Dear God, send help!

One of the worst jobs in the Bible had to be Moses’. Think about it. He went from being one of the leaders of Egypt to a fugitive, and then the leader of a mob of refugees who had no place to live, but a lot to complain about. And complain they did. In the Book of Numbers, Chapter Eleven, the Israelites were getting sick of eating bread every day. Never mind that the bread, manna, was a miraculous flour that simply appeared in their camp overnight and that tasted terrific. They got tired of it and complained that back in Egypt they had cucumbers, leeks, and above all, meat. They complained to Moses, and Moses took their complaints to God, who promptly sent quail so they could vary their diet.

But God also sent help for Moses. In response to Moses’ request, He told Moses to assemble a group of 70 leaders of the people, and anointed them with the Holy Spirit. The 70 took on some of Moses’ burdens in leading the hundreds of thousands of people who were wandering in the desert.

God doesn’t expect us to go it alone. He will send help. All we have to do is ask for it. But it’s the asking that seems difficult, isn’t it? Too often, when I start to get overwhelmed at work or at home, my response is to withdraw into myself, to build emotional stone walls around me and to “tough it out.” That’s not God’s way; that’s not the Christian Way. We are all parts of one body, and as such one of our primary purposes is to help one another.

As free creatures, we can choose whether to go our own way or God’s way. We can muscle through difficult situations on our own, taking human satisfaction that we did it, “My way.” Or we can open ourselves up, humble ourselves, and ask for help. The help is there, and in my experience, God will always answer when you call. The answer may be from your spouse, a coworker or someone unexpected, but all of them are God, working for you through His people. All we have to do is ask.

The nearness of God

I’m in Cleveland for a business trip this morning. From my hotel, I can see Lake Erie, a grand ocean of fresh water. There are a couple of fishing boats just outside the city’s harbor. Down on the docks, Great Lakes ships are loading and unloading. Cars are zipping along on the city streets and every now and then a freight train moves through or a cute little transit train hums past on its electric tracks. Downtown Cleveland is a hard working place in the morning.

Where is God in all of this? Of the hundreds of cars whizzing past my window, how many drivers are murmuring a decade of the rosary, or offering up worries about a challenge that awaits them at work? From my angle, I can’t see the front windshields; how many mirrors have rosaries or crucifixes swinging from them; a simple modern reminder to watch the road, but keep God close by? How many dock workers started their morning by reading the scriptures, or simply asking God to keep them safe today?

Last night, my wife and I were strolling downtown Cleveland. An affable older gentleman on a bicycle struck up a conversation, telling us his name, complimenting me on how I looked, working his way sincerely through his lines. And, of course, closing with the claim that he’d been sober for five years, but he was homeless, and for just five dollars, he could get a really good sandwich at that restaurant over there. I sighed and gave him the two singles in my wallet. Was I conned? Almost certainly yes. But he was a beggar, he was undoubtedly poor. Jesus didn’t offer much leeway when he told us, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.” He didn’t ask me to evaluate the guy. It may not have been the right decision, but it’s what my heart felt called to do.

Matthew 1:23 says, “the Virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). We don’t worship a distant God. Our creator and guide lives with us, not above and beyond us. He interacts with us constantly throughout the day, helping, guiding, testing, correcting and oftentimes just loving. Like a parent with a toddler, He’s there watching our every move, letting us learn to walk, to explore and to have adventures…but not step into the middle of a busy street.

Our challenge is to learn, to get to know Him better, to grow into beings who care for the people around us, in all their shapes, sizes and economic predicaments. To watch out for one another; to love one another like ourselves.

Because He gave us a son whose name is Immanuel.

Thy will be done

Your will be done

Sometimes, I hate those words. I finish all of my prayer times by saying; “your will be done.” I lay out all of the needs that I have for myself and the people around me, and I offer up my requests for the day. And then I close with, “thy will be done.” But oftentimes that’s not what I really want.

