I got nothing

What do you do when your spiritual gas tank is on “Empty”? When your prayers sound like you’re talking in an empty auditorium, with nothing but a hollow echo in response. When it looks to you like the bad guys are going to win and the good guys will be humiliated. What do you do with that sadness inside that won’t go away? What do you do?

This phenomenon is not new. Even Jesus, God’s one and only flesh and blood “begotten” son experienced the pain of feeling cut off from God. Mother Theresa lived in that blackness for decades. It’s a mystery, but it’s also a real part of the Christian experience. What do you do?

I start by praying. Even though my prayers don’t seem to have the response they used to, I stick to my prayer routine. Time and the experiences of Jesus and the saints has proven that God hasn’t gone anywhere; we’ve just lost our own personal feedback loop. Your prayers are still getting through; have faith and stick to it.

I look for someone who needs my help. It’s a basic truth even though it doesn’t seem to be logical. The best way to overcome your own sadness is by making someone else happy. It’s dark inside; look outward.

I have faith. God’s creation is immense, complex and mysterious. No human can take it all in or truly understand how one thing affects another. But God does, and his plan is for our benefit. Because he loves us.

So, when I have nothing else, I know that I have God’s love. And that’s more than enough.

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Who is my mother?

This is another one of those sayings of Jesus that really bugs me. When told that his mother and brothers were trying to get in to see him, Jesus sweeps his arm around the crowded room and replies, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.” (Lk 18:21). We’re talking about the Blessed Virgin Mother! It goes against my grain to see Mary treated with anything less than total veneration, even by Jesus. He should have told the crowd to “Make a hole!”

Jesus is a master of timing. This particular Gospel reading showed up yesterday and, as always, it unsettled me. When Jesus says something that irks me, I’ve learned to recognize it as a signal that something inside is not as in tune with the Lord’s will as it should be. I asked for a little spiritual guidance.

As I prayed about it, it came to me that one of my spiritual weaknesses is a family-centric selfishness. I prefer to give my time to causes and events that involve me, my wife or my children. Everything else gets second priority. I do participate in non-family causes, but they get more scrutiny than giving of my time and talent to something that involves family, even if the particular family event is watching a rerun on TV. We’re “empty nesters” now and 3 of our children live many states away from us. Simply put, we have time available to give.

Jesus’ comments were not a dig at his mother; far from it. They were His reminder that our family is the Body of Christ; it’s much larger than our biological lineage. And my whole family deserves all the love of my nearby family.

That’s the revelation for today. Stay tuned to see whether I actually turn the lesson into practice. (And pray for me!)

More later.

Get up. Again.

How many times have you heard the parable of the seed that fell on fertile ground? You know the one I mean; from Chapter 8 of Luke, verses 4-15. “ While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable:  “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”

When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

His disciples asked him what this parable meant. He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, “‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.’

“This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.  But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.”

I must have heard that particular parable and Jesus’ explanation of it hundreds of times. It’s a good, sturdy, reliable story. But the part that never struck me until now was the last phrase; “by persevering, produce a good crop.” Once again, God is calling me to keep at it.

Earlier this week, our men’s faith sharing group was reading Dan Burke’s book on prayer called, “Into The Deep.” While describing the challenges of meditation as a brain filled with noisy monkeys (it’s a great analogy), Dan acknowledged that, “The world, the flesh and the devil are all arrayed against you. Even so, God is greater than all these forces, and if you cooperate with him and get up every time you fall, you will find greater success than you ever imagined possible.”

I have a rule in my faith. If I see a message twice within a few days, my rule is that God is trying to get my attention. He got it on this one. I don’t have to win. I don’t have to succeed every time I try. God doesn’t hold me accountable for the results. God just asks me to keep the faith and to keep on trying. In prayer, in love, in pursuit of sainthood, victory isn’t achieved through greatness or strength or brilliance. Victory in faith comes when we simply keep returning to Jesus. No matter how we’ve failed, or even how we’ve failed to try; all God asks is that this time we get up once more and accept his love and try again.

Keep the faith.

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.

It’s okay to fail

Christianity was built for imperfect people because it was built on imperfect people. Take as the first and greatest example Peter. “The Rock” that Jesus chose to be the foundation of the Church had a habit of saying things that annoyed Jesus. At one point, Jesus called him “Satan,” and said, “Get behind me, you are an obstacle to me.” Peter lost his nerve when Jesus invited him to walk on water and adamantly denied knowing Jesus after The Messiah was arrested. He ran away in fear. Pope #1 was not a model of perfection.

And yet Jesus put him in charge of the movement that became The Way that became Christianity. The Apostles never questioned Peter’s leadership. His voice was the last word in a debate. The Church has accepted from its earliest days that Peter was the first among equals; the first servant.

The Bible is filled with the fallibility of people. From Genesis to Revelation human beings prove over and over again that, “to err is human, to forgive divine.” God wanted to make it clear that, while He doesn’t want us to make mistakes, He understands that we will. And more than anything else He wants us to always turn back to Him.

Sometimes we make mistakes that embarrass, even humiliate, us. We do something so bad, so wrong that we cannot forgive ourselves, let alone seek forgiveness from others. We hide, hoping someday that everyone else will forget what we did.

But we don’t forget. Those mistakes fester within us, eating away at our self-confidence, chewing up our energy, and pushing us away from God. One mistake seems to breed another, and another, and we treat them all the same way; hide them, push them down, hope they will go away. None of them do.

Jesus came into the world because God knows that our nature leads us to make these sorts of mistakes. But also because God knows that we need, and will always need, a divine helping hand. He knows that when left to our own devices, we will try to swallow guilt and make it go away from within. That never works, but we humans always try it anyway. He knows that guilt needs to be removed for us to be free.

Jesus paid the price for all of our guilt. God, eternal, almighty and ever-living God, submitted to human beings. He let them accuse Him, convict Him, humiliate Him and kill Him. He watched as His friends, including His closest friend, Peter, ran away during His hour of need. People put Jesus to death, and with Jesus dying breath He asked God to forgive them, because they didn’t realize the magnitude of their error. To send the message that God Always Forgives.

The next time you make a mistake, commit a sin, or live less charitably than you should, offer it up to God. Own it, don’t make excuses for it, but acknowledge it and ask Him to forgive you…knowing that he will because he already has. And then let it go.

St. Peter was the first Pope not because he was perfect. He was the first Pope because he allowed God to work through him. He may not have understood everything that Jesus taught, but he understood the most important thing. Jesus is the Son of God and to succeed all Peter had to do was keep coming back to Him.

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.