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.

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.

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?

Who does God want you to help today?

Today’s Gospel reading (Mt 25:31-46) is one of those “tough love,” statements that soft and squishy Christians (like me) would prefer to avoid. Jesus talks about separating “all the nations” into sheep and goats. The sheep get eternal reward in Heaven. The goats get eternal punishment. What separates the two? Caring for their neighbor during their life on Earth. The sheep are those who fed, sheltered, and cared for the poor, the lonely and the hurting. The goats took care of nobody but themselves.

While the message is pretty clear (and sobering), did you notice that the sheep weren’t aware of who they were serving? Jesus predicts that, even when they’re standing in front of Jesus, the sheep won’t realize that when they were caring for the less fortunate, they were actually caring for Jesus himself.

I think about that and I reflect on my day. There weren’t too many blind, lame or lepers in my path today. But there was a funeral for a member of my parish that I was just too busy to attend, and I skirted around the tall homeless guy at the bus stop who asked me for a couple dollars. I was nice to my spouse, but I seem to recall reading that “even the pagans” love their own family members. Hmmm. I hope I have another shot at this tomorrow.

Forgiveness, the best resolution ever

Today I am your New Year’s Resolution Counsellor. Five cents, please (it worked for Lucy Van Pelt, didn’t it?). After much prayer and deliberation, and even more procrastination (which is what I’m best at) I have discovered the absolute best New Year’s Resolution: forgive somebody.

Over the Christmas Season this year I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about anger, resentment and forgiveness. Apparently, I was thinking about exactly what He wanted me to think about, because God put the Catechism of the Catholic Church in front of me a few days ago, and I read about that annoying line in The Lord’s Prayer. You know the one I mean: “Forgive us our trespasses…(good so far, I like being forgiven)…as WE forgive those who trespass against US.” My whole Catholic train comes screeching to a halt on that second part.

In His sneaky and lovable God-way, Our Father has multiple reasons for making forgiveness a two-part rule. First and most obviously, the world is a better place if we forgive one another. Sitting across the table from someone is easier if you’re not mad at the person on the other side, whether it’s your boss, your spouse or the President of Russia. The more we let bygones be bygones the less likely we will blow the world to smithereens. Forgiveness is a very practical tool.

But God has another reason. It’s good for us. Forgiveness is more important for the well-being of the forgiver than the forgiven. Don’t believe me? Try this exercise. Conjure up a picture of someone you’re mad at and think about why you’re mad at them. Got it? Okay, now honestly, how are you feeling? Irritable? Uptight? A little sick to your stomach, or on the verge of a headache? Anger and resentment are poisons as real as hemlock or nicotine.

Now imagine how your subject is feeling at this moment. Chances are, whatever you’re stewing over isn’t on their minds, at least not right now it isn’t. One of the most frustrating things about resentments is that the “resented” often don’t have a clue that you are mad at them. So who’s suffering the most because of your resentment, you or them?

Let’s take this another step. With the object of your resentment in mind, say a prayer right now. Have a chat with the Almighty. Hm. Nobody home, is there? When I am angry at someone, I almost always find that those are the days I can’t make myself kneel down and pray. When I’m mad, I’m mad, doggone it! I don’t need her, or God, or anybody! So there, bleah!

Paragraph 2840 of the Catechism explains why anger messes up everything. “Love, like the Body of Christ, is indivisible. We cannot love the God we cannot see if we do not love the brother or sister we do see.” The idea that love is a single, indivisible thing is new to me, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. It explained why everyone suffers when one person is mad, why the world just feels out of alignment. And why I feel so alone when I’m angry.

So give yourself a gift this New Year’s Day. Conjure up in your mind that person who “wronged” you. Realize they are just as human as you are and forgive him or her. Ask God to take away your anger. And let it go.

And then have a Happy New Year.

Another lesson from a two year old

I learn a lot about Christianity from toddlers. I suspect God, who created our sense of humor, intended it that way.

This most recent lesson was about service to others. My schoolmaster was my two-year-old grandson. Last week he had been having an all-around bad day and woke up way too early from his nap, mad at the world and unconsolable. He was willing to sit in my lap, so we snuggled in the rocking chair. Before I knew it, the little guy had fallen back to sleep in my arms.

Now what? I knew that he would wake up if I moved, but I had things to do! There were clients to call, reports to write, paperwork to get done, and a list of other bits of adulthood that needed “adulting.” The one thing I did not have was the time to sit for 30 minutes accomplishing nothing.

But if I moved, a two-year-old boy would wake up from sleep that he really needed.