The willful, self-centered me wants it my way. I am the man in the midst of the action, and whether it’s healing, guidance, a miracle or a parking space, I can clearly see the right solution for the world’s needs; or at least for my needs. Dear God, I’m humble, but please trust my judgement in this case.

I was sitting in church yesterday, marveling at the people around me. To my left was a family whose daughter was in the hospital suffering, and yet here they were at mass, asking God for strength. Behind me was a wife sitting by herself because her husband was at home recovering from having donated a kidney. In front of me sat a shy man who was no doubt thinking about a speech he was to give that night about his struggles to find God. Over there, an empty spot where an elderly couple had sat. Empty because the wife was in her final hours on earth, and her husband was at her side. Your will be done.

God, you have given us each our own path to walk. Each one of those paths is different. We will enjoy great moments and we will despair during great trials. You have given us self-will, to decide how to react to the obstacles, challenges and gifts that we will encounter in our path. We can tell you that the path is just too hard, and turn away. We can soldier on miserably. We can jump off the path and decide to make our own way if it looks like our way makes more sense. Or we can simply walk forward, one more step at a time; trusting that this is the right path for us.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was terrified. He knew what was coming and he was in agony, so much so, that he literally “sweated blood,” (see Luke 22:44).  He could see the next obstacle; the cross. He had a choice to make. He could have chosen to walk away. He begged God for another way out. But he closed his prayers with, “They will be done.” And because he did, he saved my life.

I doubt that I’ll be faced with the agonizing choice Jesus had to make. My obstacles are more of the, “do I say bad things about that guy or don’t I?” variety. “Do I give or do I withhold?” “Do I go, or do I stay?” I cannot save the entire world, as Jesus did. But I can relieve a little bit of suffering here and there. I can share a burden or two. I can make this small spot on earth just a little better for the people around me today.

What would Jesus do?

Thy will be done.

Want world peace? Try this.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus told us that, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is the second-greatest commandment, second only to “Love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” Everything Jesus taught and (according to Jesus himself) everything in the scriptures are based on these commandments. Everything.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “a society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow individuals to obtain what is their due.” Furthermore, the Church recognizes that the rights of the individual come before those of society and must be respected by society in order for that society to maintain any moral legitimacy. A government that is not built upon the foundation of this golden rule is a government doomed to failure.

And what is our individual role beneath the umbrella of social justice? We are each called to look upon our neighbor (with NO exception) as “another self,” entitled to the means of living life with dignity. It is our obligation to live our lives in community with our neighbors; we are obligated to see to one another’s needs. The Church refers to this as “Solidarity,” and points out that social, economic, political and even international problems cannot be resolved in any way except by practicing the principles of solidarity.

I had known all of this, in one form or another, for my whole life. Being told that God wants us to love our neighbor is hardly a revelation. But what strikes me for its simplicity and depth is the Church’s contention that all of the world’s problems could be resolved by these words alone. And furthermore, none of the world’s problems will be resolved without them.

There’s a tendency in the world today to separate faith from society. To live out our religion within the four walls of our churches and our homes. To leave our Catholicism at home when we head off to work. But when we do that we are leaving our most important tools behind. The principles of Christian charity are just as essential in our work lives as they are in our home lives. And right now, couldn’t our world use a lot more “love your neighbor”?

Bums bother me

Bums bother me. Oh, am I being politically-incorrect by calling them bums and not homeless people, or at least street people? But we don’t know whether they’re homeless, do we? In fact, we don’t know anything about them. Do they have a home? Do they have a family? Do they have a mental illness or an addiction? We don’t know. And that’s what bothers me.

In the city where I work, the police department discourages giving to people who beg on the street. It only encourages them, makes them bolder, and usually your money feeds a drug or alcohol habit. But we don’t really know that either, do we? It may be true about a few, perhaps it is true about most of them. But on any given street corner we don’t know the individual story of the individual who’s asking for change.

I have a friend who spent part of his life as a beggar. He was unemployed and an alcoholic and drug addict. As the police warned about all beggars, his purpose in begging was to raise enough money to buy the day’s beer. Occasionally, someone would take him to the nearby fast-food restaurant for a meal, which was fine and a break from his duties. But after the meal, he’d go back to his street corner to continue begging for beer money.

