When Christianity is not warm and fuzzy

Jesus is challenging me today. He says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.” (MT 10:37-39) Jesus tells the crowd that he did not come to bring peace on earth, but to cause division within families, communities, even nations. Our God knew he needed to shake things up a bit.

I always cringe and shrink back a little bit when Jesus talks about the need to take up our individual cross and follow him. I don’t really know what cross it is He wants me to take up. I would much rather pray that I can “be a nice person today” without thinking that my real calling might be something that requires just a bit more spiritual heavy lifting than that. I like soft and cuddly Christianity.

It can’t always be that way. We know that the early Christians suffered greatly for their faith. In exchange for the joy of knowing the Holy Spirit, they had to hide from authorities and meet in secret. Many of them were locked up, beaten, and killed. In some parts of the world, that treatment continues today. Division is still common throughout the world, including, if we are honest, in our own nation, communities, and sometimes even our homes.

Perhaps the cross that Jesus wants me to bear today is the visible cross of Christianity. Throughout history, what made Christians distinctive was our love for one another and our love for our enemies. Love that may be firm, not craven, but still clearly love for everyone who is, after all, just as much a child of God as we are.

Yes, indeed, Jesus is challenging me today.

The laborers are few

Today’s Gospel reading puts the modern-day priest shortage into a useful perspective. Jesus had no priests to work with when he founded his ministry. Today, in the 9th Chapter of Matthew, He calls the 12 Apostles to him, recognizing that “the harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few.” Tomorrow’s reading is from Chapter 10 and it has Jesus sending the Apostles out to the Jews, curing their diseases, casting out demons, and most important, telling them that the Kingdom of God is at hand. The first Christian Missionaries are put to work.

Jesus saw the hunger for God in the people around him. Matthew tells us that the Lord’s heart was troubled when he saw how they were “harassed and helpless.” Jesus was the embodiment of His father who is love itself, and love grieves when it sees pain and loneliness. But Jesus knew that he could not reach everyone by himself. Although he traveled all over his part of the world, he was still one man and walking was the fastest form of transport available to him. So he sent the Apostles. And then later, the 70 disciples. And then the Holy Spirit who supercharged the work of Jesus’ followers, allowing them to bring thousands of people to the Way of Christ by their zeal and love. And now, he sends you and I.

The work that began in the 9th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel continues today. There are still many, many lost sheep. There are people among us who have never heard the good news, or who have heard it but have forgotten it or who never understood the incredible promise of eternal life that lies within it. Each of us has friends, neighbors and family members who are “harassed and helpless” because Jesus is not a part of their life. They need gentle reminders that the Kingdom of God is truly at hand.

The harvest is still abundant, but the laborers are still few. Jesus continues to call us to go forth and spread the good news. Most of us don’t have the power to cure illnesses or cast out demons, but we do have the power to love. That was enough for the 12 in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s enough for us today.

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.

Quiet Evangelization

The topic of evangelization has always made me squirm. Jesus told us quite clearly to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” (MT 28:19) Jesus’ words and the work of the Catholic Church for centuries is clearly-focused on taking the Good News to all corners of the world. Our work isn’t done until everyone has been given an opportunity to join the Body of Christ, and it’s my job to present those opportunities.

But for a quiet little bookworm like me, that’s scary. The idea of trying to win over an atheist or any non-believer is intimidating; in large part because I don’t feel equipped with “the answers.” What if they ask me something hard, like the definition of Consubstantial, or the Biblical origin of Mary’s virginity? I can’t even recite the Ten Commandments in the correct order.

And there’s the whole 21st Century Political Correctness thing. We have imposed a gag order on ourselves in the name of civility. We don’t talk about religion or politics in polite company. It is a modern rule that we have to avoid saying something that someone might be uncomfortable hearing. (This topic is a whole conversation in itself that we’ll get to another time.)

Once again, my favorite Apostle has come to my rescue. In last Sunday’s second reading, St. Peter tells us that evangelization should be a modest, humble experience. One of my most beloved lines in the Bible comes from the First Book of Peter. In Chapter 3, he tells us that we should “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope,” but that we should also “Do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.” The whole book is a good, short read on the topic of humble evangelization.

