooking the food and distributing it to everyone, including the guards standing watch. There is a similar story about King David doing the same thing on the day they brought the tabernacle to the temple. What’s the significance? How does that connect to a middle class father in American in the 21st Century?

Last night my wife, our Priest and I met with a couple from the parish to ask them to give to a new endowment fund for seminarians. It was a pleasant chat; they are already doing a lot for the church; they’ll do what they can. What’s the significance; where’s the tie to King Josiah and to Jesus?

In today’s first reading, Paul talks about the meeting he had with Peter, James and John and how they agreed the latter three would take the Gospel to the Jews while Paul would focus on the Gentiles. During that visit, Paul chastised Peter for not practicing what he preaches; for “drawing away from the Gentiles,” when the Jews are around. Paul says he told Peter that he was being a hypocrite, and to stop it because the people around him were copying his behavior.

Josiah cared for his community, making sure that everyone had a lamb or a bull to slaughter, and taking meat to soldiers and others who could not attend the feast. My wife, the priest, and the couple we met were preparing another sacrifice, a financial one, to make sure that our community would have priests and that those priests’ training and education would be provided for. And Paul and Peter divided up their responsibilities to create communities of Christians among both Jews and Gentiles, and they corrected one another so that those communities would not be led astray by Peter’s mistaken actions.

God wants us all to work in community. He did not choose to send a man to live in a palace and control the people; that’s not the model God gave us. He sent us, he made us into a community. He told us to care for one another as though we were caring for ourselves, or, according to Jesus, as though we were caring for God himself. Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.

Christianity is a contact sport. It’s not a solo act, and it cannot be perfected by one person sitting all alone. I’ll take that thought even one step further; Christianity is not Christianity until it is practiced. It’s a pleasant Bible study, but without actions it does nothing. Perhaps that’s why the Bible says, “Faith without works is dead.”

Have a spiritual day.

Does God cry?

I have often wondered whether God cries. God is all powerful and one would think He is too strong to cry. He is the great I Am, the Alpha, the Omega and everything in between. As modern scholar/philosopher/filmmaker Father Robert Barron puts its, God is so immense and unfathomable that, “if you understand, that’s not God.”

But does God cry? We know He gets angry. The Bible is filled with anecdotes of God’s anger boiling up over our faith-ancestors’ adolescent actions. People are getting smited right and left in the old testament. In modern terms, Jesus “lost it” in the temple when he chased all the money changers out with a home made whip. The word “Anger” might not be as common a phrase in the Bible as hope, charity or faith, but it’s definitely in the top fifty Google searches.

And we know He gets happy. Especially when one of us lost sheep finds our way home. “I tell you there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Lk 15:17). God feels anger, God feels joy, and God IS love. So does God weep?

I think He does. After all, for every one of those lost sheep who come home, how many are led astray to their death? How many people around us are dead in faith, captives of worldly pleasure? If God rejoices over the one who was lost and is found, surely he is heartbroken by the one thousand who become lost and are never found. To know love is to know pain. How much more for the one who IS love?

One of my most painful childhood memories is my mother sobbing over a favorite antique dish that two of her rambunctious children had broken (my brother pushed me). It wasn’t the scolding that hurt, it was Mom’s tears. It was the sadness that remained after the anger. Knowing my foolishness had caused pain to this beautiful woman who I loved was worse than any punishment she may have dished out.

Does God cry?

It’s faith versus fear

Lately I’ve been realizing how much of a role fear has played my life. It has impacted everything from my job to my spiritual life to my choice of recreational activities. I’ve passed over opportunities to apply for jobs because I feared that I would be embarrassed if I wasn’t interviewed. I spent decades treading spiritual water because there were some nagging doubts that I was afraid to face for fear of God smiting me. In my 20s, I gave up downhill skiing because I was afraid of falling down and hurting myself.

Some of these fears are rational. Given that I am a clod, downhill skiing was probably a poor choice of outdoor activity for me. Hiking was much more my speed, both literally and figuratively. But just about all of my other fears accomplished nothing. And held me back from everything.