Another friend of mine told me about a recent experience she had with someone who begged for some money for food. My friend was on the way from church where she had been talking to God about a worrisome employment situation. On the street, she heard the beggar but walked by, only to change her mind and take him to a nearby restaurant for a meal. Upon returning from breakfast she had a call from a friend with a job offer, instantly clearing up her job quandary.

I know that in Jesus’ day, there were no government subsidy programs, homeless shelters, housing vouchers and other “safety nets.” Beggars were seeking resources to simply stay alive. Is it the same today? It wasn’t for my first friend. He had a home; his begging was for the “luxury” of alcohol. Is it true for others? I honestly don’t know.

“Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, that you did for me.”

And that’s what bothers me.

Have you hugged a Samaritan today?

Sunday’s Gospel is the story of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. The story, like all good Bible stories, makes a number of really good points about the sort of world God wants from us. The point that struck me this time is how bold Jesus was, talking to a woman who belonged to a tribe the Jews hated. The Jews wouldn’t take anything from Samaritans, and here Jesus was, asking for a cup of water. Jesus even accepts their invitation to..ewww…stay with the Samaritans for a couple of days.

Samaritans were among the early Israelites, but split from the Jews hundreds of years before Jesus arrived on the scene. Along the way there were religious disputes; political and territorial disputes, battles, etc. Once we decide to dislike a group of our brothers and sisters, it doesn’t take long for us humans to come up with all sorts of ways to make the rift permanent. Sound familiar?

The lesson is clear. Jesus has no use for the worldly things that separate God’s children. He wants us to reach across human-created barriers, whether religious, ethnic, political (yes, political) or economic. And that’s the point. Who is your Samaritan? Is it the people who voted for Trump? Or Hillary? Is it the well-meaning 7th Day Adventist who dropped off a seven page anti-Catholic screed in an attempt to save your soul? Immigrants? The rich? The poor? We all have Samaritans in our life; a family or group of people who look different or espouse something that we disagree with and so we avoid them. That’s not Jesus’ way.

Our Father created each and every person on the planet, including you and your Uncle Ralphie who talks too loudly about politics. God loves you and Uncle Ralphie equally, and His desire is that we love one another so we can help one another reach the Kingdom of Heaven. Let’s think about that in our hyper-politically-divided America. Maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t be so hard to share a cup of water with a Democrat. Or a Republican. Or a Lutheran. Jesus did.

Searching for the right words

Some time ago, one of my sons called looking for advice. His wife’s grandmother was very ill and the prognosis was not good. She had lived a long and full life and had been a blessing to her family. She would be missed and my son knew it would be hard on his wife. He wanted advice on helping her through this difficult time. “What are the right words to say?” he asked me.

More recently, I was in conversation with a young woman who was in a dispute with her husband. Things were complicated as such things often seem to be, and she was struggling to understand how to unravel the knot they’d tied themselves into, or at least how she could avoid making matters worse. “I just wish I knew the right words,” she repeated.

Let’s face it. Sometimes there are no “right words.” No matter how hard we plan or rehearse, what comes out of our mouth seems to be exactly the wrong thing or just so much gibberish. Often we think to ourselves that we could have made a bad situation perfect if only we had said the right thing. Still more frequently we think that our words made things worse.

Foolishness. Life is not a 2-hour movie written by a team of dramatists and filled with witty, professionally-timed conversation. Life is lumpy, bumpy and uncertain. Each individual is listening and receiving at his own unique speed. Words are powerful and can have positive impact, but we seldom know exactly what another person needs to hear or when he or she needs to hear it.

And besides, it’s usually not about the words, it’s about presence. It’s about being there. To both of the young people, my advice was the same. “Just be there. Love them and let them know you love them. The rest will take care of itself.” Love is the only thing we can offer that works every time. Words spoken in love are never the wrong thing to say. We may not see the impact they have or get the response we had expected from our rehearsal, but that’s fine. It’s the love that matters, not the words.