I don’t have to stand on a soapbox at the corner of Main Street, singing the praises of God. But I do have to live a good life; I do have to love everyone around me (friend and foe). I have to be kind to such an extreme degree that people may think I’m some sort of weirdo, but I don’t have to shout about it. I just need to do it. And if anyone asks, I have to give credit where credit is due: Jesus made me do it.

Perhaps as important as all of that, I also need to spend time in prayer so that I have the explanation if someone asks for it. Could I answer the question right now if someone asked me? Why am I absolutely, rock-solid, no doubt, Hallelujah!-convinced that Jesus is God’s only “begotten” son and that we all have a share in the eternal kingdom? Perhaps that’s an even more difficult task.

Let’s talk some more about this next week.

The Holy Spirit lives

The Holy Spirit is a wind that blows through the world. Like the wind, we can’t point to where it began or where it will end.

Did Saints Peter, Paul, James, John, Mary Magdalen and the other first followers of Christ have any idea where their work was going to end? Did they even have an inkling that their words were going to be repeated for many centuries? Could they have imagined that we’d be reading and re-reading their letters in remotest Canada, Africa and Australia? God knows.

Jesus told the Apostles that they would perform works that were even greater than the things He did. That’s quite a challenge, considering what He accomplished. In just three years, Jesus built a church that would last for millennia. He laid down principles that would guide the lives of billions of people and undergird the constitutional frameworks of countries around the globe. Most importantly, he would conquer death for us. He would open a doorway that had been closed to humanity; a doorway to Heaven. A doorway to our true home. And the Apostles were supposed to top that?

Yes. Jesus laid the foundation, but the Apostles built the house. They were His witnesses and carried the good news many miles farther than Jesus had gone. The Church quickly outgrew the 12’s ability to properly minister to everyone, so they appointed new leaders, deacons, presbyters and others to carry on the work. Many of the Epistles that we read each week were letters from the Apostles to those distant churches; encouraging them, reminding them, exhorting them.

The Apostles didn’t have an easier road than Jesus. For the most part, they suffered the same fate on Earth that He endured. All but one of the first 12 Apostles were murdered because of their work. Capture, abuse and murder of Christians was common, even a sport during the first centuries. They said the words, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty,” and “I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,” during a time when saying such things was considered treason by the government.  

Through all of these challenges and trials they built the church. The universal, worldwide, eternal church. The Body of Christ. A Church that has survived time and time again periods of persecution, corruption and apathy. A church that has a place for every human being. Doing great things, doing simple things, making mistakes, enduring. The Church itself is a miracle, a miracle of global proportions.

And perhaps the greatest miracle of all is that it was created by an unlikely bunch of fishermen, tax collectors and other common folk. Sustained by even more common folk.

I can’t wait to see where this goes tomorrow.

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.

Okay, He’s Risen. Now what?

I look around our home and see that the Easter decorations have been stored away. Gone are the pink bunnies, the baskets with green plastic grass and the Lenten reminders to do this, abstain from that, and pray thus. God is risen and we’re moving on. Moving on to do what?

This in some ways is my favorite time of year, because the daily scripture readings come from the early chapters of The Acts of the Apostles. If you want to be inspired by early Christians, read that book! Immediately following Pentecost, Peter, James, John and the rest of the 12 started preaching and healing. Unlike during Christ’s passion, the Apostles were fearless. They knew that Jesus had risen, and that knowledge, coupled with a double dose of the Holy Spirit, put them beyond fear of anything the authorities could do to them. The apostles were repeatedly threatened, arrested, beaten and jailed. Through it all they laughed, prayed, and told everyone the Good News. More than their words, their courage and spirit built the Church that has thrived for two thousand, one hundred seventeen years and counting.

I got to thinking about that yesterday when I came across something Pope Francis had said. In a homily from a couple years ago, the Pope was talking about St. James comment that “Faith without works is dead.” The Pope said a person can have a great knowledge of scripture and theology, but if that knowledge wasn’t put into practice, it was worthless. “A faith that doesn’t get you involved isn’t faith,” he said. “It’s words and nothing more than words.” Faith, according to Francis, always leads to action. It can’t help itself.

That’s how I see the actions of the Apostles in the early days of Christianity. Peter stood up to the Jewish authorities not because he had somehow found the courage to do so. Rather, Peter couldn’t have done anything else. He could not have stopped talking about the tremendous news of Christ. Have you ever known something that was so awesome that you couldn’t wait to tell your spouse or your  friends? It’s like that, times ten. Peter was so filled with the Holy Spirit that his teeth would have burst if he tried not to speak.