As it turns out, it wasn’t 30 minutes, it was an hour. And it was probably one of the most relaxing hours of my week. The only thing I could do for that hour was tend to his needs, and his need from me was not to move, talk or in any other way make him uncomfortable. I was furniture.

I think I can say that I was good furniture for that hour. The adult stuff got done, a little later than my plan called for, but still in plenty of time. And a little boy’s day was just a little bit better than it would have been.

Not my will, but Yours be done today.

They Found the “miracle priest”

I’m sure many of you have been following the Missouri news story about the”miracle priest,” who seemingly appeared and then disappeared from the scene of a serious car accident. For several days, media all over the world were abuzz with speculation about this apparent angel who did not show up in any photographs of the scene, and was known to no one. He showed up, said a prayer with the victim and rescuers, and was gone.

It turns out that he is a real flesh and blood pastor from a real parish. Father Patrick Dowling from Jefferson City, Missouri happened to be driving that particular highway that particular day and stopped to offer help. In his words, “I did what every priest I know would have done.”

So, no angel from heaven, no “divine intervention,” on this one. But, wait just one second. Before we all turn and walk away, I think it’s worth reading Fr. Dowling’s story. Take a second to follow this link to a Catholic News Service article about it.

Now that’s a miracle.

Simply Catholic is not an oxymoron

A book publisher challenged my core philosophy last week. I’m glad he did; the spiritual self-exam was healthy and overdue. How, he asked, could I claim that Catholicism is “simple”? The Church is one of the oldest, largest, richest and most multifaceted religions in the world, a faith that has more saints than anyone can count, thousands of individual parishes and dioceses, millions of priests, hundreds of pages of dogmatic rules and regulations, and mysteries galore. There are more than one million books in the Vatican Library. The lay version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is over 800 pages long. We have rules dictating when we kneel and when we stand, what color the priest wears on Sunday, and how long we should fast before receiving communion. What is so simple?

Just this: love. We were created by love to love. We have no greater purpose than this. We have no other purpose than this. All (yes, all) questions about existence are answered in love. Everything the Church has or does is in some way tied to the purpose of spreading the message that Jesus taught Peter, James, John and the rest of the original apostles and disciples. The message is this: Love God, and love one another.

Each of us has been given a unique basket of spiritual, physical, material, emotional and intellectual gifts. Each of our roles in His creation is different, and your role cannot be fulfilled by anyone except you. We are each necessary and a unique thread in God’s creation. This multibillion-thread tapestry defies understanding by any one of us, no matter how brilliant we may be. We just can’t see the whole thing. But we can fulfill our role. Our unique, irreplaceable, critical role. And fulfilling our role is simple: we use the gifts we were given to Love God and to love our neighbor.

It’s that simple.

God is a foodie

Today’s readings were guaranteed to get my attention: they talk about food. God tells Moses in the old testament and the Christian disciples in the new testament that providing for everyone may be a challenge for us, but it’s a snap for God. He also tells us that His menu is unlimited.

In chapter eleven of the Book of Numbers Moses is despairing (again) about the Israelites who were complaining (again) about food. By now they’d been wandering around in the desert for several years, and the miracle of the manna that fell from heaven every night had grown old. We’re tired of bread, bread, bread, was the refrain. “Would that we had meat for food!” So Moses throws up his hands (again). “I cannot carry all this people by myself, for they are too heavy for me,” he said to God.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples to feed the crowd of over 5,000. But, like Moses, the disciples replied that this was one short order they could not cook on their own. “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here,” they told him, probably looking pretty overwhelmed. Without missing a beat, Jesus blessed the loaves and the fish and fed the whole group, leaving a dozen baskets full of leftovers.

Like most Bible stories, there are several themes we can take away from these two. On the one hand, God proves that what is difficult for you and I is easy for Him. He uses a universal human need (to eat!) to show his omnipotence. But he also shows his compassion; providing for our wants (meat, too, please) as well as our needs. He also demonstrates the power of prayer; in both the old and the new testament versions of this food-for-the-hungry story God waits for the people to come to him before providing what he knew they would need.

I’m sure Bible scholars would tell us there are even more meanings in those stories. Is it a coincidence, for example, that there were 12 baskets left over (12 Tribes of Israel), or that Jesus “said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples,”? (Sounds like the Last Supper and the Eucharist to me.) There’s no single “point” to the story, but there are an almost unlimited number of messages to help “feed” our souls today.

I wonder whether perhaps the next time I’m bored listening to the same old Bible readings, I should start listening a little harder. Are they ever truly, “the same”?