“My word that goes out from my mouth will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55:11

God knows what needs to be said.

Charity before clarity

I use up a lot of prayer time looking for answers. I want to know. Why did God create me? Why am I here? Why am I in the midst of this particular group of people? What’s my mission? What’s my narrow road? Why, God, why? I’m tired of seeing through the glass darkly, or whatever Saint Paul says we do in this lifetime. I want a clear picture; of myself, of God, and of God’s purpose for the world. God grant me clarity!

Sitting here meditating this morning, I ran across one of those little word plays. Clarity, I realized, is virtually the same word as Charity. There’s only one little letter difference between the two, and it’s a short walk up the alphabet from “h” to “l”. (This could be a sign that I’m spending too much time thinking when I should be meditating!) But this little spiritual side trip helped me realize something: charity comes before clarity.

One of the spiritual axioms that I live by is that Christianity is not a spectator sport. Being Christian is a verb; it demands that you do something, not that you just sit there and think about it. Pope Francis says it means “taking on the smell of the sheep;” getting out there among the flock and helping them along. (I’m glad Pope Francis didn’t grow up in hog-farming country.)  The path to heaven for us is marked by actions, not signs.

A Christian looking for clarity need look no further than the person sitting next to him. Or the woman walking next to her. Or the old man in the hospital, the young child looking lost, the couple crying, or the poor man begging. Do you want to understand why you’re here? Love your neighbor. Do you want to grasp God’s plan for the universe? Love your neighbor.

Christianity is written about in thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of books. Christian philosophy and Catholic Theology are explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, on EWTN, on the web site of the Conference of Catholic Bishops and more. You could study Catholicism and Christianity for decades, and still you would only see through the glass darkly. But try just one act of charity, and then you will find clarity.

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.

What’s in your bucket?

I ran across one of my favorite meditations this morning. In a book published by the Hazelden Foundation, today’s meditation says, in part, “Keep pouring out yourself to help others so that God can keep filling you up with His spirit.” I love that visual. And the thought behind it so completely captures Christianity, doesn’t it? We are giving creatures, designed to be at our best when we are giving everything we have to other people. It’s how Jesus lived, it’s how the saints lived; it’s how the best Christians live. The more we give, the more Christ gives to us. The more we hold for ourselves, the less room we have for Christ’s gifts.

Selfishness is one of my (many) human weaknesses. I like to help others, sure, but only after my own bucket is full. Full of whatever human comfort I happen to be seeking, whether it’s food, time, money, et al. “I’d like to do more at the food pantry, but it’s been a long day at work and now I just want to put my feet up for a while.” “I would make a bigger donation to the church, but my wife and I are shopping for a new car and we can’t pay for leather seats AND give more to the church…” and on and on and on. I like a good full bucket.

Emptying our bucket for others is counterintuitive. Nowhere on Earth does it say that you will get lots of money, time or food if you give away your money, time and food. Savvy people would call that foolishness. We are coached to save what is ours, to get as much as we can, and to take care of #1.

But Jesus is counterintuitive. Jesus doesn’t live according to those rules; in fact he specifically rejects them. In word and in deed, Jesus pours himself out for others, working when he is tired, speaking and teaching constantly, feeding others, but when asked to eat, telling his Apostles, “I have food of which you know nothing.” Jesus lives in the flow from God’s bucket to his to ours.

This is not an eternal penance. Living in that flow of giving is what God wants for us because it is where we are happiest. God’s children were built to be givers; we’re not satisfied being bucket-fillers. We often get misled and chase after stuff for our own bucket, but no matter how successful we are, toting around that bucket full of stuff just gets wearying.

Give it a try. Pour out some of your bucket into someone else’s. Whether it be a bit of time, money, or caring. Feels good, doesn’t it? Tomorrow, take a look into your bucket. I’m willing to bet someone sneaked into your bucket closet and filled you right back up again. And again. And again.