For many, many years I tried to get my Christianity out of books. I love to read and study, and there have been lots of authors who inspired me. But what really lit my fuse was a men’s retreat. Spending time with a small group of men in prayer, study and sharing lifted me up in ways that can’t be described. The Holy Spirit blew through that church basement, lighting fires in hearts right and left, including mine. This, I thought, is what the earliest Christians must have experienced. Living in small clusters, sharing ideas, experiences and insights. Holding one another up and building one another up.

The Catholic Church is many, many things. It is God’s visible place on Earth. It has thousands of years of wisdom of saints and saintly people. It has a rich and long history.  But the true “catholic” Church is you and I. It’s the network of human beings, all connected to each other and to Jesus through the Holy Spirit. The life of the church lies in our interactions with one another, not with the books and the history. Those are important guides, but they are only guides. Guides to our real work, which is to love God and one another.

Easter is over. Christ is risen. The Holy Spirit has come. Let’s get to work.

Jesus the man, Jesus the God

Happy Easter! Once again, God reminds us of his over-the-top, perfect, all-consuming love for you and I. He gave us everything to show us the path to both earthly and eternal joy.

Jesus the man gave us the ultimate human gift: his life. But he gave more than that. He lived among us, teaching us new ways of looking at life and at each other. He gave us a model for living that has endured for thousands of years and that is so effective it underlies the social structure of half the world. He endured humiliation, punishment, and a painful, gruesome, and worst of all an unjust, death. And at the climax of his undeserved agony, he asked God to forgive his tormenters, because, he said, they didn’t realize what they were doing. Jesus the man gave humanity a new Way to live.

Jesus the Christ gave us even more. He endured our abuse of him, our humiliation and, worst of all, our turning away from him. The One who created the world and the people of the world allowed those same people to kill their creator. He demonstrated for us what the truest love looks like. We rejected him, but he never lost faith in us and never turned away from us. And then he gave us even more.

He rolled aside the stone that lay between life and death to show us that there need not be “death.” Our God allowed himself to die in the flesh to show us that the flesh will rise again, and that the spirit never dies. Jesus went to Heaven, where there is no pain, no suffering, no tears. But he didn’t stay there. He returned to us. After all we had put him through, he came back to us to show us in the most convincing way possible that there truly is a heaven, that there is a place for us there, and the Way to get there is to simply walk hand in hand with Him.

…and I haven’t even started talking about the gift of God as the Holy Spirit. More on that later..

God bless you, and may you and your family have a most blessed Easter.

Another Holy Week begins

Last Friday, I attended two funerals. Two men I have worked with passed away. They were not young, but they left this earth short of a full life’s ride, and their passings were sad occasions. The two men did not know one another. They lived several hours apart. One of them was a former boss I liked while the other had served on a nonprofit board with me. They were two good men who did good things in their lives and now will be missed by the rest of us.

Being a couple of hours apart meant I had plenty of alone time in my car to think before and between the two funerals. As a result, by the end of the day Friday, I was pretty sad. And then came Saturday evening’s Palm Sunday gospel, which tells the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus rode into town to the cheers of the crowd, only to find himself arrested right after the Passover Holiday dinner. Needless to say, this was not my singing and dancing weekend.

In an uncomfortable way, though, I have to say I appreciate God’s timing. I can sit and mope about how mean our ancestors were to Jesus and how sad we should be that he was killed. But I can only do that if I ignore that which I know comes next. In less than seven days, we will be singing the “Gloria” at mass again, because Jesus showed us that death is the beginning, not the end.

In the same way, I can miss my friends Mike and Jerry. I can be sad that they were ill and didn’t live as many years with us as we would have liked. I will not be able to hear their wit and their wisdom any more. But just as I am confident that Jesus overcame death, I am confident that both Jerry and Mike did too. And that they are now enjoying the real life, the eternal life, and the life without tears, illness and pain.

Holy Week is a sober, somber week for me. I can easily get pulled into a sad place, thinking about the suffering of Christ. But Holy Week always ends the same way. We are not meant to remain sad, and we do not have to fear death. We know how this story ends, and it is a terrific ending.

I miss you, Jerry and Mike. But I will see you again soon. Because Jesus went there before you and has shown us the Way.

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”?