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.

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It really is that simple

You’ve heard this said before in different ways, but it always bears repeating. This version is from Paul’s letter to the Romans (Chapter 13 to be specific). Paul told the new Christians in Rome, “The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

That last sentence in particular hit home for me this time. Love does no evil to the neighbor, and hence love is the fulfillment of the law. In other words, if you love your neighbor, you won’t do any harm to your neighbor, and that’s what Christianity is all about.

There are millions of words in the Bible; tens of millions of words in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and even more millions of words in all of the sermons, meditations, books, lectures, pamphlets, etc. And they all guide us back to this same very simple and very profound truth. If we love one another, we will care for one another, and if we care for one another all will be well.

It’s just that simple.

God does not live by words alone

In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Saint Paul greets them by explaining how he knows they had been chosen by God. Paul said, “Our Gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction” (1Th 1:5). God communicates to us in many, many ways. Words are just one of them.

God is a god of life, of beauty, of feelings and signs. He acts in us and through us constantly, sometimes we recognize it, often we don’t. He is always a part of our lives.

When I think back on some of the most powerful instances of God guiding my life, I realize that it was usually not some word in a book, even words from the Bible. More often it was the action of a friend, or the guidance of a priest. God’s Bible is a vital spiritual guide that should be read and pondered every day. But never forget that God is so much more than even those inspired words. And He is with us, even when we can’t think of the proper Biblical quotation for the moment.

God is a living God.

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?