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.

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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.

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 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.

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.

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”?

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.

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.

How many epiphanies have you had?

Yesterday was the Feast of the Epiphany. It was the day the Magi from the East showed up and started asking folks about the new King of the Jews. That got King Herod’s attention, but it also undoubtedly stunned many of the Jews. “Wait a minute, explain that to me again. You say we have a new king? Well, what do you think about that?!”

An epiphany is an awakening. It’s a sudden realization of something profound. It’s a slap-on-the-forehead moment. It’s that moment in high school when geometry finally made sense to you.

We Christians celebrate this particular epiphany on this particular weekend each year, but it’s not the only epiphany we will experience. In my case, I’ve gotten bonked on the noggin by the Holy Spirit numerous times, and I’m excited by the knowledge that it’s likely to happen again. My epiphanies have run the gamut from the cosmic to the itty bitty. There was the time I realized my carefully-studied conclusion that the Church was wrong about confession was full of beans. (Followed immediately by several rather painful epiphanies about some unconfessed sins that needed to be dealt with.) There was the life-changing epiphany about God’s desire for me to explore my doubts about the faith…which led to lots more epiphanies. There was the awesome epiphany about the joy that exists within a parish when we finally decide to become part of it rather than just a Sunday visitor.

Not everyone will call these experiences “epiphanies.” For some, it’s the coming of the Holy Spirit. For others, it’s simply the warmth of experiencing God’s real presence in our lives. People in a 12-step recovery program might call it a “spiritual awakening.” Pick your noun; it really doesn’t matter what you call it. For that matter, it doesn’t matter if you call it anything at all. But it’s real, and it’s God giving you one more glimpse of the awesomeness that is our true life; our eternal life.