Way back in one of my earliest posts in this blog, I related how God coaxed me into facing my doubts about Catholicism. With my Divine Buddy lighting the way, I was able to peek into that dark closet and discover that there really were no theological monsters hiding there. In fact, I discovered an incredible community of joyful people, and a religion that is full, complete, and a perfect fit for me. It wasn’t a flaw of the Church that was keeping me from the fullness of God’s kingdom. It was my own chicken-heartedness.

And then there’s faith. Quiet, humble, steady, faith. Faith that Jesus was talking to me when he said, “Do not worry,” “I go to prepare a place for you,” and “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” The more you pray and study, the more you realize God has your back…and your front…and both sides, and up and down too. What exactly is left that’s worth being afraid of?

Fear will always be a part of us. We were born and raised with human instincts, which (assuming the scientists are right) evolved from the apes and before them lizardy things and before them little bitty bacterium who were food for larger bacterium. Fear is a mechanism the little things evolved to avoid being eaten by the big things.

But faith will also always be a part of us. Faith is knowing that God is within us no matter what we think or how many big things want to gobble us up. God is there and wants nothing more than to forgive us no matter how low we’ve fallen. If fear is the dark, faith is the light switch. All you have to do is reach out for it. And then enjoy the view in the daylight.

What’s your plan?

I spend a lot of my time plotting. Often the plots are harmless, sometimes they’re useful or even positive, like plotting out my day or scheming with my children to do something special for the best mom on Earth on Mother’s Day. Human beings are born to plot. We are always trying to map out one part or another of the future.

I will have to admit, though, that I don’t spend much time plotting how to get to Heaven. While my next promotion or my financial retirement get hours of think time and pages of spreadsheet “what-ifs,” Heaven is treated as more of an ad hoc thing. I take being a faithful Christian on a day-by-day, moment-by-moment basis.

Is that right or wrong? I can’t decide. I know that God asks me to be faithful, and that Jesus opened the door to Heaven for me 2,000 years before I was born. Eternal life is a gift that God wants us to simply accept; we don’t earn it. The books of the Bible are filled with the clear message that God has our tomorrows covered for us, and that we should not fear or worry. In fact, fear is a warning sign that your faith has sprung a leak. And isn’t planning just a natural reaction to the fear of an uncertain future?

But do we need a Heaven Plan? Should we be plotting our good works, and our prayer time, and our study? Or should we be focused solely on living in the moment? Is living our best Christian life right now, in this chair, covered with this blanket (because I live in Wisconsin, where it apparently is going to be winter forever!!!) all that really matters?

Maybe being part of the body of Christ is not a journey at all. Maybe Christianity needs to describe HOW we do things, not WHAT we do. There’s no need to plan because everything we do should be pleasing to God, or we shouldn’t do it. We can’t plan for the end of our Earthly life because we really don’t know when it will come. And, more importantly, if our “how” is right, then the “when” doesn’t make any difference at all.

What do you think?

King David and the first parish festival

After much study and research, I have discovered the historic roots of the first parish festival. It was King David’s idea!

This morning’s first reading is from Chapter 6 of the Second Book of Samuel. King David was bringing the Ark of the Covenant into the city, and that was a cause for a huge party. First, David was so overcome with joy that he “danced with abandon.” There was lots of music and noise, which I am sure seems very familiar to the people who live near our church. Sorry, but apparently we children of God have a long history of partying. We’ll try to keep the noise respectable.

After the Ark had been put in its new home, David, wearing an apron, served up roast meat, a loaf of bread and a raisin cake (sounds like a scone…mmmmm) to “the entire multitude of Israel.” No word about the parish raffle or the dunk tank. I’m sure the scripture writers just forgot those parts of the story, or maybe they only had one sheet of parchment left.

All in all, it was a party for the history books. And the reason for it? Oh, yes, they were celebrating the presence of God in their community.

Amen, people of Israel.